Tag: U.S. foreign policy

Setting the Record Straight on Military Spending Levels

As David Boaz recently demonstrated, the jeremiads emanating from Washington over proposed cuts in military spending are unfounded. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post is only the latest to decry the “damaging blow to our military” that will be done by “massive defense cuts.”

Not only is Pentagon spending not at its lowest level in 60 years, as the Heritage Foundation claimed, it will not fall to such a level even if the Budget Control Act’s sequestration spending caps are implemented. David shows that charts can obscure the relevant facts or contribute to poor arguments.

But charts can also help shed light on the truth. For example, in the first chart below, prepared by my colleague Charles Zakaib, one might conclude that the reductions being contemplated as an outgrowth of President Obama’s strategic review (the brown line) would represent a dramatic cut in the Pentagon’s base budget. The automatic sequester cuts (the red line at the bottom) appear even more draconian.

What is not shown, however, is the context in which such cuts would occur. In the next chart, those projections are compared to defense spending since 1989. As you can see, the sequestration cuts would return military spending to no less than the spendthrift days of 2007, as others have noted in the past.

Should sequestration occur, defense spending will remain at historically high levels relative to the last post-war drawdown and not approach the low of 1998, much less a 60-year low.

* Thanks to Charles Zakaib with his assistance on this research and this post.

War Vets and the New Hampshire Primary

Like many Americans, a growing number of post-9/11 veterans care more about protecting and defending the United States and less about transforming failed states, democratizing the Middle East, protecting wealthy allies, and sacrificing more American lives in the name of global hegemony.

Last Friday, ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary, Gwen Ifill of the PBS Newshour interviewed five Granite State Republicans and independents about their views on the Republican presidential field. In alluding to the divergence between keeping America safe and fighting wars indefinitely in the war on terror, New Hampshire voter and Iraq war veteran Joshua Holmes told Ifill:

HOLMES: …We haven’t defined what it is that is going to satisfy basically victory in the global war on terror. And until we define victory, until we develop a plan to achieve that victory and then to end the war, soldiers are going to continue to die.

IFILL: And who [of the candidates] do you think has got a plan?

HOLMES: I think that Dr. Paul is the first person, the only person now that Gary Johnson is out of the race. All of the other candidates are planning on continuing the global war on terror without any objectives.

(Presidential contender Jon Huntsman also favors more limited and concrete counterterrorism objectives as well as reducing the active-duty Army and closing 50 overseas bases.) Moments later in her interview, Ifill circled back to Holmes and asked him why he thought Paul was doing better this year compared to four years ago, in terms of more attention, more support, and more money. He replied:

Well, simply, the things that he was talking about four years ago have - they’ve manifested. I mean, he predicted the financial meltdown back in 2001 and warned about it for almost a decade before it happened.

He warned about the consequences of the Iraq war, especially the long-term consequences. And now we’re actually seeing those consequences. And that opens people’s minds to the idea that this guy, who did warn us, might have the solutions.

Mr. Holmes is not alone, particularly on the subject of war. One in three veterans of the post-9/11 military believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. A majority, according to the Pew Research Center, think America should be focusing less on foreign affairs and more on its own problems.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates, however, seem all too willing to surrender more American treasure and possibly more American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen for preemptive strikes against Iran. Republicans would do best to appreciate the critics of intervention, a growing number of whom now reside within the post-9/11 military.

Too Much Ado about the Pentagon’s New Strategy

There’s more to the Pentagon’s new strategy than the emperor’s new clothes, but barely. It’s hardly new and not particularly strategic.

The document justifies a minor defense budget cut. The Obama administration wants to grow military spending at a pace slightly less than projected inflation for a decade. If we assume that plan stays in place—and we shouldn’t given that plans change, and we may soon have a new president—that new spending trajectory will cut non-war Pentagon spending by about eight percent compared to 2011 spending. You can come up with bigger numbers for the cut by comparing the new plans with past Pentagon spending plans or by including declining war costs. But however you slice it, these are small cuts compared to past drawdowns.

Conventional wisdom is that the cuts ought to be made strategically—that it is bad policy to let deficit concerns drive the size of the defense budget, so revised numbers require revised strategy. This new strategy document is a response to that conventional wisdom. It lets the president and Pentagon say that they have a strategic rationale for their budget.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is desperate to avoid the sequestration mechanism required by the Budget Control Act, which would roughly double the size of those cuts, and would start in January 2013. That would return military spending to where it was in 2006, more or less. Pentagon leaders complain about the suddenness and broadness of sequestration—the cuts are distributed across programs and departments, which prevents prioritization.

