Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

The New Missile-Defense Policy Won’t Make Us Safer

The following is an excerpt from an op-ed I wrote assessing the Trump administration’s 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR) and the impact that the document’s recommendations may have on nuclear stability: 

The MDR is a very ambitious document. It starts with calls for more midcourse interceptors and other existing defensive systems, then urges the development of new capabilities to defeat more kinds of adversary missiles across more stages of flight. Examples of these new systems include: laser-armed drones that could disrupt missiles before they leave the atmosphere, space-based sensors to improve early detection of missile launches, and F-35s equipped to hunt mobile missiles before they can be fired.

Supporters of a bigger and better U.S. missile defense capability argue that it improves deterrence by reducing adversaries’ confidence in their ability to launch successful attacks against the United States, its military forces, and allies. This argument has some merit, but it overlooks the negative effect missile defense has on nuclear stability when other factors are considered.

To read the rest of the article, visit Defense One: https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2019/01/new-missile-defense-policy-wont-maker-us-safer/154295/?oref=d-river.  

DEFENSE DOWNLOAD: Week of 1/17/19

Welcome to the Defense Download! This new round-up is intended to highlight what we at the Cato Institute are keeping tabs on in the world of defense politics every week. The three-to-five trending stories will vary depending on the news cycle, what policymakers are talking about, and will pull from all sides of the political spectrum. If you would like to recieve more frequent updates on what I’m reading, writing, and listening to—you can follow me on Twitter via @CDDorminey.  

  1. The Missile Defense Review dropped this morning. For those that have been patiently waiting to see this document for months, your time has finally arrived. Since this was just released hours ago, articles breaking down the details have yet to be posted. So stay tuned and check Twitter for commentary. 
  2. Pentagon preps for budget delay as historic shutdown drags on,” Tony Bertuca. The President’s FY2020 budget request was supposed to be publically available and kick off the budget-making process on February 4th, 2019. With the government shutdown, and various topline numbers coming out of the White House, it looks like the budget request will be delayed. 
  3. Reform panel warns Congress to overhaul Pentagon acquisitions, or lose technological edge,” Joe Gould. The Section 809 Panel was gifted the herculean task of reforming how the Pentagon buys products—everything from cybersecurity software to major weapons system hardware. The report itself is mammoth (500+ pages), but includes recommendations aimed at streamlining the acquisition process and leveraging commercial advances. 
  4. The Myth of Cyber Offense: The Case For Restraint,” Brandon Valeriano and Benjamin Jensen. What does a new era of Great Power Politics mean for American cyber policy? Mostly that it’s still being defined and actively shaped by the changing balance of power—and that the choices America makes now could have either stabilizing or destabilizing effects on the evolution of this domain. 

DEFENSE DOWNLOAD: Week of 1/10/19

Welcome to the Defense Download! This new round-up is intended to highlight what we at the Cato Institute are keeping tabs on in the world of defense politics every week. The three-to-five trending stories will vary depending on the news cycle, what policymakers are talking about, and will pull from all sides of the political spectrum. If you would like to recieve more frequent updates on what I’m reading, writing, and listening to—you can follow me on Twitter via @CDDorminey.  

  1. Trump, Heading to the Border, Suggests He Will Declare and Emergency to Fund Wall,” Michael Tackett. The most pressing story of this week is undoubtedly the continued government shutdown, and President Trump’s threat to declare a state of emergency. This would allow the president to bypass Congress and the process of authorization and appropriation to instead use military funds to begin construction on a southern border wall. The money would draw from accounts that have already been earmarked for other urgent needs, like military construction. 
  2. A Shut Down Government Actually Costs More Than an Open One,” Jim Tankersley. Every day that this government shut down continues, it costs taxpayers more money in the long run. A government shut down is not like when a household goes on a self-imposed temporary spending ban. The government still needs to pay contractors and furloughed workers once they return to work—in some instances with the accrual of interest or fees on outstanding payments.
  3. Shutdown’s economic damage: $1.2 billion a week,” Victoria Guida. The government shut down is also a drag on the economy because 800,000 federal workers don’t get paid, they restrict individual spending that would otherwise be contributing to the economy. President Trump’s Chief Economist estimates the cost to be as much as $1.2 billion every week that the government remains closed and workers remain furloughed. Private contractors that won’t recieve payment on contract work and other lost business contributes to this figure. 
  4. Depending on how long it lasts, this shut down could also impact those on food stamps, leave new parents in the lurch, and have an outsized impact on veterans who make up to 25 percent of the workforce in some government agencies. 

