Tag: war

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.

 

On Afghanistan, Panetta Leaves Questions Unanswered

Secretary Panetta’s announcement that the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will end as early as mid-2013 is a positive development. But it is long overdue and still leaves too many questions unanswered. After more than ten years of war in Afghanistan, the administration should follow through on its commitment to end combat operations and withdraw all troops by 2014. Continuing to narrow our objectives will make this war winnable.

Politically, this makes perfect sense for the Obama administration. It is a shot across the bow of his political opponents and those wishing for an indefinite combat mission in Afghanistan. Secretary Panetta’s announcement allows the administration to get on the side of voters who want to draw-down in Afghanistan. By opposing any draw-down, his critics side with the much smaller segment of the American people who still support the nation-building mission.

President Obama is in a position similar to the debate over Iraq in his 2008 presidential campaign. He argued in 2008 that he would end a grinding war he inherited. The president can claim victory (and vindication) in Iraq and argue that if you liked the first act, you’ll love the second. He will end another grinding war he inherited—and conveniently gloss over the fact that he sent more troops to Afghanistan than President Bush ever did.

Of course, these developments are neither new nor are they a sure thing. Despite the media attention given to this announcement, it was somewhat predictable. Panetta acknowledged that this was always part of the plan behind the scenes. Buried in the coverage of Panetta’s statement are multiple qualifiers. He admitted that no decision has been made on the number of troops that will leave in 2013. The secretary offered no details on what this transition from combat operations would look like. Indeed, the line between an “advise and assist” mission and combat operations is a sketchy one. A spokesman clarified that U.S. forces could still be involved in combat operations in 2014. In the end, our policy has not changed. It is still unclear how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at the end of 2013.

But to the extent that Panetta’s recent statement reaffirms the administration will adhere to the timeline of withdrawal, it is an encouraging sign. It signals to the Afghans that they must take responsibility for their own security, and it provides an incentive for them to continue to put themselves in harms way and take the initiative.

Let’s hope that this is indeed a confirmation of the administration’s commitment to a withdrawal. The United States should have scaled-down to a limited, targeted counterterrorism mission many years ago. A large-scale, nation-building mission has never been necessary to protect the vital interests of the United States and hunt down the few remaining terrorists in Afghanistan that aim to strike the homeland.

The strategic misconceptions that guide our current mission in the country are overwrought, lack evidence, and are based on worst-case scenarios. We should continue to transition to a counterterrorism mission that utilizes intelligence, special operations forces, and our considerable technological advantages, such as UAVs. And we must continue to encourage the Afghan people to take responsibility for their security and their nation.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Tonight on Stossel: Ron Paul, War, and Military Spending

The GOP presidential candidates will participate in yet another debate tonight from South Carolina in anticipation of the primary there on Saturday. I hope that the moderator, CNN’s John King, will bring up some of the major national security issues at hand, namely military spending.

Out of all the GOP contenders, it is clear that Ron Paul is the only candidate still standing that offers an alternative to the entrenched Republican foreign policy views. Some have called his foreign policy positions naïve and outside the mainstream. Others point to the fact that Ron Paul is so popular precisely because he is outside the mainstream and presents a different perspective on the intertwined issues of national security and military spending. Of course, the “mainstream” views on foreign policy are relative: what is common thinking inside the Beltway is not usually representative of the country.

Tonight at 10 PM EST on Fox Business Network’s Stossel, a host of experts will discuss Ron Paul’s foreign policy views, war, and whether the federal government has gone too far in its Constitutional obligation to defend the homeland. I will be discussing military spending and argue that we can cut the Pentagon’s budget and be more secure for it.

The Iraq War: 20 Years, Not 9

Here are two newspaper accounts about the conclusion of the Iraq war:

The New York Times  “Almost nine years after the first American tanks began massing on the Iraq border, the Pentagon declared an official end to its mission here, closing a troubled conflict that helped reshape American politics and left a bitter legacy of anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.”

The Washington Post:  “Nearly nine years after American troops stormed across the Iraq border in a blaze of shock and awe, U.S. officials quietly ended the bloody and bitterly divisive conflict here Thursday, but the debate over whether it was worth the cost in money and lives is yet unanswered.”

There is a problem with those accounts.  The United States has been at war in Iraq for twenty years, not nine!  George Orwell warned us not to confuse war with peace, but we are clearly falling into that trap.  More here.

Ten Years in Afghanistan Is Enough

The United States executed its original mission in Afghanistan in the critical first months after the invasion: cripple al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. Now that the United States has expanded its mission to a fragile-by-design strategy of nation-building, it’s well past time for U.S. forces to leave.

In a new video Austin Bragg and I produced, Cato Institute vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Christopher A. Preble, foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent, and legal policy analyst David Rittgers comment on this dubious milestone:

Strength vs. Stupidity

The New York Times weighs in this morning with a timely and sensible editorial on military spending. The main focus is on the increasingly outdated pay and benefits system for the nation’s troops. Some choice excerpts:

Military pay, benefit and retirement costs rose by more than 50 percent over the…decade (accounting for inflation). Leaving aside Afghanistan and Iraq, those costs now account for nearly $1 out of every $3 the Pentagon spends.