One function of this new strategy document is to help avoid additional cuts. By making minor changes seem like a big deal, the Pentagon is pushing back against real strategic change, which could save far bigger sums without sacrificing safety.

In an op-ed published Friday in World Politics Review, Veronique de Rugy and I argue that the size of the coming defense cuts has been grossly exaggerated. Here’s a chart from the op-ed showing military spending in current dollars with and without sequestration:

We note in the op-ed that under the Budget Control Act, the Pentagon can avoid sequestration without Congressional action by budgeting at the levels it would achieve.  That would allow it to avoid the most onerous aspects of the sequester. The Pentagon has thus far refused to do that, probably figuring that offering sensible cuts would encourage Congress to allow them. But far larger cuts are possible with real strategic change. Big cuts would encourage that sort of change.

The current U.S. defense strategy is basically primacy or global military dominance. It requires policing the seas, maintaining or strengthening current alliances, and preparing for all manner of military contingencies. Both parties’ foreign policy elites basically embrace that strategy. The documents that purport to make strategy—Quadrennial Defense Reviews and so forth—are basically sales pitches for primacy. Their standard blueprint is to mix geopolitical gobbledygook about uncertainty with vague threat inflation, assert the importance of U.S. global leadership to U.S. security without any clear theory, then list things we want our military to do, without any attempt to separate big threats from small ones and large interests from hopes, or to translate their analysis into budgetary guidance. They have no obvious effect on budgets.

This strategy offers only minor change in form and content. It embraces the strategy we have with at best a few minor tweaks. Like those past strategy documents, this effort insists that the world is getting more complex but makes no effort to demonstrate that assertion. It lists ten objectives without prioritization, although it identifies certain goals as those that drive the size of the force. It suggests a few minor shifts but gives no budgetary guidance.

The document suggests that we might shift forces from Europe and perhaps add some in Asia. No details are given. It sensibly suggests we might get by with fewer nuclear weapons but again avoids details. The most relevant bit of the document is the argument that we are less likely to fight occupational wars and thus can cut the size of the ground forces. That is a sound idea, one that should be taken further, but a reflection of current policy rather than a change. If we are really to avoid such wars, far greater cuts in the ground forces are possible.

So what we have here is a largely inconsequential defense of the status quo. It offers incremental changes to stave off the real strategic change and savings that our geopolitical fortune allows.

What the Pentagon’s New Military Strategy Should Look Like

President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey are scheduled to brief the media tomorrow morning on the recently completed strategic review that will inform the Pentagon’s budget priorities for the coming five to ten years. Early indications suggest that the status quo will hold. And that is bad news for U.S. troops, and U.S. taxpayers.

Obama, Panetta, and Dempsey should clearly spell out:

  1. The types of missions that the U.S. military will be expected to perform on a regular basis
  2. Those operations that the military will occasionally conduct on short notice, and for short periods of time
  3. How defense capacity can be augmented in those very rare cases calling for significant mobilization of additional resources.

Some suggest that the strategy document will abandon the requirement that the Pentagon must be prepared to fight two sustained ground wars at the same time, something that the country hasn’t done since well before Barack Obama was born. Such a change, if true, should be welcomed.

It is significant the president is attending, and the most important questions should be reserved for him. It is particularly incumbent upon the civilian leadership within the Obama administration, beginning with the president himself, to spell out their intentions regarding the use of force, and of the role of the U.S. military more broadly. These should go beyond vague signals; our military leaders shouldn’t be forced to guess what missions that they will be asked to perform. The president must tell them.

For example, does he intend to deploy U.S. troops to more weak and failing states, missions that require a very sizable ground presence for an indefinite period of time? Or have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught the president and his advisers that such missions are costly and counterproductive (and politically unpopular at home)? If the latter, the Pentagon should be planning for significant reductions in the Army and Marine Corps.

Does President Obama plan to conduct more Libya-style missions, operations conducted from the air, with some involvement by other militaries? Or is the recent deployment to Uganda emblematic of future missions, with a small-scale U.S. military presence on the ground in support of indigenous forces? Either way, the Air Force and the Navy are likely to be involved, though perhaps not as active as in the past decade.

