In the bargaining over avoiding the fiscal cliff, President Obama has taken to framing the argument this way:
We can solve this problem. All Congress needs to do is pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody's income -- everybody. (Applause.) That means 98 percent of Americans -- and probably 100 percent of you -- (laughter) -- 97 percent of small businesses wouldn’t see their income taxes go up a single dime. Even the wealthiest Americans would still get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of their income. But when they start making a million, or $10 million, or $20 million you can afford to pay a little bit more. (Applause.) You're not too strapped.
I’m no political expert, but this seems like a pretty effective, if demagogic, frame: “Ol’ Boehner is just doing the bidding of his bazillionaire paymasters, trying to stick it to regular folks like you.” By framing the debate as being about whether very wealthy people “can afford to pay a little bit more,” Obama skews things in his favor. (On the substance of the argument about increasing taxes to close the gaping fiscal maw, try this from Alan Reynolds or this from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).)
And what does John Boehner think about Obama’s framing? Not much, obviously: “We have a huge national debt because Washington spends too much, not because it doesn’t tax people enough.” Boehner rejects the whole affordability frame, proposing his own—“is the problem taxes or spending?”—and adding on an argument that increasing taxes will hurt economic growth. So you’ve got dueling frames.
But what’s of interest to me is the analog of Obama’s frame in the foreign policy/defense spending discussion. In that debate, neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have framed the debate the same way Obama has framed the fiscal cliff debate: except in that case, it’s not about whether wealthy people can afford to pay higher taxes, but whether the United States can afford to continue spending around 50 percent of world military expenditures. Take it away, Robert Kagan:
What about the financial expense? Many seem to believe that the cost of these deployments, and of the armed forces generally, is a major contributor to the soaring fiscal deficits that threaten the solvency of the national economy. But this is not the case, either. As the former budget czar Alice Rivlin has observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” much less by spending on foreign assistance. The runaway deficits projected for the coming years are mostly the result of ballooning entitlement spending. Even the most draconian cuts in the defense budget would produce annual savings of only $50 billion to $100 billion, a small fraction—between 4 and 8 percent—of the $1.5 trillion in annual deficits the United States is facing.
Here again, if the debate is about whether the United States—let’s call us the One Percenters here—can afford to continue frittering away money playing globocop, the advantage is with Kagan and his confreres. But in both cases, Obama and Kagan try to substitute an affordability argument for a propriety/desirability argument. Of course wealthy people can “afford” to pay higher taxes—they’ve done so before, after all. By the same token, the United States can afford to continue funding its globe-girdling military presence. But in neither case do these affordability arguments answer the question: What should happen? To say something is affordable is not to say it is preferable
Obama doesn’t say, “We’ve spent a ton of money over the past 10 years and entitlement costs are ballooning so we’re going to squeeze as much as we can out of the rich and then see where we go from there.” Similarly, Kagan doesn’t lead with his argument that the debt and deficit should be fixed by increasing taxes and sprinkling pixie dust on entitlement costs. Instead, he wants to have the affordability debate. As well he ought to, since the public is increasingly disenchanted with the interventionist foreign policy program.
In neither case should we let the affordability argument carry the day. Boehner rejects the affordability framing of the tax increase debate. Conservatives ought to realize in both cases that something’s affordability is not synonymous with its propriety.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama emphatically declared, “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Obama sought to put to rest the notion that he is embracing American decline, as GOP candidates Romney, Gingrich and Santorum have accused him of doing. He likewise affirmed his belief in the country’s exceptional place in history.
In particular, this president believes, as his predecessor did, in the necessity of the U.S. military to act beyond its constitutionally mandated function, put out any fires that flare across the globe, and underwrite world security. I examine this in an op-ed published today on CNN.com:
The president sounded like a neoconservative when he declared during his recent State of the Union address that the United States was, and would remain, the world's "indispensable nation." Obama's proposed Pentagon budget, released last week, affirmed his intention to retain most of the U.S. military's current missions, even when they aren't needed to safeguard the United States' vital security interests.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon's latest strategy document was carefully designed to convince allies and adversaries alike that the United States can continue to prosecute multiple armed conflicts in far-flung corners of the globe. Taken together, Obama's strategy document, budget and State of the Union remarks articulate a coherent philosophy on military spending and global engagement that ought to hold a lot of appeal for the neoconservatives in the GOP.
But … our foreign policy leaders have consistently ignored … an argument that should have strong sway at a time of economic uncertainty: this country's tax dollars can be better spent than on defending wealthy allies who are more than capable of protecting themselves.
This talk of the United States as the “indispensable nation” is straight out of the neoconservative playbook. They should have no quarrel with President Obama's policies. And it is interesting that while Mitt Romney criticizes the president in this arena, Romney foreign-policy advisor, neoconservative stalwart Robert Kagan, has gotten the president’s attention.
