November 7, 2011 1:59PM

Don’t Jump the Gun on IAEA’s Iran Report

It is unfortunate that an analytic frenzy has begun over a report that has not yet been published. It is impossible to analyze the contents of the IAEA report on Iran until we can read it.

Even absent the document itself, however, two points bear repeating. First, even if the cultivated panic surrounding the report's release is well founded, the suggestion that a military strike against suspected nuclear weapons sites in Iran would solve the problem lacks strong support. The net effect of such an action is difficult to judge beforehand. However, military action seems certain to convince the Iranian leadership that the United States and Israel are implacable aggressors. We should also wonder whether purchasing a delay in Iran's nuclear program would be worth the cost of making its government—and possibly its people—absolutely certain that the only way to stop aggression against it is the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Second, while the consequences of military action are uncertain, so too would be the consequences of a nuclear Iran. These consequences would be different for the United States than for Israel. While one hesitates to advise the Israelis on their national security policies, the nature of the relationship between the United States and Israel means that Israeli action would likely implicate the United States. And it is far from clear that the Israeli leadership believes the Obama administration holds any cards that it could play to constrain Israeli behavior. For this reason, Washington may not hold its regional destiny in its own hands.

October 12, 2011 10:37AM

Obama‐​Lee Summit: Time for New Thinking on the Korean Peninsula

Three issues are likely to dominate the talks this week between President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. On the economic front, the two leaders will emphasize the extensive potential benefits of the bilateral free trade agreement.

On the security front, there will be considerable discussion of both North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Unfortunately, leaders of the two countries are locked into increasingly obsolete and dysfunctional policies with respect to both issues. New thinking on those security matters is badly needed.

Seoul and Washington routinely contend that they will not tolerate North Korea having a nuclear arsenal. But other than the long-standing attempt to isolate Pyongyang internationally, U.S. and South Korean officials present no plausible strategy for preventing Kim Jong-il’s regime from expanding its nuclear capabilities. The much-touted six-party talks clearly have not worked. Moreover, without China’s active cooperation to deny crucial food and energy aid to North Korea (and there is no indication that Beijing is willing to take that step), North Korea cannot be truly isolated. Obama and Lee need to consider the possibility of learning to live with a nuclear North Korea, since the current U.S.-South Korean strategy for dealing with the nuclear issue is hopelessly ineffectual.

Policy regarding the bilateral security alliance is no better. Predictably, Lee and Obama will reaffirm the importance of that alliance. But from the standpoint of American interests, this commitment makes little sense. The principal effect of Washington’s security blanket for South Korea is to enable that country to shamelessly free-ride on America’s military exertions. Despite being located next to perhaps the most dangerous and unpredictable country in the world—Kim Jong-il’s North Korea—South Korea continues to spend an anemic 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. That is woefully inadequate, and the only reason Seoul can get away with such irresponsible behavior is that South Korean leaders believe they can rely on the United States to take care of their country’s security—at the expense of American taxpayers.

That arrangement was dubious even when South Korea was a weak, traumatized country facing a North Korea strongly backed by both the Soviet Union and Communist China. Today, South Korea is a wealthy country, and Moscow and Beijing regard North Korea as an embarrassment, not a crucial ally.

President Obama should inform Lee that an America whose government is hemorrhaging red ink at the rate of $1.5 trillion a year can no longer afford to subsidize the defense of free-riding allies—especially those that are perfectly capable of providing for their own defense. This summit meeting creates an opportunity for Washington to begin phasing-out the obsolete military alliance with South Korea.

April 15, 2011 11:37AM

Happy Tax Day! Rest Assured. Your Money Is Well Spent Defending Rich Allies

A little over a year ago, I posted two different graphs (with the help of my colleague Charles Zakaib) that showed the growth of U.S. national security spending vs. that of other NATO allies over the last ten years. The data, based on the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Military Balance, showed that U.S. taxpayers spend far more on our military, both as a share of total economic output, and on a per capita basis, than do any of our allies.

New data, for 2009, was made available in IISS’s Military Balance 2011, and the revised graphs are shown below. (Again, thanks to Charles for his help). As I suspected, the gap remains as wide as ever. In a few cases, it has grown wider.

