Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Dual-Capable Cruise Missiles: Past Performance No Guarantee of Future Results

Earlier this week I attended a very thoughtful and stimulating debate on the modernization of U.S. nuclear missiles hosted by the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) at CSIS. The debate addressed the merits and downsides of two planned U.S. nuclear delivery system recapitalization efforts: the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intended to replace the Minuteman III ballistic missile system, and the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile that is supposed to replace the AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The ALCM is a dual-capable missile, meaning it can carry either a nuclear or conventional payload. While the LRSO is planned to be only used for nuclear missions, in a conflict scenario it would be hard to discern between it and a conventionally-armed cruise missile until the moment of impact.

One topic raised during the debate was the effect of the LRSO on strategic stability, an important and hotly debated issue. The advocates of the LRSO downplayed the destabilizing potential of the system by pointing out that the United States has used dual-capable cruise missiles in past conflicts. Concerns about strategic stability should be kept in mind, they argued, but the United States has a track record of using dual-capable cruise missiles while safely navigating such concerns.

This argument may be technically true, but it ignores a critical fact: all past uses of dual-capable cruise missiles were in conflicts with countries that did not have nuclear weapons—not between two nuclear-armed countries. Policymakers should be wary of arguments that use historical evidence to dismiss or downplay the negative effects of LRSO on strategic stability because there are no adequate past cases to test such arguments against.

Trump’s Missing Buildup

The biggest news about the Trump administration’s release yesterday of its $603 billion 2018 defense budget proposal is that there isn’t much. The anticlimax comes partly because most of the details were already out, thanks to the “skinny budget” plan for discretionary spending released in March and a recent leak. Moreover, the most newsworthy aspects of the proposal—its big cuts and chicaneries—came in non-defense areas and through 10-year projections that are little more than symbolic wish lists.

There’s a bigger reasons that Trump’s budget is historically unimportant: Congress is going to ignore it. Even the 2018 plan seems more statement than realistic attempt to guide appropriations. The breadth of the non-defense cuts used to fund the $54 billion defense increase makes it easy for even vulnerable Democrats to oppose it. That, along with Trump’s declining public support, even among conservatives, is why Republican backers won’t stick up for his plan.

Even if the budget were less impolitic overall, its military spending increase would face long odds thanks to the cap on defense spending, which is $54 billion less than Trump wants. Under the Budget Control Act, if an annual defense appropriation exceeds its cap, the Treasury must “sequester” the excess, pulling proportionally from all accounts in that category. Contrary to much reporting, sequestration hasn’t occurred since 2013, when it resulted automatically from the failure of the congressional supercommittee to come up with a deficit reduction plan.

Instead, Congress has cut a series of deals that raised the annual cap. Democrats made sure that the cap on non-defense discretionary spending went up by equal measure. The increases were paid for, in theory, by dubious future savings. Further Pentagon relief comes through abuse of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, which is uncapped out of deference to the pretention that it is “emergency” spending for wars. The OCO budget is annually stuffed with non-war funding—now at least $30 billion of it.

The Case for Calling them Losers

President Trump made headlines with his impromptu remarks after he learned of the tragic attack in Manchester earlier this week.

President Donald Trump put the latest incident in perspective: “So many young beautiful innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life. I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them from now on losers because that’s what they are.

“They’re losers, and we’ll have more of them, but they’re losers, just remember that,” he added.

He spoke from the heart, but there is wisdom in the President’s words, as I explain at The National Interest’s The Skeptics

I note that “loser” is the same word that Ruslan Tsarni used to describe his nephews, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two Boston Marathon bombers.

When asked what provoked the bombing suspects, the uncle stated: “Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves—these are the only reasons I can imagine.

“Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, is a fraud, is a fake,” Tsarni added.

Other words include nitwits and idiots. My colleague John Mueller, who has assembled a catalog of all the post-9/11 terrorism cases in the United States—92 as of January 2017—characterizes most of these plots as bone-headed. These words describe mostly instances in which the would-be terrorists managed to kill and injure no one, not even themselves. But we should be equally dismissive of the losers that manage to detonate their bombs, or fire their weapons. Trump got it right.

I explain:

The word “loser” works because it doesn’t imply that there is anything particularly special about the individuals who perpetrate these heinous acts. They might wish to make a statement by indiscriminately killing and injuring helpless victims. They might fashion themselves as heroic, or uniquely evil, or superhuman. They are none of these things.

And I conclude:

I refuse to reward these losers. I refuse even to mention their names. Though we should never forget their victims, we shouldn’t allow [killers] to change the way that we live. They were sad and angry, and they lived unhappy lives. They wanted us all to be unhappy, too.

I’m not having it. I just cranked an Ariana Grande shuffle on my iPhone.

You can read the whole thing here.

Does the White House Have a Syria Strategy?

