Foreign Policy and National Security

February 12, 2020 4:48PM

Tensions Rise in the Taiwan Strait

The Chinese military is flexing its muscles in the Taiwan Strait in response to last month’s electoral triumph by Taiwan’s pro‐​independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide reelection, combined with the DPP’s retention of a majority in the legislature, infuriated Beijing’s leadership. A dangerously provocative response was not long in coming.

Acrimonious bilateral relations took on a worrisome military dimension early this week. Despite the onset of the coronavirus crisis and the pervasive disruptions it has caused, the Chinese government found time to orchestrate a show of force in the Strait. Taiwan’s air force scrambled for a second day in a row on Monday to intercept Chinese jets (both fighters and bombers) that briefly crossed an unofficial, but very important, mid‐​line in the Strait, prompting Taipei to dispatch F‑16s to intercept and give blunt verbal warnings to leave. The Chinese planes then withdrew to the western side of the line.

Although China has been flying “island encirclement” drills periodically since 2016 when Tsai first took office, this was only the second occasion that its military aircraft crossed the median line. Beijing’s subsequent comments emphasizing that the flights were meant to hone the military’s combat capabilities were hardly calculated to reduce tensions. China’s Eastern Theatre Command implicitly identified the motive for the latest drills, stating that “Taiwan independence forces have ignored national justice and stepped up their pursuit of independence.”

Overall tensions between Beijing and Taipei have been rising since Tsai’s reelection. The DPP’s emphatic victory eradicated any lingering hopes Chinese leaders harbored that Tsai would be a one‐​term president and cross‐​strait relations would return to “normal.” The results were an emphatic endorsement of Tsai’s uncompromising policy toward the mainland, and she lost no time in acting on that mandate. Her initial comments seemed almost calculated to escalate tensions with the mainland. “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state,” Tsai told the BBC. “We are an independent country already.”

Other Taiwanese political figures occasionally had expressed similar sentiments over the years, noting that the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) predated the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and that Taiwan had never been part of the PRC. But Tsai appeared to go further, insisting that Beijing “must accept” the reality of Taiwan’s already independent status. She also used a new formulation of the official name, noting that “we call ourselves the Republic of China, Taiwan.” It was a subtle change but an important one, since it underscored Taiwan’s political separation from the mainland.

Beijing’s conduct regarding the coronavirus crisis also has further poisoned bilateral relations. Taipei accuses the Chinese government of preventing Taiwanese health officials from accessing full information that the World Health Organization provides or attending WHO meetings. Beijing apparently fears that accepting such participation might implicitly afford Taiwan recognition as an independent state. Taipei’s reaction is caustic. China should focus on controlling the spread of the virus, rather than threatening Taiwan, Tsai said on Monday, following the second confrontation in the Strait. Beijing’s callous willingness to impede important international cooperation on a dangerous public health issue is disturbing, but it indicates the current woeful state of relations between the mainland and Taiwan.

The air incidents over the Taiwan Strait give that already acrimonious relationship a dangerous military dimension. Washington needs to carefully reassess its own policy on the Taiwan issue. As I discussed in a recent American Conservative article, under President Trump and a strongly pro‐​Taiwan Congress, U.S. policy has become increasingly supportive of Taipei without much apparent thought about the potential consequences.

Not surprisingly, Beijing views the proliferation of pro‐​Taiwan measures with great irritation. Washington policy is extremely risky, given the ominous direction of relations between Taiwan and the mainland. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the United States made an implied commitment to defend the island’s security and de facto independence. The wisdom of that commitment, given the PRC’s mounting economic clout and increasingly potent military capabilities, is highly questionable. U.S. officials and the American people must not assume that supporting Taiwan is just a low‐​risk diplomatic gesture. Given the deterioration of relations between Beijing and Taipei, the United States may soon face a situation in which it is called upon to honor its TRA security commitments. Doing so, though, could have catastrophic consequences. We need to reassess U.S. policy regarding Taiwan now, not in the midst of a full‐​blown crisis.

February 11, 2020 5:17PM

Strategic Pathologies and the 2021 Defense Budget

In the coming weeks the Cato Institute foreign policy team will release its strategic analysis of the 2021 Budget. The newly released Trump Administration budget for 2021 only continues to exemplify many of the budget pathologies we identify as challenges to constructing a viable national strategy for defense. Instead of making hard choices, tepid moves are made that do not suit overall U.S. strategic posture.