More broadly, will the White House and the State Department continue to task the U.S. military with the defense of the global commons, providing security for all countries, and expecting nothing in return? Or will the twin constraints of fiscal insolvency and dwindling public support here at home lead to a less grandiose foreign policy, one that will call on the U.S. military to defend the United States and secure vital U.S. interests, while encouraging other countries to take responsibility for their own defense? The former requires a military even larger than the one that we have today, one that costs more than all other militaries in the world, combined, and that expects and demands much of our men and women in uniform. The latter mission, by contrast, could be easily handled with a smaller, more elite force, based largely here in the United States.

The answers to these key questions are what should guide the Pentagon’s force planning for the coming decade. The president, Secretary Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, and other senior officials have stated that the United States must continue to be the world’s policeman, effectively discouraging other countries from doing more. The end result is likely to be a smaller U.S. military, tasked with a longer to-do list. That isn’t fair to the troops, or to the U.S. taxpayers who will foot the bill.

A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cutting the Military Budget

The New York Times has posted a handy tool for calculating savings from the Pentagon’s budget over the next ten years. I went through the exercise, and my plan resulted in cuts of $1.144 trillion over ten years. Had I checked all of the boxes in the Times’s calculator, it would have generated savings of up to $1.4 trillion.

Though I support reform of the the military retirement system, I think some of these proposals go too far (they would have saved up to $86.5 billion). We should continue to spend money recruiting the very best force, comprised of the most-qualified men and women ($5 billion), and we might find it hard to do that if/when the economy improves. Tuition assistance is a key factor driving recruitment, and I wouldn’t scale that back ($5 billion). (Full disclosure: I attended college on an NROTC scholarship.) We need the best possible services for families, and I could foresee problems with closing elementary and secondary schools on bases ($10 billion). And I have no particular quarrel with military bands ($0.2 billion). My ideal military will be smaller and more elite, but likely better compensated than today’s force. And retirees would continue to receive many benefits not enjoyed by their fellows who never served, but we should experiment with ways to control costs. The key take-away, and the one stressed in the accompanying story by Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, is that it is possible to reduce military spending, and the resulting force will still be larger and more capable than any conceivable combination of rivals.

A few additional observations:

1) The Times’s calculator cites my and Ben Friedman’s contribution to the Sustainable Defense Task Force report, “Debts, Deficits, and Defense,” but the main part of the report was the work of the entire task force, and they deserve proper credit. I am particularly grateful to Carl Conetta and Charles Knight of the Project for Defense Alternatives.

2) Ben and I published a stand-alone report a few months later with some numbers drawn from the SDTF report, and with some additional detail surrounding our proposals that were not endorsed by all SDTF members. Our savings were calculated against the baseline from fiscal year 2010, and these numbers are now a bit dated.

3) When I hit the submit button comparing my choices with others who participated in the exercise, I discovered 80 percent of respondents supported the plan to reduce forces in Europe and Asia. That sort of systematic restructuring is necessary to ensure that we don’t impose undue burdens on what will necessarily be a smaller force. As I have said repeatedly, if we are going to spend less, we must expect our troops to do less, and expect other countries to do more.

North Korea: Kim Jong-il’s Death and the Coming Succession Struggle

North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is dead. There is now no prospect of negotiating and implementing a new nuclear agreement with the North in the near future. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is likely to be consumed with a power struggle which could turn violent. Washington’s best policy option is to step back and observe.

After his stroke three years ago, Kim anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. However, the latter Kim has had little time to establish himself. The previous familial power transfer to Kim Jong-il took roughly two decades. There are several potential claimants to supreme authority in the North, and the military may play kingmaker.

Some observers hope for a “Korean Spring,” but the DPRK’s largely rural population is an unlikely vehicle for change. Urban elites may want reform, but not revolution. If a North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev is lurking in the background, he will have to move slowly to survive.

During this time of political uncertainty no official is likely to have the desire or ability to make a deal yielding up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The leadership will be focused inward and no one is likely to challenge the military, which itself may fracture politically.

Nor is China likely to play a helpful role. Beijing views the status quo as being in its interest. Above all else, China is likely to emphasize stability, though it may very well attempt to influence the succession process outside of public view. But China does not want what America wants, preferring the DPRK’s survival, just with more responsible and pliable leadership.