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As you can see, the $2,101 that every American man, woman, and child spends is nearly two and a half times as much as the average Frenchman, over three and a half times that of the average German, and more than fourteen times what the average Turk spends.

Read the rest of this post »
April 12, 2011 12:02PM

No, Paul Ryan Really Doesn’t Cut Pentagon Spending

Last week I expressed my disappointment with Paul Ryan’s budget plan, specifically about his unwillingness to cut military spending. Some people think that he does cut spending through his acceptance of Secretary Gates’s $78 in “cuts.” (see, for example, Sen. John Sununu; Sen. Joseph Lieberman, AEI’s Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly; and the Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring).

So either I am wrong, or they are. Let me try to set the record straight.

First, all of Ryan’s other savings -- savings which I support -- were projected either against the Obama administration’s FY 2012 budget or against the current budget baseline. For example, according to Ryan’s own “Key Facts” his plan “Cuts $6.2 trillion in government spending over the next decade compared to the President’s budget, and $5.8 trillion relative to the current-policy baseline.” With respect to military spending, however, Ryan’s plan basically follows the Obama/Gates budget, proposing to spend a staggering $670.9 billion in FY 2012. The Obama administration’s DoD budget request for FY 2012 -- including the Pentagon’s base budget plus overseas contingency operations (OCO) -- totals $670.9 billion as well.  Of course, that total leaves out national defense spending tucked away in other departments (including nuclear weapons spending in the Department of Energy). Total national defense spending in FY 2012 will top $700 billion. I stand by my earlier assertion that the Pentagon’s budget escapes from Ryan’s budget axe “essentially unscathed.”

Ryan and others claim that military spending has already been cut, hence the decision to embrace this portion of the president’s budget. Sen. Lieberman explained to Bloomberg news, “To a certain extent, Secretary Gates has enabled us at least temporarily to take defense off the table because he has initiated his own round of defense cuts.”

“To a certain extent” is doing a lot of work in that statement. In fact, Gates and Obama do not cut military spending.

First, they don’t claim to do so. These supposed cuts are only “cuts” in Washington-speak. The Pentagon’s base budget under both the Ryan and Obama plans will increase 1 percent in real, inflation-adjusted terms. See the table below, recreated by my colleague Charles Zakaib from the official DoD budget request.

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Second, Ryan claims that Gates’s “exhaustive review of the Pentagon’s budget” identified $178 billion in savings. It does nothing of the sort. By Ryan’s own admission, taxpayers will see only $78 billion of these; the other $100 billion are to be “reinvested” elsewhere in the Pentagon. (They’re always “investments” when you’re spending the taxpayers’ money, even when Republicans do it.)

So we’re really talking about $78 billion toward deficit reduction over the next five years, or approximately 2.6 percent of the Pentagon’s base budget (excluding the wars) over that same period. With all due respect, that isn’t a bold plan for reducing the crushing burden of spending and debt; that’s a rounding error.

What’s more, it is highly unlikely that these savings will materialize. Many of these efficiencies involve consolidation of commands -- something that Congress has already balked at -- and unspecified savings that are relatively easy to identify, but extremely difficult to implement.

But if, by some miracle, Robert Gates’s successor(s) manage to get them passed by Congress, those savings won’t actually be dedicated to deficit reduction: they will be completely devoured by spending on the wars. This is the greatest sham of all. Charles Knight at the Project on Defense Alternatives (and a key contributor to the Sustainable Defense Task Force, of which I was also a member) explains:


For several years now White House budget projections have included a “placeholder for outyear overseas contingency operations” most of which are accounted for by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This placeholder number has been and remains $50 billion. Every year actual OCO (overseas contingency operations) spending turns out to be several times that number. FY11′s OCO is $159 billion and FY12′s is $118 billion.

Adjusting for the effect of the new OCO for FY12, the $68 billion budgeted above the placeholder of $50 billion eats up most of the $78 billion in Pentagon cuts that Secretary Gates offered up in January to fiscal responsibility….The remaining $8 billion (and much more) will go to the war budgets when reality collides with placeholder projections.

