Tag: dumb wars

The Trump Administration and Preventive War

CNAS Senior Fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper has authored a first-rate take-down of the illogic of supposedly limited strikes (aka the “bloody nose” option) against North Korea at The Atlantic. Here are a few choice passages:

it makes little sense for American war planners to assume a “limited” strike like this would stay limited. A U.S. operation may not achieve its objectives, and even if it does, it would still leave the decision of whether or not to retaliate up to Kim. The North Korean leader would make that decision based on his own beliefs about the strike once it took place, not based on American wishes for his response. If he did decide to hit back, the result could be the most calamitous U.S. conflict since World War II.

[…]

If Kim is irrational on matters concerning his nuclear weapons and missiles, it’s reasonable to assume he’d be similarly irrational across the board. If he cannot be stopped from trying to reunify the two Koreas, further U.S. or UN sanctions are also unlikely to alter his cost calculations. Why would a first strike by America restrain him? Irrational actors are irrational in all domains—Washington does not have the luxury of picking and choosing where deterrence prevails.

The belief that Kim can’t be deterred from conquest but can be deterred once the United States has brought force against him demonstrates a highly selective strategic understanding. What form retaliation would take, again, is up to Kim. Yet [Trump national security advisor H.R.] McMaster seems to hold an erratic view of strategic dynamics that conveniently supports a use of force by the United States against North Korea, and privileges this path over all other options.

Under normal circumstances, these sorts of arguments against preventive war should rule the day. The case against the United States initiating force against any country, especially a nuclear-armed North Korea, is strong. Indeed, Korea expert Victor Cha made a similar case last week. Cha, no dove, concluded:

the United States must continue to prepare military options. Force will be necessary to deal with North Korea if it attacks first, but not through a preventive strike that could start a nuclear war.

And, while we’re on the subject of preventive war (i.e. premeditated aggression), former Colin Powell advisor Lawrence Wilkerson weighed in on the 15th anniversary of Powell’s speech to the United Nations regarding Iraq’s supposed WMD program. Wilkerson, a retired army colonel, noted the similarities between the Bush administration’s shoddy case for that war, and the Trump administration’s attempts to create a casus belli against Iran. These steps include, Wilkerson writes:

the president’s decertification ultimatum in January that Congress must “fix” the Iran nuclear deal, despite the reality of Iran’s compliance; the White House’s pressure on the intelligence community to cook up evidence of Iran’s noncompliance; and the administration’s choosing to view the recent protests in Iran as the beginning of regime change. Like the Bush administration before, these seemingly disconnected events serve to create a narrative in which war with Iran is the only viable policy.

These claims are false, these policies are flawed, and the implications are dangerous. The case for the JCPOA is strong, and the case against war with Iran is even stronger. 

Most Americans have learned from our unhappy post-9/11 wars. They are skeptical about starting new ones (and cool to expanding the existing ones). Once bitten, twice shy.

Alas, in the case of senior U.S. national security officials, it seems they are many times bitten, still not shy.

Obama’s War Spending Cap

Along with Chares Knight of the Project on Defense Alternatives, I have just published commentary on the National Interest’s website about President’s Obama’s proposed $450 billion nine-year cap on war spending. We argue that a war cap—better yet a war tax—is a good idea, but this particular proposal is nearly useless.

For one, it is unlikely to become law. The White House has shown little interest in pushing for it. Meanwhile, Republicans are already bashing the president for possibly shortchanging troops amid a war. And even if it does become law, the cap is unlikely to matter. By the time the cap has any effect, economic recovery may have slackened Congress’s appetite for austerity. With the president’s support, Congress may undo the cap or evade it by claiming an emergency, especially if any new war has begun. The bottom line is that there is no effective fiscal restraint here.

As is often the case, the promise of savings tomorrow serves mainly to distract us from their absence today. If the White House wanted thrift rather than its appearance, it would push an annual war spending cap.

The argument in favor of a war cap or tax follows from the arguments the late Bill Niskanen made against the (starve the beast) claim that cutting government revenue will cut government spending:

It is most implausible that reducing the current tax burden of federal spending would reduce the amount of federal services that voters demand. Orthodox price theory…is unambiguous in concluding that reducing the price of a good or service increases the amount demanded. Reducing the current tax burden of federal spending has much the same effect as a price control, increasing the amount demanded relative to that supplied from current revenues.

Just as people don’t value what they don’t pay for, democracies won’t correctly value policies with hidden or deferred costs. That prevents the competing interests from being weighed carefully, screwing up debate and policy outcomes.

Policies producing diffuse costs and concentrated benefits exacerbate this problem. As I have occasionally written (once with Bill), U.S. defense policies, including wars, fall into that policy category. Americans face few personal consequences when their government makes war. Few of us fight, and danger from fiascos is remote. Much rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, the survival of our freedoms or way of life is no longer at stake in our wars. Our volunteer professional military bears great risk in war of course, but professional norms prevent it from publicly complaining much. War’s cost for most of us is slightly higher taxes, subsidized by debt. We can support war casually.

A war cap or war tax would somewhat mitigate this problem. A tax encourages taxpayers to consider the value they are getting for that money. A cap heightens competition for resources within the government and thus among Congressmen and interest groups, which ought to sharpen debate. That won’t prevent dumb wars, but it ought to help.