DEFENSE DOWNLOAD: Week of 1/3/19

Happy New Year! The Defense Download is back after a brief break for the holiday season. This new round-up is intended to highlight what we at the Cato Institute are keeping tabs on in the world of defense politics every week. The three-to-five trending stories will vary depending on the news cycle, what policymakers are talking about, and will pull from all sides of the political spectrum. If you would like to recieve more frequent updates on what I’m reading, writing, and listening to—you can follow me on Twitter via @CDDorminey.  

  1. 2018 Was a Long Women’s March Through Congress,” by Lyric Thompson and Christina Asquith. The 116th Congress was sworn into office today—the most diverse Congress in the history of the institution. 
  2. With Mattis Out, How Will the Pentagon Transition Under Shanahan?NPR’s Morning Edition hosted by Rachel Martin, featuring Todd Harrison. With Mattis departing and Shanahan assuming the post of Secretary of Defense—at least temporarily—there could be changes in store with new leadership. 
  3. US Withdrawal Plan from Afghanistan Won’t Include SOF Strike Units,” Matthew Cox and Richard Sisk. President Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw troops from Syria has renewed rumors of an imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan as well. Military.com reporters spoke to defense officials familiar with plans. 
  4. This Map Shows Where in the World the US Military Is Combatting Terrorism,” Stephanie Savell and 5W Infographics. This is a new release of the Costs of War project’s research—showing that the U.S. is militarily engaged in 80 countries. That’s 40 percent of all the countries in the world. 

 

Did Rand Paul Persuade Trump to Withdraw from Syria?

In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin warns us that “Rand Paul is quietly steering U.S. foreign policy in a new direction.” Indeed, the Post’s overwrought headline is 

Welcome to the world of President Rand Paul

Rogin goes on:

Several U.S. officials and people who have spoken directly to Trump since his Syria decision tell me they believe that Paul’s frequent phone conversations with Trump, wholly outside the policy process, are having an outsize influence on the president’s recent foreign policy decisions. The two golf buddies certainly are sounding a lot alike recently….

Paul told CNN on Dec. 23 that he had talked to Trump about Syria and was “very proud of the president.” That night on Twitter, Trump quoted Paul as saying, “It should not be the job of America to replace regimes around the world… The generals still don’t get the mistake.”

If Paul did in fact persuade the president to withdraw U.S. troops from one of the seven military conflicts we’re currently engaged in, Bravo. He tried to keep us out of the Syrian conflict back in 2013. That’s not Rogin’s view, though. He grumbles:

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a senator advising the president on foreign policy. Hawks such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) do it all the time. But the Trump-Paul bromance is troubling because Trump may be taking Paul’s word over that of his own advisers. 

Well, presidents are allowed to choose their own advisers. But how is it “troubling” that Trump might take advice from Senator Paul, but it’s fine to take advice from Senators Cotton and Graham? And by the way, check the quote above: how is a president’s conversation with a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “wholly outside the policy process”?

Of course, Paul isn’t responsible for the fact that Trump is unable or unwilling to set a clear policy, implement it in an orderly manner, articulate a defense of it without using “alternative facts” and words like “suckers,” and make an inspirational, presidential speech to troops in a combat zone. It’s better to withdraw from unnecessary wars inarticulately than to stay in them with a 500-page report.

Rogin concludes by bemoaning “dangerous … isolationism [and] retreat.” “Isolationism” is a term that the foreign policy establishment throws around any time anyone questions whether all seven wars are actually wise. The New York Times also uses the term, reporting that the Syrian withdrawal “has been condemned across the ideological spectrum,” “with the exception of a few vocal isolationists like Senator Rand Paul.” And a few realists and noninterventionists like my colleagues John Glaser and Christopher Preble. And about half the American people.