The 2021 Defense budget alone requests $636 billion, an increase from $633 billion enacted by the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. While not a dramatic increase from the 2020 request, the budget for the military is still increasing at time when we are trying to lessen foreign commitments and have reduced manpower needs. Further, use of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds represents a dishonest attempt to fund the military despite mandated budget caps.

Here, I highlight a few common pathologies common to the current U.S. budget process. The United States cannot continue to build mindlessly towards unclear future threats without delineating clear priorities to meet these challenges. The deficit is ballooning and not all blame can be placed on entitlement programs; instead the military has become an entitlement program itself.

The Threat of Cyber‐​Enabled Economic Warfare?

The 2021 White House Budget starts with a throat clearing exercise in outlining the threats to the nation, with cyber‐​enabled economic warfare a prime fear. Cyber‐​enabled economic warfare is a term coined by scholars at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The idea is that rivals will use cyber tools to weaken the foundations of the economies to weaken an adversary.

Problem is that the term gives no real indication of the threat we face. Instead it is a nebulous catch‐​all that collects all covert operations against the United States into some grand strategic challenge to the economy. Of course, there is a very real threat to intellectual property, personal data, and critical infrastructure by cyber‐​capable adversaries, but the U.S. must not conflate normal practices of those seeking to rise with those who seek real economic destruction. By inflating the threat of cyber‐​enabled economic warfare and putting it on par with other more pressing challenges, like extricating the U.S. from endless wars, the United States fails to marshal its resources in a way that ensures domestic security.

The timing of the indictments on Monday of four Chinese PLA operatives for the hacking of Equifax in 2017 was not a mistake: it signifies that the United States takes cyber‐​enabled economic threats seriously. Yet the efficacy of an indictment strategy is open to criticism, with one suggestion being that it just limits the vacation destinations of those indicted.

The reality is simply indicting hackers, creating better bilateral trade deals, and supporting energy independence (actions suggested in the budget) are not solutions to the challenge of economic warfare. The issue goes deeper and requires a restrained response that focuses on collaboration with our allies, participation in regional and international trading institutions, and a return to regulatory leadership that can ensure American security. All these solutions do not require massive budgetary expenditures, but rather careful strategic planning.

Wither the 355 Fleet?

The Trump Administration and the U.S. Navy are committed to the United States building a 355‐​ship Navy to support American interests globally. Unfortunately, budget realities make this target unlikely, and instead of making a firm attempt to settle on some different target, the administration just continues to float on as if a 355 ship Navy is a realistic possibility.

The just‐​released budget requests 44 ships through 2025, when 55 were projected in last years budget. The Navy cannot maintain, support, and train its troops on the current platforms it already purchased, and instead of making a hard choice, it prefers to defer to the future the question of strategy.

As Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in an interview, “What we have to tease out is, what does the future fleet look like? I think one of the ways you get there quickly is moving toward lightly manned [ships], which over time can be unmanned.”

The Navy clearly needs more unmanned vessels, but more importantly, the Navy needs a guiding strategy, not ambitions or an artificial target number. While the United States cannot decide on the number of ships in its fleet or if they should be manned, China takes a long range view of competition by building in massive military structures hidden within development projects.

Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) Funding

The greatest budget pathology of all is the continued use of OCO funds to fund long term defense commitments. OCO funds are meant to be used in an emergency and in times of war to fund unexpected operations. Instead, the use of OCO funds to provide for planned costs betrays the intent of the budgetary process and Congressional oversight.

The 2021 proposed budget continues this process with a request for $69 billion to fund overseas contingency operations ($2 billion less than the $71 billion enacted in the 2020 budget). Yet many of these allocated funds represent costs associated with the normal maintenance of a major military, and the use of OCO funds is an attempt to skirt budget caps.

This practice of funding the military through OCO funds must conclude. The United States needs to rethink how it funds emergency combat operations, and the general failure to be honest about the costs associated with war represents a societal challenge. The burden of a forever war is lessened when the costs are hidden and spread throughout budgets. There are processes to ensure that the budget reflects a fair and considered application of U.S. funds, but the OCO funding loophole skirts these budget controls and represents needless continuing waste.