Like Kagan and Romney, President Obama believes the world is better off with the United States doing for wealthy allies what they should be doing for themselves: securing their interests. President Obama talked of “fairness” in his State of the Union and a “shared sacrifice” among citizens in these trying economic times. But this sacrifice apparently does not extend beyond the borders of the United States. Under President Obama, as under a Romney presidency, the American taxpayer will continue to pay for the security of Europe and East Asia, and our troops will be saddled with a nearly endless list of missions. That isn’t fair, nor is it wise.
In January, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution wrote an epic-length cover story for the Weekly Standard urging that not only should military spending not be cut, but that it should be increased.
I disagreed, and responded with an article in the April 2011 issue of the American Conservative that is now available online. Here's the basic gist:
[Kagan's] argument centers on three claims. First, [he] alleges that America faces a dire threat environment in which a more restrained strategy would only amplify the dangers. Second, he argues that cutting military spending can’t solve our fiscal dilemma. And finally, he asserts that America simply cannot change its grand strategy, for we have always been interventionists.
Each claim is wrong: America could make substantial changes to its grand strategy that would save hundreds of billions of dollars per year without endangering our national security.
Read for yourself and see if you think I moved the ball forward at all. We debate, you decide.
P.S.: I have a polemical side, but the "Beltway brigadier" trope in the subhead was not mine — in case anyone at the, uhh, "National Institute for Civil Discourse" is concerned.
The calls for cutting the federal budget continue to build in Congress as the new GOP members try to make good on their promise to rein in the deficit. And, right on time, the latest issue of the Weekly Standard features an article by Robert Kagan critiquing the chorus of calls for cuts to military spending.
I think Kagan’s critique is reasonably fair, certainly more so than others of the recent past. But his basic premise, that national security spending is unrelated to the national debt, simply is not true. At the The Skeptics, I address this:
It is of course true that entitlements and mandatory spending pose the greatest threat to the nation’s fiscal health, but $700+ billion [in defense spending] isn’t chump change. The question of what we should spend on the military ought to take into account the trade-offs, an argument that Dwight Eisenhower advanced in his farewell address just over 50 years ago, and that Charles Zakaib and I highlighted last week. (See also James Ledbetter’s discussion on this point.)
Actually, it is a question of fairness, but not the one that [Kagan] proposed. Because security is a core function of government (I think one of the only core functions of government), it would be a mistake to treat military spending as synonymous with spending on, say, farm subsidies. But Kagan’s writings presume that other countries’ governments do not -- and should not -- see their responsibilities in the same way. Kagan contends that American taxpayers should be responsible for the security of people living in Europe or East Asia or the Middle East. Or anywhere in the world, really… It simply isn’t fair to ask Americans to pay for something that other people should pay for themselves. For reference, the average American—every man, woman and child—spends two and a half times more on national security than the French or the British, five times more than citizens living in other NATO countries, and seven and a half times as much as the average Japanese.
Justin Logan is in the process of authoring a lengthier response for publication, but in the mean time click here to read the full post at The National Interest.
Bloggers have already noted the most glaring problems with Arthur Brooks, Edwin Feulner and Bill Kristol’s Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Peace Doesn't Keep Itself,” which worries that conservatives are figuring out that trying to run the world is not conservative.
The op-ed pretends that the fact that defense spending isn’t the largest cause of the deficit means it isn’t a cause of the deficit. It obscures the fact that we spend more on defense than we did in the Cold War by counting the defense budget as a portion of the economy without noting the latter has grown faster than the former.
So I can limit myself to less obvious angles. The first is that neoconservatives like Kristol are for increasing the defense budget no matter what. For them the military is basically an expression of national awesomeness (to use an academic term). Enemies and other details, like what we spend already, come up mainly in the justification phase.
In 2000, when U.S. defense spending was nearly $180 billion lower than today—excluding the wars and adjusting for inflation—Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wanted to increase defense spending by $60 to $100 billion a year. After September 11, they called for a “large” and “substantial” increase. Having got that and then some, Kristol, at least, wants even more. The neoconservative appetite for military spending is insatiable because their militarism is.
Second, I want to pick on one point the op-ed makes because it is both wrong and widely believed: “Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself.”
There are really two theories there. First, commerce requires general peace in supplier nations and military protection of supply lines. Second, only the United States can provide both. There is some evidence for these claims in a long-running correlation. Since World War II, U.S. military hegemony has coincided with explosive growth in global trade. So it’s easy to see how people assume causation. But as Chris Preble and I argue in the Policy Analysis that we just released, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” the causal logic here is weak. It overstates the U.S. military’s contribution to global stability and trade and the trouble that instability causes us.