With the news that the United States has for the second time attacked targets linked to Syria’s Assad regime—in this case a convoy near Western forces in Al Tanf—concerned observers may be worrying that the Trump administration has chosen to make a major change in its Syria strategy. Fear not! As Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters:

“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops…”

Instead, you should probably just fear the fact that the United States no longer seems to have a Syria strategy.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s strategy towards Syria was inconsistent and vague. From the President’s statements early in the Syrian uprising that “Assad must go,” to his infamous red line comment, the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and the decision to intervene against ISIS, it often seemed as though the Obama administration was unsure whether it was willing to accept the Assad regime as part of a Syrian transition or not.

Nonetheless, throughout Obama’s term, the United States took no direct military action against Assad, and—other than arming a small number of rebels early in the conflict—largely ignored the question of Assad’s future, focusing instead on the campaign against ISIS.

With his disinterest in human rights, and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, the Trump administration was initially expected to be more conciliatory towards Assad than Obama. Yet only days after senior U.S. officials publicly stated that the U.S. priority was not to remove Assad, the President fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base.

Yesterday’s attack marks the second such incident. That they don’t constitute an official policy change is in large part because they were apparently authorized by commanders in the field, reflecting Trump’s desire to delegate key military decisionmaking down the chain of command.

Yet in many ways, this highlights the dangers of such delegation: though the strikes may have been necessary to protect American and British Special Forces based near al-Tanf, they carry risks of retaliation for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as the potential for escalation with Syrian regime forces, Iranian-backed militias, or even Russian forces.

Targeting decisions like this, made at the tactical level, are thus deeply worrying. As ISIS continues to decline, military advances will bring both sides closer, raising the potential for conflict that could drag the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Unfortunately, lack of clarity about the Assad regime and allied forces is only one of the important questions that the Trump administration has so far failed to address in Syria. Though the headlines largely focused on the disgraceful behavior of Turkish President Erdogun’s bodyguards in beating up protestors, his D.C. visit last week also yielded no apparent progress on the brewing Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Northern Syria.

Indeed, the Trump administration recently took the decision to directly arm Syria’s Kurdish rebels, one of the most effective forces against ISIS. This was probably the right decision, but strains relations with Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers these groups as terrorists, and is engaged in bombing them.

At the same time, Trump appears to look more favorably on Russian plans for resolving and ending the Syrian conflict than his predecessor, but has taken an openly hostile attitude towards Iran, one of the other signatories of the de-escalation plan, and a major player on the ground in Syria. These two positions cannot be easily reconciled.

Thanks to a recent boost under the new administration, there are now at least a thousand U.S. troops in Syria training and working with ground forces fighting ISIS. It is these troops—and the larger number of U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq—who are most placed at risk by the new administration’s incoherent approach to Syria.

Whether or not the White House realizes it yet, tactical decisions like the one made yesterday by commanders on the ground in Syria risk dragging the United States even further into this complex war. The only way they can avoid it? Develop a coherent Syria strategy. 

Government Can’t Even Plan for Its Own Survival

Economists and (classical) liberals have long criticized the failures of government planning, from Hayek and Mises and John Jewkes to even Robert Heilbroner. Ron Bailey wrote about centralized scientific planning, Randal O’Toole about urban planning, Jim Dorn about the 1980s enthusiasm for industrial planning, and I noted the absurdities of green energy planning

One concern about planning is that it will lead government to engage in favoritism and cronyism. So who would have guessed that when the leaders of the federal government set out to plan for their own survival—if no one else’s—in the event of nuclear attack, they failed?

That’s the story journalist and author Garrett Graff tells in his new book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us DieAs the Wall Street Journal summarizes:

COG—continuity of government—is the acronymic idée fixe that has underpinned these doomsday preparations. A bunker was installed in the White House after Pearl Harbor, but the nuclear age (particularly after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb in September 1949) introduced a nationwide system of protected hideaways, communications systems, evacuation procedures and much else of a sophistication and ingenuity—and expense—never before conceived….

Strategies for evacuating government VIPs began in earnest in the early 1950s with the construction of Raven Rock, an “alternate Pentagon” in Pennsylvania near what would become known as Camp David, and Mount Weather, a nuclear-war sanctuary in Virginia for civilian officials….

In 1959, construction began on a secret refuge for Congress underneath the Greenbrier, a resort in West Virginia. In the event of an attack, members of Congress would have been delivered by special train and housed in dormitories with nameplated bunk beds.