Much of that is necessary to recruit and retain a high-quality, all-volunteer military….But current military pay, pension systems and retiree health care benefits are unsustainable and ripe for reform.

[…]

The retirement system is both unfair and increasingly expensive. Most veterans, including many who have served multiple combat tours, will never qualify for even a partial military pension or retiree health benefits. These are only available to those who have served at least 20 years. Those who do qualify can start collecting their pensions as soon as they leave service, even if they are still in their late 30s, making for huge long-term costs.

So far, so good. Two essential points bear repeating.

First, the rise in military spending over the past decade has not been driven solely by the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon costs are growing, and the rate of growth is rising. Programmatic reform is needed to reign in those costs; avoiding stupid wars won’t solve the problem (although it won’t hurt).

Second, the current system disproportionately rewards individuals who stay in the service for 20-plus years, and undercompensates those men and women who serve several tours, but who do not qualify for military retirement. A better system would allow anyone who has served to retain some of what they paid (or what taxpayers paid for them) into a portable retirement account that they control. Private industry has been steadily moving away from a fixed-benefit, pension-style system for years. I have heard the arguments against such a move, but I don’t find them particularly convincing.

One point from the Times editorial, however, calls out for clarification. The editors claim on two separate occasions that current military spending patterns are “unsustainable.” They conclude:

The United States already has a comfortable margin of [military] dominance….The Pentagon’s ambitions expanded without limit over the Bush era, and Congress eagerly wrote the checks. The country cannot afford to continue this way, and national security doesn’t require it. (emphasis added)

The latter point, “national security doesn’t require it,” is crucial, correct, and should be repeated at every opportunity. The former assertion, “the country cannot afford” it, is false. Repeating that claim plays into the hands of the inveterate hawks who never saw a war, or a weapon system, that wasn’t deserving of more lives/money.

The hawks are correct to point out that the United States has in the past, and could in the future, choose to spend as much or more on our military. Current spending levels amount to about five percent of GDP (when including the costs of the wars), and military spending as a share of total government spending has been falling steadily for years. According to the hawks, it is other spending, or too little revenue, that is putting our children and grandchildren into debt.

I wish that the Times had spent more time hammering the point that such spending is unnecessary. Contrary to anecdote and the evening news, the international system is remarkably stable and peaceful. The United States need not spend more than we did at the height of the Cold War in order to be secure from most threats. And those few genuine threats to our security could be handled with a smaller, more efficient military—if we offloaded some responsibilities to other countries that have sheltered under the U.S. security umbrella for decades.

The Times doesn’t directly address that last point. By focusing most of their attention on programmatic reforms to pay and benefits, and a bit on costly procurement of unnecessary weapons, but not enough to the underlying flawed assumptions that drive military spending, the editors contribute to the misconception that the U.S. military should continue to be the world’s policeman, and find ways to do this on the cheap.

That is unfortunate. Spending more than we need to doesn’t make us stronger. Ignoring our favorable strategic circumstances is simply stupid. We spend too much on our military because we ask our troops to do too much. To spend less, we must do less. The good news is that we can. The bad news is that too few people understand that.

Joseph Heller in the Pages of Inquiry

Fifty years ago, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, giving us a new idiom and forging a new perspective on the business of war. While other novels—such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front—stripped warfare of its romance, Catch-22 exposed it as just another form of the fundamental absurdity of bureaucracy. Writes Walter Kirn in Slate:

Then, that fall, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 appeared, abruptly downgrading war’s special status as an existential crucible and also, unwittingly, beginning the process of rendering four-star male novelists irrelevant. The book treats war on a par with business or politics (to Heller they were very much the same), portraying it as a system for alienating people from their own interests and estranging them from their instincts. Protocol replaces principle, figures plucked from thin air supplant hard facts, and reason becomes rigamarole. Heller’s island airbase of freaked-out aviators oppressed by cuckoo officers is the ding-a-ling civilian world in microcosm, not an infernal, tragic realm apart. The men who can feel aren’t agonized, they’re addled. The ones who can’t feel (and therefore give the orders) are permanently, structurally annoyed. The naked and the dead are here but invisible to the beribboned and the daft.

In 1979, shortly after the release of Good as Gold, Charlie Reilly interviewed Heller for Inquiry magazine, then published by the Cato Institute. They discussed the new novel and its narrative structure, Heller’s humorist techniques, and how Heller deals in his writing with terrible, real-world events.

Q: Another thing that interested me was the effect that writing about the Vietnam War had upon you. It seemed apparent in Something Happened that you felt a sense of moral outrage over our role in the war, and in this one Gold seems to boil in rage at some aspect of it. Was it difficult to write about an issue that is so enraging and draining?

HELLER: No, and this is true of Catch-22 as well. When I’m writing, I am only interested in writing. Now when I’m not writing, I confess I can hear something that will make me boil over. A phrase that really gets to me, for instance, would be one of those neoconservative references to Vietnam as a national tragedy, but only because we lost. That thought fills me with ire. To begin with, the person who says it is typically untouched by tragedy; like me, he has not lost a son or a job. In addition, the implication is that if we had won, the war would have been somehow less tragic. People with that mentality, I have to admit, impress me as being the scum of the earth.

Read the whole thing here.