The first theory is right in the sense that nations devastated by war ultimately lose purchasing power, which is bad for their trade partners. But in the meantime, warring countries typically need a lot of imports. They also generate capital for armies by selling goods abroad. For that reason, the Iranians and Iraqis kept pumping oil during their war. Wars do not simply shut down trade.
The argument for policing peacetime shipments is even worse, as I explain in a guest post I did yesterday for the Stimson Center’s revamped defense budget blog. As I note there, we do not really protect shipments now. A tiny minority get naval protection. Thus primacists tend to argue that what matters is not defending trade but the ability to do so, which deters malfeasants from harassing it or building capability to do so. But that argument gives the game away. You don’t need to do it in good times to do it in bad times.
What happens the day after we tell our Navy to stop sailing around in the name of protecting commerce? Who interrupts shipments? Would Iran start charging tolls at the Strait of Hormuz or China in the South China Sea? I say no because they know that we can force access and because there are plenty of ways to retaliate, including blockading those countries.
A more plausible claim is that some states would increase naval spending to police their own shipping. That seems like a good thing. Sometimes people say that such burden-sharing could set off a naval arms race that causes a war, say between India and China. I suppose that is possible, but naval arms races have caused few, if any, wars.
Let’s say our ability to buy some good from some area is cut off, either by instability at the source or en route. The likely outcome is supply adjustment, not supply failure. Generally another supplier takes the orders and prices adjust. That is particularly true as globalization links markets and increases supply options. It is when you have only one potential supplier that you really need to police delivery.
If you believe that military hegemony protects peacetime shipments, you could argue that it distorts price signals by shifting a portion of the good’s cost to federal taxes. Because I don’t believe that we are propping up prices in most cases, I say that what primacists are really selling is an attempted but failed subsidy to consumption of goods, including oil.
Oil is a special case because price shocks caused by supply disruption have in the past caused recessions. However, economists argue that the conditions that allowed for this problem have changed. One change is the reduced burden energy costs now impose on U.S. household income. Others disagree, but if they are right, that is why we have public and private reserves.
You can read more of what we think of about the idea that only we can keep the peace among states in the Policy Analysis or in the stuff Cato scholars have been pumping out for years. I will just say here that primacists ignore all the history contradicting the idea that only hegemons create a stable balance of power and the many rivals that formed stable balances of power without an hegemon taking a side.
International stability and world trade would be OK without our nation trying to use our military to provide them. If you don’t believe me, you might read one of these three papers by Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press. I took a lot of this from them.
Matt Yglesias puts down the bloody shirt long enough to make the modest-on-its-face claim that "actions, not words, will clarify Obama's foreign policy." I don't think that's quite right.
In one sense, of course, it is. For the bean counters among us, the outcomes are the real metric: whether the United States remains the sole superpower on the planet; whether a diplomatic resolution can be reached with Iran; whether Obama can (assuming he has has any intention to) get our military out of Iraq; whether his spun-like-cotton-candy Afghanistan policy can stabilize that sorry land -- these are the things we'll be looking at.
But the more important thing in the short term for Obama is probably to slake the nearly-unquenchable thirst of the David Brookses of the world -- and probably the American people -- to have their identities stroked. To take the most recent example, Brooks, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and the Foreign Policy Elite of whom they are avatars were in desperate need of a cold shower and a trip to the nearest confessional after Obama indulged them by unsheathing the Mighty and Awesome Totem of American nationalism -- before a crowd of peacey Norwegians no less. To take another example, witness the veritable panic, the hysterical and fluttering response to the imaginary Obama "apology tour" that didn't exist and had no affect on anything in any event.
Indeed the Foreign Policy Elite is so captivated by the rhetoric, imagery, and perhaps most importantly the identity surrounding U.S. foreign policy it hardly has time to think seriously about the material realities. There are of course examples where analysts simply misrepresent material reality -- witness this ridiculous characterization of Obama's boost in defense spending as an "assault" on the defense budget -- but in general the foreign policy commentariat seems more interested in how American power makes them feel than it is on the outcomes it produces. And witness the frenzy over the Oslo speech, the "apology tour" claptrap, or the whining about Obama's restraint from calling on the Iranian people to start a revolution.
Charles Krauthammer, in a recent essay, went so far in the anti-materialist direction to claim that "decline is a choice." "Decline -- or continued ascendancy -- is in our hands." Of course, it isn't always a choice, says Krauthammer. The British had it coming, for example, but the crucial factors in Krauthammer's telling weren't imperial overextension and the relative waning of its latent power but rather "the civilizational suicide that was the two world wars, and the consequent physical and psychological exhaustion." Thus, nations decline in large part because of sapped will -- perhaps this would be the foreign policy equivalent of the "mental recession" we heard about a year ago. If this is right, keeping a careful eye on will-sapping things is more than a parlor game.