The most important COG-related activities during the Kennedy administration came during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the closest this country has come to a nuclear war. Not only was the military mobilization chaotic—“one pilot bought fuel for his bomber with his personal credit card”—but VIP evacuation measures were, for the most part, a debacle: “In many cases, the plans for what would happen after [a nuclear attack on the U.S.] were so secret and so closely held that they were almost useless.” …

The Air Force also acquired, for the president’s use, four Boeing 747 “Doomsday planes” with state-of-the-art communications technology, which were nicknamed “Air Force One When It Counts.”…

The Trump-Russia Connection: Context Is Crucial

The Justice Department’s appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel takes the ongoing investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government to an entirely new level.  If the investigation is to be truly objective and informative, some crucial issues need to be addressed. 

Above all, it is imperative to determine the full context of the Trump-Russia relationship.  The old parable about a group of blind men feeling limited portions of an elephant and reaching erroneous conclusions applies here.  Without context, someone feeling the elephant’s trunk may express unwarranted confidence that it is a thick rope.

One of the issues that must be examined is the extent and nature of the contacts between members of Trump’s election campaign team and Russian officials.  To determine that in a dispassionate manner will not be easy.  An anti-Russia hysteria has reached alarming proportions in the past few months, eerily resembling the McCarthy era in the 1950s.  As I note in a recent article in the American Conservative, there appears to be a concerted effort to make Russia a pariah.  Indeed, at least two House Democrats have voiced objections to any contact whatsoever between the Trump administration and Russian officials.

That attitude is both unrealistic and potentially very dangerous.  Even during the worst days of the Cold War, U.S. leaders never severed communications with Moscow.  In fact, constructive dialogues produced some worthwhile agreements with America’s totalitarian adversary, including the treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963.  To adopt an unprecedented, hardline attitude now toward post-Soviet Russia, which is a conventional rather than a totalitarian power, would be irresponsible.

Trump of Arabia

Donald Trump will make his first foreign visit this week, eschewing more typical early presidential destinations like Canada in favor of a photo-op heavy swing through Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, before attending next week’s NATO summit in Brussels. Of these, perhaps the most interesting will be his time in Riyadh, where he will conduct bilateral meetings and attend two summit gatherings: one a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting, and the other a U.S.-Arab Islamic summit.

Despite Trump’s negative comments about Saudi Arabia during the campaign, he has been more supportive since his inauguration, and likely looks forward to a warm reception in Riyadh. For their part, the Saudis have invested heavily in lobbying the new administration, with whom they believe they can work on issues from counterterrorism to Iran. For a president under fire at home, and whom even foreign allies treat with extreme caution, the open embrace of Saudi leaders is undoubtedly welcome.

During the visit, Trump is expected to make two announcements. The first is a massive arms sale worth as much as $300 billion over a decade. The package includes a number of advanced systems, most notably a THAAD missile defense system, and is intended to improve Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities. The second rumored announcement – the creation of an “Arab NATO” – is more unexpected. Though such an idea has been suggested before, regional realities have typically prevented it from advancing past the idea stage.

Indeed, though the U.S. has long sought to build up military cooperation and interoperability between regional states, policy differences and long-running disputes have torpedoed similar initiatives in the past. From military cooperation within the GCC to 2015’s Saudi-led announcement of an “Islamic coalition to fight terrorism“ these efforts have yielded few concrete results. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Baghdad Pact (CENTO) was rendered ineffectual by regional disputes.

In reality, the likelihood of failure may not worry either Trump or the Saudi leadership, both of whom have shown a propensity for policy characterized by big, flashy announcements that are rarely followed through with concrete steps.

Of greater concern are other areas of likely discussion at the summit, particularly the prospect of greater U.S.-Saudi cooperation against Iran. Though Trump has thus far proven unwilling to “rip up” the Iranian nuclear deal, he has initiated new sanctions on Iran, and repeatedly promised a more assertive U.S. policy to deal with Iran’s “destabilizing” regional behaviors.  Unfortunately, this approach carries risks, including the prospect of undermining the nuclear deal or of creating a wider regional conflict.

And while the President and Saudi leaders may agree on many policy issues, the summit does present several areas of potential conflict. For one thing, the hosts have extended an invitation to Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, currently under indictment by the ICC for war crimes and genocide, a choice which has upset many in Washington, if not necessarily the President himself. Trump is likely to accidentally provide support to one side in the ongoing influence struggle between Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Crown Prince, and Mohammed bin Salman, the King’s son and second-in-line to the throne.

Trump’s scheduled speech on Islam also promises a variety of opportunities for misunderstanding and misstatements; in addition to the President’s habit of deviating from prepared remarks, the speech itself is reportedly being written by advisor Stephen Miller. Miller is not only the author of the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban on various Muslim countries, but also waged a campaign during his college years to create awareness of the dangers of “Islamofascism.”

In short, though Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia offers little in the way of policy disagreements – and presents a valuable opportunity for the new administration to distance itself from turmoil at home – it also offers plenty of potential pitfalls for the new President and his staff. And that’s before he even makes it to stop number two. 

Pages