On 14 February Pentagon Comptroller Hale confirmed that the $50 billion placeholders for FY13 and beyond was the “best we can do.” Others make an attempt to be more realistic. The high tech industry association called Tech America annually projects DoD budgets for ten years out. In their 2010 projection they estimate that OCO spending will be $102 billion in FY13, $69 billion in FY14 and $57 billion in FY15. When we subtract the $50 billion placeholder for each of those years and total the remainder we find that the Pentagon is likely to spend $78 billion more in the years FY13 through FY15 than in the White House budget projections.

I hope that I’m proved wrong. I hope that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought to a close. I hope that the Congress gets serious about tackling Pentagon waste, and stops treating the military budget as an elaborate jobs program. I hope that our brave men and women in uniform get the hardware, equipment, and training that they need, and that Americans get the “defense budget” that they deserve. But if past history is any guide, the Pentagon’s budget will continue to climb, other countries around the world will continue to free ride on Uncle Sam’s largesse, and U.S. taxpayers will be left to foot the bill.

April 12, 2011 10:37AM

Tuesday Links

By George Scoville
  • A bombing campaign by either Israel or the United States would rally the Iranian people to support an otherwise unpopular and incompetent regime.
  • What else will it take to rally the so-called fiscal hawks to the cause of reducing spending, balancing the budget, and averting national bankruptcy?
  • Senator Franken's Pay for War Resolution is a superficially a step in the right direction; but when it comes to war, the Senate could probably easily rally a 60-vote supermajority to override any offset requirements.
  • It should be easy to rally around Paul Ryan's Medicare choice plan, since seniors will lose benefits in the long run anyway.
  • Tax reform proposals are rallying back on both sides of the aisle--will any of them stick?

December 1, 2010 1:04PM

Overwrought On START

It is unclear whether New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will make it to the Senate floor this year or if there are 67 votes for it if it does. According to the White House and arms control boosters, that uncertainty endangers us all by leaving Russia's nuclear arsenal unmonitored and undermining our non-proliferation agenda. According to pundits, New START's failure to pass in the lame-duck would be a grievous political wound for Obama adminstration, which is struggling to buy enough Republican votes for ratification.

In an op-ed out today on the National Interest's website, Owen Cote and I say this talk is mostly hot air. New START just isn't that big a deal. We write:

[New START] would provide minor increases in intelligence and Russian goodwill. But passing it means handing taxpayers a substantial new tab on top of what we already pay for our bloated nuclear weapons complex. And rather than reducing the arsenal's size and cost, the treaty props it up.... The real impact of New START is distraction. By faking a drawdown, the treaty keeps Americans from noticing that deterring our enemies requires nothing like the force structure we plan to retain.

November 23, 2010 11:45AM

Beijing Key in Controlling North Korea’s Recklessness

Shortly after unveiling a new uranium enrichment facility, North Korea has shelled a disputed island held by the Republic of Korea.  A score of South Koreans reportedly were killed or wounded.

These two steps underscore the North’s reputation for recklessness.  Unfortunately, there is no easy solution: serious military retaliation risks full-scale war, while intensified sanctions will have no impact without China’s support.

Instead, the U.S. should join with the ROK in an intensive diplomatic offensive in Beijing.  So far China has assumed that the Korean status quo is to its advantage.  However, Washington and Seoul should point out that Beijing has much to lose if things go badly in North Korea.

The North is about to embark on a potentially uncertain leadership transition.  North Koreans remain impoverished; indeed, malnutrition reportedly is spreading.  With the regime apparently determined to press ahead with its nuclear program while committing regular acts of war against the South, the entire peninsula could go up in flames.  China would be burned, along with the rest of North Korea’s neighbors.

The U.S. also should inform Beijing that Washington might choose not to remain in the middle if the North continues its nuclear program.  Given the choice of forever guaranteeing South Korean and Japanese security against an irresponsible North Korea, or allowing those nations to decide on their own defense, including possible acquisition of nuclear weapons, the U.S. would seriously consider the latter.  Then China would have to deal with the consequences.

Beijing’s best option would be to join with the U.S. and South Korea in offering a package deal for denuclearization, backed by effective sanctions, meaning the cut-off of Chinese food and energy assistance.  Otherwise, Beijing might find itself sharing in a future North Korean nightmare.