Regarding James Mattis’s Tenure and Departure as Secretary of Defense

The timing of James Mattis’s resignation as Secretary of Defense may be as significant as the particulars cited in his letter announcing it. It came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s announcement that U.S. troops would be swiftly removed from Syria, and amidst rumors that a similar withdrawal was in the offing for Afghanistan. Trump’s Syria decision alone might have proved the last straw, but there have been countless other occasions since January 2017 when Mattis might have taken a stand on principle. Why this decision? And why now?

Mattis’s resignation letter mentions neither Afghanistan nor Syria, but hints indirectly at both: “the 29 democracies…fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America” and the “the Defeat ISIS coalition” that supposedly includes 74 countries. A “core belief,” Mattis explained, “is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” 

One could be forgiven for questioning Mattis’s claim that he shares President Trump’s view that “the United States should not be the policeman of the world.” The Defense Department that he presides over, and the National Defense Strategy that he issued, is clearly oriented around the defense of others. It reflects a belief, widespread among the U.S. foreign policy establishment, that the U.S. military exists not merely to defend “these States” named in the Constitution, but the plethora of allies, both formal and informal, who have grown dependent upon American military power. It is a subtle, but critical, point of difference between the Founders’ intentions and U.S. foreign policy as it is practiced today.  

And Mattis clearly sees U.S. military power as the bedrock of America’s global influence, more important even than our dynamic economy or our vibrant political culture. Don’t be fooled by his comment, oft repeated in the media, that a failure to properly fund the instruments of diplomacy would result in him having to “buy more ammunition.” The U.S. military bought many more bullets, and ships, and planes, under Mattis’s tenure. If he felt so strongly that the nation’s priorities were out of whack, he would have spent more time challenging the premises that have U.S. forces deployed in over 800 military facilities over the world, fighting wars in at least seven different theaters, and under dubious authority. Instead, he has boasted of securing for the Pentagon enormous spending increases. He even prevailed on the president to endorse a $750 billion Pentagon budget for the next fiscal year, mere weeks after Trump had said $700 billion was much too high (“crazy” even). 

The U.S. military is expensive because the U.S. military is busy. Very busy. It isn’t obvious that this high level of activity advances U.S. security and prosperity. And U.S. promises to defend others allows them to underspend on their militaries. Indeed, that was always the object. It is incumbent upon Mattis – and all those who so loudly lament his departure – to spell out how the U.S. military would be more busy if it wasn’t mostly in the business of defending others from threats that they can and should address themselves.

It is hard to imagine how that is possible. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) recently tweeted, citing evidence compiled by Stanford’s David Kennedy, “that from 1945-1973 the U.S. had 19 overseas deployments. Since then we have had over 144.” This tracks with evidence that the Congressional Research Service compiled in October 2017. According to the CRS study, explains Cato’s John Glaser, “the United States has engaged in more military interventions in the past 28 years than it had in the previous 190 years of its existence.” Glaser’s back-of-the-envelope calculations count 199 interventions from 1798 to January 1989 and 213 from 1989 to today. He continues: “About 46 percent of Americans have lived the majority of their lives with the United States at war. Twenty-one percent have lived their entire lives in a state of war.”

There may have been occasions when Jim Mattis successfully fended off President Trump’s inclination to use the U.S. military even more often than he did. Reports of attacks thwarted or shelved, including against North Korea and Venezuela, remind that Mattis certainly doesn’t hold the title as the Trump administration’s most bellicose player. But his decision to walk away from the administration on the occasion of the president’s decision to draw down U.S. involvement in two protracted conflicts speaks volumes.  

 

 

Some Early Reactions to the Reactions to President Trump’s Syria Announcement

President Trump’s Syria announcement yesterday has sent the foreign policy community into orbit. The distress is mostly bipartisan, although the real vitriol seems to be coming more from Republicans than Democrats. See, for example, the stories of Vice President Pence’s meeting with GOP senators, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s meltdown on CNN.

A few, however, appreciated the president’s decision. See especially, Cato’s John Glaser (here and here), Defense Priorities’ Benjamin Friedman, Win without War’s Stephen Miles, and timely tweets from Democrat Ted Lieu and Republicans Rand Paul and Justin Amash.