January 31, 2020 12:37PM

Call for Proposals: Junior Scholars Symposium

As we head into an election year, foreign policy is – for once – a key topic of discussion.

Representing the progressive wing of the Democratic party, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are both advocating a comprehensive re‐​think of America’s approach to the world. Joe Biden, meanwhile is open about his intention to return to the post‐​war liberal international consensus. Donald Trump continues to pursue a mostly conservative and nationalist approach to the world.

Topics that once were outside the realm of foreign policy – notably immigration and trade – are increasingly part of the debate on national security. Policy‐​relevant academic research on international security is more important than ever.

In October 2020, the Cato Institute will be hosting our third annual Junior Scholars Symposium, a paper workshop for graduate students on topics broadly related to international security and national security policy.

Topics may include but are not limited to U.S. foreign policy, the causes and consequences of conflict, military effectiveness, grand strategy, civil‐​military relations, alliances and security institutions, terrorism, military intervention, diplomatic history, arms control and nuclear proliferation. Papers that link national security to trade, political economy or immigration are also welcome.

Participants will be expected to produce an original paper of journal‐​article length; the workshop will focus on paper presentations, discussion and suggestions for improvement, with the expectation that authors will go on to seek publication in external journals or to build upon this research as they move towards the dissertation phase of their studies.

Participants are particularly expected to highlight the policy relevance of their work. In keeping with the Cato Institute’s commitment to moving U.S. foreign policy towards prudence and restraint, the policy implications of papers should be broadly compatible with a pragmatic realist approach to foreign policy.

The workshop will be held at Cato’s offices in Washington, D.C on October 9th and 10th. Participants will receive a stipend of $500, and will have reasonable travel and accommodation costs for the workshop covered.

To apply, submit an abstract of no more than 500 words to juniorscholars@​cato.​org by April 6, 2020. The abstract should detail your proposed research project, and be accompanied by a CV. Candidates should have a background in political science, history, public policy or a related field, and must have completed at least one year of graduate study in a PhD program by the time of the workshop. All candidates will be notified of the status of their application by May 15th, and draft papers will be due on September 25th.

January 17, 2020 4:29PM

On “Imminence”: Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

“We caught him in the act and terminated him,” President Trump said in his first public comments about the January 3rd targeted killing of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani. The strike was ordered to avert “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.” Over the last two weeks, the Trump administration has offered a farrago of conflicting accounts—and zero evidence for that claim. In this case—apologies to Don Rumsfeld—absence of evidence is evidence that imminence was absent. And, unless you believe the Constitution gave the president practically unbridled discretion to embroil us in war, that means legal authority for the move was absent too.

The Pentagon’s initial announcement made no claim of exigent circumstances: “this strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.” Hours later, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed the president acted “in response to imminent threats to American lives”—“dozens if not hundreds” of them. Since then, when asked to elaborate, Pompeo has served up (1) a word‐​salad about “situational awareness of risk and analysis”; (2) a backward‐​looking theory by which past attacks demonstrate the imminence of future ones; and (3) the defensive insistence that “it was real,” even if “we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where”—also, don’t give me that look: “those are completely consistent thoughts”! He may yet crack under questioning.

Don't be so cynical!

Would I lie to you about an “imminent threat”?

“We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy,” President Trump said last Thursday; wait, make that embassies, plural, four of them, he told Fox’s Laura Ingraham on Friday. Given the administration’s well‐​known preference for keeping Congress in the dark, maybe it’s not surprising nobody mentioned the alleged embassy threat in the post‐​hoc, closed‐​door Hill briefing last week. But surely it’s a little odd that Trump’s own secretary of defense didn’t get the intel memo.

There’s a simple explanation for the Trump Team’s shifting explanations: they’re lying. Leave aside the dubious notion that it’s possible to stop an imminent attack by killing a senior military commander (were the plans just in his head?)—apparently, the president conditionally authorized the Soleimani killing some seven months ago. (According to NBC News, Pompeo and then‐​national security adviser John Bolton even urged Trump to greenlight the hit last June, in response to the Iranians plinking a US drone.) The news that the day of the strike, U.S. forces tried and failed to take out another top Quds Force commander in Yemen further undermines the administration’s story that their aim was to avert an imminent threat.