Washington can do little during this process. The United States should maintain its willingness to talk with the North. American officials also should engage Beijing over the future of the peninsula, exploring Chinese concerns and searching for areas of compromise. For instance, Washington should pledge that there would be no American bases or troops in a reunited Korea, which might ease Beijing’s fears about the impact of a North Korean collapse.

Most important, the Obama administration should not rush to “strengthen” the alliance with South Korea in response to uncertainty in the North. The Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. It should take the steps necessary to deter North Korean adventurism and develop its own strategies for dealing with Pyongyang. America should be withdrawing from an expensive security commitment which no longer serves U.S. interests.

Kim Jong-il imposed unimaginable hardship on the North Korean people. However, what follows him could be even worse if an uncertain power struggle breaks down into armed conflict. Other than encourage Beijing to use its influence to bring the Kim dynasty to a merciful end, the United States can—and should—do little more than watch developments in the North.

Digging Our Grave in Af-Pak

Last week’s killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers by a NATO airstrike shows why the war in Afghanistan will continue to weaken, not stabilize, neighboring Pakistan, contrary to what U.S. officials and analysts claim. Perhaps the gravest outcome from this latest “tragic, unintended incident” will be the widening gulf between Pakistan’s senior military leadership and its junior officer corps, a chasm that opened under President-General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) and threatens to open far wider.

Pakistan’s alliance with the United States has always been a liability. After 9/11, Musharraf forced the reassignment or resignation of officers regarded as pro-Taliban or Islamist, because his decision to support U.S. counterterrorism efforts undermined his support among key military officials. In 2003, he narrowly escaped two attempts on his life—within 11 days of each other—that involved the collaboration of junior officers. The attacks came two months after al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released an audiotape urging Pakistanis to overthrow the military general.

B. Raman, the former head of the counterterrorism division for India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), writes that while many in India might rejoice at this intra-military split and the further deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan relations, “This need not necessarily be a beneficial development for India. It is in our interest that the US retains the ability to influence the behaviour of the Pakistani military leadership.”

That is exactly what Washington risks losing the longer it prosecutes this ill-conceived quagmire in Afghanistan. “Imagine how we would feel if it had been 24 American soldiers killed by Pakistani forces at this moment,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) on Fox News Sunday. Fanning public anger in Pakistan is Jamaatud Dawa, Hizb ut-Tehrir, and other organizations that stand to gain whenever anti-U.S. anger spikes. But is it any wonder why Pakistani streets and newspaper editorials were brimming with anti-American sentiment? Such escalating pressures against General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the chief of the army staff, come just after Pakistan’s security establishment was publicly humiliated for either being complicit or incompetent in America’s Osama bin Laden raid, and was accused of attempting to stage a coup in the recentmemogatescandal.

Compounding the partnership’s endless string of controversies are recurring incidents along the Af-Pak border. These incidents hurt the honor of Pakistan’s military, decrease the country’s resolve to cooperate with America, and highlight a glaringly obvious problem with America’s current strategy. U.S. officials claim the coalition cannot fight its way to victory in Afghanistan. But by continuing to attack indigenous insurgents before withdrawing or engaging in negotiations, the coalition is undermining the potential for a diplomatic solution. Look no further than Pakistan’s refusal to attend this week’s Bonn summit. As Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, told Dawn News television this week, “It is definitely not Pakistan’s intention to work against the rest of the world. But the rest of the world also has to understand that if they have pushed Pakistan into this corner, violated red lines, then they have denied the basis of partnership.”

An iteration of this discrepancy comes from Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider, who wrote last year:

Behind all the nice talk about setting the world right through a Lockean cooperative framework lurks Mr. Hobbes… Mr. Obama… (de-hyphenated) Pakistan and India by not including Pakistan on this visit even as Pakistan is supposed to be a vital strategic partner and a state that is, presumably, going to determine, by his own admission, not only the future of this region but of the entire world. This would be amusing if it did not indicate a deep policy flaw.

Only America’s hubris can explain why officials continue to believe that they can win a war in which the neighboring state—with legitimate security interests—actively assists elements of the insurgency, denies transit routes for delivery of war supplies, and uses its leverage to increase the costs of America’s military presence. The 10-year war’s latest casualty is the ongoing effort to bring insurgent networks into a broader power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. U.S. militarism has deprived diplomatic efforts of a key regional player. Absent the cooperation of Pakistan, the United States continues to dig its own grave.

Cross-posted from “The Skeptics” at the National Interest.