Rather than simply rehash these statements, here are a few brief observations related to the president’s decision:

  • It should not be a surprise to anyone. Donald Trump has been railing against U.S. entanglement in Middle Eastern civil wars for years – as he noted this morning on Twitter. The only real surprise is that it took so long for him to overrule his foreign policy advisers who were dead set against withdrawal. (It does raise the question: Does he have the right foreign policy advisers?) As recently as this September, John Bolton explained publicly that U.S. forces would remain in Syria as long as Iranian forces were there – effectively signaling a willingness to leave U.S troops there forever. Wednesday’s announcement is merely the latest reminder that the president sets policy.
  • I’m particularly interested – and moderately concerned – by an apparent meeting of the minds (and possible quid pro quo?) between President Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Aside from the troublesome atmospherics of the U.S. government drawing closer to an authoritarian thug, there are also grounds for asking what this means for the Kurds. Initial signs aren’t promising – Erdogan hinted that an offensive was imminent even before Trump’s announcement. If the decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria is part of a larger project that will tie the United States even more closely to the Turkish president, then President Trump almost certainly made the right decision for the wrong reason.
  • I have zero tolerance for those who bemoan the lack of congressional oversight of this decision, or who complain that the president opted for a troop withdrawal on his own, an apparent case of executive overreach. Where was this same outrage when a progression of U.S. presidents, up to and including Donald J. Trump, undertook military operations either without any congressional authorization, or only under the dubious cover of the 2001 and/or 2002 AUMFs? We should have had a proper debate over the post-9/11 AUMFs, and the appropriate recourse is to repeal rather than replace them. But those who didn’t want such a debate when U.S. forces were actively engaged in acts of war in multiple theaters, but who want one now that they’re leaving just one of those warzones, don’t have a leg to stand on.
  • The execution of this policy is almost certain to be chaotic. That is both unfortunate and unforgivable. The Pentagon, as it often does, will try to make it seem well-thought-out, but the mixed messages and general confusion emanating from the Trump administration over the last 24 hours are apparent to everyone. I understand that President Trump was new to the policymaking process when he was elected  – and, indeed, that likely worked in his favor electorally, as millions of Americans appeared to value his fresh perspective over Hillary Clinton’s experience. But his administration is now nearly two years old, and there simply is no excuse for a chaotic roll-out of an important foreign policy decision, one that certainly affects the lives of officially 2,000 American servicemen and women (the actual number could be twice that), plus potentially millions living in Syria. In my writing, I often stress how the impulse to do something (anything!) often ignores the unintended consequences of our actions. The other side is more concerned about sins of omission than sins of commission, claiming that these, too, have unintended consequences. Fair enough. In this instance, President Trump initiated a significant change in U.S. force posture in an active war zone, believing that the decision serves U.S. strategic interests. He has an obligation to take every possible step to ensure that it actually does advance our interests. An approach that amounts to “Tweet and hope for the best” doesn’t cut it.

Finally, the statements and tweets noted at the top reflect the major foreign policy debates going on within both parties. My colleagues Emma Ashford and Trevor Thrall broke this down in a recent piece for War on the Rocks, and in two episodes of the “Power Problems” podcast (with Bryan McGrath on the right and Jake Sullivan on the left). A key area of disagreement among foreign policy thinkers of all stripes revolves around the efficacy of military force, and the utility of other foreign policy tools, including diplomacy, economic carrots and sticks – and, yes, moral suasion. Leading by example, and calling on others to behave in ways that serve the cause of peace, was the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy for at least the first half of this country’s history. Some people have never forgotten that the nation’s Founders generally abhorred warfare, and were extremely reluctant to become embroiled in others’ disputes. It is significant, I think, that Rep. Ro Khanna frequently invokes John Quincy Adams in his speeches.

There is an alternative to the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that views the United States as the indispensable nation, and U.S. military power as the essential element of that indispensability. The responses to Trump’s Syria decision remind us that the particulars of that alternative will continue to be hammered out over at least the next two years.

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