Read the rest of this post »
January 16, 2020 12:56PM

The Democrats’ Search for a New Foreign Policy

By A. Trevor Thrall and Jordan Cohen

Cato will be hosting a panel discussion on January 28, The Future of Progressive Foreign Policy: 2020 and Beyond, featuring Kate Kizer from Win Without War, Loren DeJonge Schulman from the Center for a New American Security, Dan Nexon from Georgetown University, Adam Mount from the Federation of American Scientists, and Mena Ayazi from the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

To provide some broad perspective for the discussion, we are sharing a slightly updated version of an article we published in the November/​December issue of the German magazine, Internationale Politik. In it we use speeches and campaign literature from the candidates to discern their foreign policy perspectives. Through our efforts we identified three broad clusters within the Democratic Party that we call traditional liberal internationalist, millennial liberal internationalist, and progressive. The challenge for Democrats, as we discuss below, is to determine which vision is the right one for the post‐​Trump era…

The recent Democratic debate was the first to showcase foreign policy in a meaningful way. The candidates grappled with questions about the role of Commander‐​in‐​Chief, the confrontation with Iran, whether to keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and broader questions of military intervention. Though foreign policy hasn’t played a huge role in the Democratic race so far, international affairs are poised to play a central role this fall. Even without the Ukraine scandal, Trump’s erratic and unpopular record as a statesman provides an opening for Democrats to score points on foreign policy in 2020, but only if they can articulate a new vision that resonates with the American public.

Even before Trump’s election in 2016 foreign policy thinkers were beginning to realize that American grand strategy had to change. After more than fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and the Middle East Americans enthusiasm for foreign adventures had expired, and many observers believed that public support for the traditional American leadership of the liberal international order had expired along with it. The big question was: what would come next?

To most of the Washington foreign policy establishment, Trump’s embrace of “America First” suggested the most terrifying answer possible to this question. Instead of steady American leadership, free trade, a robust system of alliances, and intervention in hot spots around the globe, Trump’s vision relied on unilateralism, protectionism, and withdrawing from America’s endless wars. To say Trump’s election sent shock waves through foreign policy circles in the United States is an understatement.

As Trump nears his fourth year in office, however, it turns out that the public has not embraced his “America First” vision. In fact, Trump has single‐​handedly pushed public support for international engagement and free trade to near record highs. Since Trump took office, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that Americans are seven percentage points more likely to support global engagement, six percentage points more likely to support the Iran deal and Paris Climate Accords, ten percentage points increase for support for NAFTA, and support for alliances with Japan, South Korea, and NATO are at their highest level since polling began. The result is that Democrats have an opportunity to respond not only to Trump but to provide an updated strategy for dealing with 21st century challenges.

The problem is that Democrats have not yet developed a consensus around that new vision, whatever it might be someday. Since the 2016 campaign candidates and foreign policy experts have been waging a slow but steady, behind‐​the‐​scenes battle to define the future of Democratic foreign policy. Though most Democrats can agree on several things like how disastrous Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Treaty was, or how poorly Trump has treated America’s allies, or how harmful his cozying up to autocrats has been, Democrats have not yet provided a definite answer to at least six important questions:

  • Should the United States continue to pursue primacy, attempting to control events around the world, or should it accept that the world is becoming more multipolar and seek to do less abroad?
  • Should the United States continue to rely heavily on military intervention, or should it use non‐​military tools of foreign policy to deal with terrorism, civil war, and other issues?
  • Should the United States pursue a foreign policy aimed at spreading liberal values, such as human rights and democracy, or is such an approach contrary to the American national interest?
  • Should the United States embrace multilateralism and enhance alliances and international institutions, or should it pursue a more unilateral foreign policy?
  • Should the United States seek to strengthen and expand the global system of free trade, or instead pursue a nationalist and protectionist trade policy?
  • Should America partner with China and accept a growing Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, or should it attempt to confront, contain, and undermine Chinese power?

To determine where the Democrats stand today we assessed the eighteen most serious candidates’ positions on nineteen different issues. These issues include things like what the United States should do in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, whether the United States should intervene militarily in North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine, or Yemen, and how the United States should deal with both China and the war on terror. We also examined candidate positions on how ambitious and active American foreign policy should be, the importance of alliances and international agreements like the Paris Climate Treaty, and support for free trade agreements as well as the trade war with China.