But of course Krauthammer's charge that Obama is willfully precipitating American decline cannot be substantiated by reference to material factors, so it's perhaps no coincidence that he takes aim primarily at Obama's "demolition of the moral foundations of American dominance." Krauthammer's central piece of evidence is telling:
In Strasbourg, President Obama was asked about American exceptionalism. His answer? "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Interesting response. Because if everyone is exceptional, no one is.
Reading this, I was reminded of Conor Cruise O'Brien's observation that
Ideally those responsible for international affairs ought to be able to understand and moderate the holy nationalism of their own country and to discern, even when disguised, the operations and limits of holy nationalism in rival countries as well as in third-party countries.
Unfortunately this may be too much to hope for. There are serious cognitive difficulties involved. Any nationalism inherently finds it hard to understand any other nationalism or even to want to understand it. This is particularly true of holy nationalism. Rejection of the other is part of the holiness.
All of this is enough to make you wonder then -- if Obama wanted to, could he just keep the opinion columnists -- and the American people -- happy with a regular genuflection at the altar of American nationalism rather than by providing them with actual wars and actual crusading? Would he if he could?
Justin Logan beat me to the punch, but Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal's op-ed in the Washington Post warrants more than just one comment. Kagan and Blumenthal fret that the Obama administration's policy of "strategic reassurance" is sure to fail. Aimed at encouraging Russia and China, especially, to cooperate with the United States in dealing with a number of common threats, the two predict that the policy will succeed only in making "American allies nervous."
Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Not that we should go around making our allies nervous just for the heck of it, but I worry that our allies have grown, well, too comfortable with the current state of affairs in which American taxpayers and American troops bear a disproportionate share of the costs of securing global peace and prosperity.
And who can blame them? From the perspective of our allies in East Asia (chiefly the Japanese and the South Koreans), and for the Europeans tucked safely within NATO, getting the Americans to pay the costs, and assume the risks, associated with policing the world is a pretty good gig.
The same Robert Kagan made this point explicitly, if somewhat crudely, in his book Of Paradise and Power, when he cast the United States in the heroic role as sheriff, while our wealthy allies were portrayed as cowardly, sniveling townspeople, or, worse, saloon keepers who benefited from the protection of the Americans while selling booze to the bad guys.
For at least two decades, we have adopted a strategy designed to comfort our allies. Our goal has been to discourage them from taking prudent steps to defend themselves. Many Americans are beginning to appreciate just how short-sighted this policy was, and is. Such military capabilities might have proved useful in Afghanistan, for example, and they might ultimately serve a purpose in checking Russian and Chinese ambitions, which would be particularly important if these two countries prove as aggressive as Kagan and Blumenthal claim.
Instead, we have a group of militarily weak and comfortable allies who spend a fraction of what Americans spend on defense, and who can muster political will with respect to foreign policy only when it entails criticizing the United States for not doing enough. In other words, we are reaping what we sowed.
But don't take my word for it. Vassilis Kaskarelis, the Greek ambassador to the United States, bluntly explained the disconnect between what we want our allies to do, and what they are willing to do. As reported by the Washington Times:
NATO members' reluctance to assume a larger role in Afghanistan is partly the legacy of U.S. military protection, which allowed Europeans to stress social programs over defense for decades, the Greek ambassador to the United States said.
"For 40 years, you have a system [of] not bothering about military, security and stability expenses," [Mr.] Kaskarelis told editors and reporters of The Washington Times. "Because these issues were handled by the United States after World War II ... everybody was happy."
Mr. Kaskarelis said...that most European governments support the war in Afghanistan but lack the military infrastructure to contribute as equal partners.
"They don't have the capabilities, because in the last 50 years, the U.S. offered an umbrella in terms of military, security and stability," he said. "You had the phenomenon [in which] most of the successful European economies -- countries like France, Germany, the Scandinavians -- channeled all the funds they had on social issues, health care, pensions, you name it."
Mr. Kaskarelis noted that this system grew out of the wreckage of World War II and that without U.S. aid, his own country "wouldn't exist today" as an independent, democratic state. But to readjust is difficult, he said.
"Can you imagine how a government can sell such ... an idea to its general public without having a revolution? They cover the expense of the hospital, but to say, 'We won't cover 100 percent of your medical expenses, we will start covering 80 percent, because the other 20 percent [will be used] to upgrade our military capabilities to be used in NATO and Afghanistan. Can you imagine this?"
(H/T Charles Zakaib)
Actually, I can "imagine" a time when other countries are responsible for their own defense. Indeed, I wrote a book on the subject. Maybe I'll send Amb. Kaskarelis a copy? And while I'm at it, perhaps Messrs. Kagan and Blumenthal should get one too?