To identify the candidates’ views we reviewed the candidates’ speeches, websites, sound bites in media coverage, their answers to foreign policy questions in the debates, as well as other efforts by organizations like the Washington Post and the Council on Foreign Relations to summarize their views on the issues.

Our general approach for each issue was to ask whether the candidate’s position was roughly in line with current policy and, if not, in what direction it differed. For military issues we asked whether a candidate was taking a more or less hawkish position than the status quo. We asked whether the candidate favored more or less international cooperation on a range of issues. And we assessed whether candidates were more or less supportive of free trade than current policies.

Though this approach simplifies things a good deal, it allows us to make use of the available information, which is relatively scarce for certain issues and several candidates. This scoring system also allowed us to provide each candidate with an easy‐​to‐​understand score for militarism, embrace of international cooperation, and support for free trade. Figure One below summarizes the results of this exercise, illustrating both where candidates stand relative to current American policies and also to one another (warning: these figures were made before several candidates dropped out).

Figure One. 3 Dimensions of Democratic Foreign Policy View

International Cooperation Index

Militarism Index

Free Trade Index

The numbers make it all look very scientific, but it’s important not to push our data too far. After all, most of the candidates have not produced a fully imagined foreign policy doctrine, nor has foreign policy taken center stage at any point so far in the campaign. Some candidates may have remained noncommittal in order to make themselves attractive as a vice presidential running mate. We have undoubtedly missed some important nuances and some candidates may articulate positions different from the ones we have captured here.

The analysis nonetheless helps us identify broad patterns. First, in relation to President Trump, all of the Democrats are less hawkish (though to varying degrees), more inclined toward international cooperation (with very little variation), and only slightly more supportive of free trade. None of these findings are surprising, but they do bolster our confidence that our approach to measuring candidate positions makes sense.

Competing Camps of Democratic Foreign Policy

The second and more interesting pattern emerges from focusing on the issues that divide the Democrats. As Figure One shows, all Democrats embrace the need for international cooperation in a general sense. The two main issues dividing them into competing factions today are 1) how forcefully should the United States attempt to exert global leadership, and 2) what role should the use of military force play in American foreign policy?

As Figure Two reveals, when we array the Democrats across the dimensions of militarism and foreign policy activism, we can identify three camps competing to define next generation Democratic foreign policy.

Figure Two. Democratic Foreign Policy Matrix

Foreign Policy Matrix

The traditional liberal internationalists

The first of these is what we call the traditional liberal internationalist camp and comprises the status quo wing of Democratic foreign policy. This camp includes candidates who score high both on militarism but also on the broader index of foreign policy activism, which we determined by how often a candidate has called for doing more than the status quo on an issue, whether the issue is trade, cooperation, or military focused, and by factoring in any explicit statements they have made about the role of American leadership in the world.

The animating principle of the traditional liberal internationalist camp has not changed much

over time. Its advocates believe that the United States remains the “indispensable nation” and has the responsibility to defend the liberal international order and to intervene around the world – through diplomacy as well as by military force – to resolve international problems like climate change, to promote regional stability, to prevent humanitarian tragedies, and to contain the rise of peer competitors like China.

This camp has long dominated both the Republican and Democratic parties, and its members have included George W. Bush and Barack Obama as well as Hillary Clinton. Former Vice President Joe Biden now carries the flag, ranking at the top of the group on both the militarism and cooperation scales and advocating energetic American leadership abroad. Biden’s fellow travelers in this camp include Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota and Dan Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado.

Biden has made it clear that if he is elected, he would abandon the inward‐​looking aspects of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. On a page from his web site aptly titled “American Leadership,” Biden argued that the United States must take “immediate steps” to “once more place America at the head of the table, leading the world to address the most urgent global challenges.”

And despite the fact that Biden, like all of the other Democrats, has called for ending the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, his campaign rhetoric makes it clear that he fully supports the continued pursuit of military primacy, embraces the global war on terrorism, and views the use of military force as an essential foreign policy tool.

The Millennial liberal internationalists

In the middle of the matrix we find the largest group of candidates in a cluster that we call the Millennial liberal internationalists. This group of candidates represents a generational shift between older Democrats who continue to embrace the traditional notion of American exceptionalism and younger Democrats who seem more comfortable with a framework of shared global leadership.

Though the older candidates like Biden, Sanders, and Warren currently lead the pack, these younger candidates clearly sense that the days of traditional foreign policy are numbered. Pete Buttigieg, the 38‐​year old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is technically the only member of the Millennial generation in the race, but he is also the candidate who has spent the most time articulating what this vision might look like. In a major foreign policy speech earlier this year, Buttigieg noted that “…we face not just another presidential election, but a transition between one era and another….I believe that the next three or four years will determine the next 30 or 40 for our country and the world.”

On a policy level, the Millennial liberal internationalists tend to have less ambitious visions and, perhaps most importantly, they exhibit less enthusiasm for the use of military force than their older colleagues. As Andrew Yang argues, “America is the beneficiary of the international world order we helped establish throughout the twentieth century. That said, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are capable of doing things that we are not, sometimes at a terrible cost to ourselves and others. My first principles concerning foreign policy are restraint and judgment — we should be very judicious about projecting force and have clear goals that we know we can accomplish.”

Progressive internationalism

Finally, on the left side of the matrix we can identify the progressive foreign policy camp, championed most energetically by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but also including former Representative Beto O’Rourke, Senator Kristin Gillibrand, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Thanks to the success of Bernie Sander’s 2016 campaign and the increasing prominence of progressives in the Democratic Party since the 2018 midterm elections, the progressive foreign policy camp has generated a good deal of momentum of late.

The clearest thread connecting the members of the progressive wing is distaste for the use of military force. The most dovish of this group is Tulsi Gabbard, who argues that the United States needs a new foreign policy that “stops wasting our resources, and lives on regime change wars, and redirects our focus and energy towards peace and prosperity for all people.” In a similar vein, Elizabeth Warren articulated a common progressive critique of American foreign policy when she wrote that “we have allowed the imperial presidency to stretch the Constitution beyond recognition to justify the use of force, with little oversight from Congress. The government has, at times, defended tactics, such as torture, that are antithetical to American values.”

But though the lack of militarism is the most obvious factor that distinguishes this camp from the other two, the most important differences are actually the progressive camp’s idealism and its attempt to link domestic and foreign policy with a unifying thread. The result is that even though there is a good deal of overlap between the policy positions of the progressives and many of the other Democrats, the animating forces of progressive foreign policy and some of its ultimate aims are quite different.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in particular, have articulated foreign policy visions that embrace vigorous American leadership while placing much heavier emphasis on promoting American ideals. They promise much more active American efforts to defend the liberal international order, for example, as well as the promotion of democracy in the face of rising authoritarian challenges. As one observer said of Sanders’ platform, ““It’s a vision in which international economics would be subordinated to a vision of political relations and human rights that would be as big a departure from Clintonism as Trumpism, just in a different direction.”

And in recognition that Trump’s America First rhetoric has struck a chord on Main Street, both Sanders and Warren have attempted to justify foreign policy activism by connecting it to domestic economic concerns. As Warren has written, “Policymakers promised that open markets would lead to open societies. Instead, efforts to bring capitalism to the global stage unwittingly helped create the conditions for competitors to rise up and lash out.” Sanders concurs, arguing that, “we see a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” and that the United States needs to “take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country.”

Looking Ahead

This snapshot of the competing Democratic visions raises two important questions. First, assuming one of these Democrats becomes the next president, how far can we trust this analysis to predict his or her future foreign policy choices? Second, which of these will generate the most support from the American public?

Sadly, for foreign policy analysts the predictive power of exercises like this is relatively limited. Rarely do four years pass without events derailing the best laid plans of an administration. George W. Bush, recall, took office in 2001 having argued on the campaign trail that the United States should resist nation building and military intervention abroad.

But even if events did not intrude, there is simply an enormous amount of inertia in American foreign policy, reflected in international institutions and alliances, in domestic politics and public opinion, and in the worldviews of national security professionals. The “Blob” as President Obama called the foreign policy establishment, dominates public foreign policy debates and its members occupy almost all of the important roles in foreign policy making. This has made it difficult for presidents to pursue foreign policies that deviate from traditional liberal internationalism. President Trump has met tremendous backlash whenever he has threatened to chart a more “America First” path, dampening his ability to make big changes. Democrats promoting more radical departures from the status quo like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Tulsi Gabbard, would very likely face similar difficulties.

The last question is how well these competing visions are playing with the public. Though Biden leads in most of the polls, his foreign policy is the least appealing to most Democrats, and to young Americans more generally. Research has shown that younger Americans remain committed to cooperative forms of international engagement, but are far less supportive of defense spending and the use of military force than older Americans. In a recent poll, for example, just 44 percent of Millennials felt that maintaining superior military power should be a critical U.S. foreign policy goal, compared to 64 percent of Baby Boomers and 70 percent of the Silent Generation.

The shift from militarism is easily understood. Younger Americans have spent their formative years and early adulthood watching – and fighting in – lengthy, unsuccessful military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Unlike their grandparents, they did not experience the heady aftermath of World War II when the United States enjoyed incredible economic and political dominance. Coming of age after the end of the Cold War, neither Millennials nor members of Generation Z have a real awareness of the role military strength played in the successful containment strategy of the Cold War. If they were aware, they’d have also noticed that the United States rarely used military force after the Vietnam debacle and still won the Cold War in 1991. Simply put, to young Americans, war has looked like a poor strategy. As a result, they do not share their elders’ confidence in America’s ability to use military force to pursue national interests effectively.

This intergenerational shift favors both the Millennial liberal internationalists like Pete Buttigieg and the progressive internationalists like Sanders and Warren, at least to a point. A red flag for progressives, however, is the way both Sanders and Warren have recast foreign policy as an extension of domestic debates over economic and social policy. To win middle‐​class votes, both Sanders and Warren have decried unfair trade deals, kleptocracy, global inequality and the influence of multinational corporations.

Though these are important issues, they are also potential justifications for fruitless and expensive efforts to reshape the world. And just as American military power has failed – dramatically and at staggering cost — to reshape the Middle East over the past 18 years, so too would American economic and diplomatic power fail to reorganize the world to the tastes of the progressives in the Democratic Party.

In short, the danger is that in their search for a motivating principle for the future of U.S. foreign policy, Democrats may propose big ideas that sound nice but will instead promote more misguided U.S. activism under a new heading. Instead, the Democrats’ best bet to win public support, especially from the next generation, is to identify what current U.S. responsibilities — from the ongoing forever wars in at least eight countries to longstanding treaty commitments to militarily defend more than 60 nations abroad – should be abandoned and which must be maintained for the 21st Century.

A special thanks to Sally Huang for compiling and coding the data and to Lauren Sander for creating the graphics.

January 15, 2020 3:11PM

When Debating Base Closure, Look at the Data

By James Knupp and Christopher A. Preble

Despite years of calls from the Pentagon for a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), Congress has refused to authorize one since 2005. With the Department of Defense running at 22 percent excess capacity and constant calls for more money for operations and modernization, Congress should allow the Pentagon to reallocate funds away from unnecessary bases into more urgent projects. But fears of communities losing their bases and watching their local economies suffer as a result has kept talk of a new BRAC off the table.

BRAC opponents should take a look at some of the data measuring the economic health of post‐​BRAC communities. Research shows that while there may be some short‐​term pain, in the long run most communities rebound — and oftentimes end up in a much stronger position before. A presentation last year at the Association of Defense Communities’ Base Redevelopment Forum looked at three very different cases: Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (1988); Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas (1991); and the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (1991). With both large and small communities represented, the evidence reveals BRAC’s actual effects.

We looked at four measures of economic and community health: housing prices, municipal bond rating, tax revenue per capita, and population growth. As the following charts show, these measures did not change in the same ways for each case, reflecting more regional trends than national.

For housing prices, we used data from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) on single family home prices and looked at an index of median single‐​family home prices for each community compared to the national index. These indices from the FHFA used sales and appraisals of single‐​family homes and are not seasonally adjusted. The chart reflects the change over time to median home prices. We have set both the local and national indexes to begin at the same date and an index value of 100. Values over 100 represent an increase in value, values under 100 represent a decrease.

As can be seen in the charts, in all three cases housing prices were at or above their values within 10 years of base closure. In the case of Philadelphia, housing prices remained relatively steady, following the national trend, while Austin’s post‐​closure housing prices actually grew at a faster rate than the national trends. Only Portsmouth, New Hampshire, saw a significant drop in home prices following the closure of Pease AFB, but within a decade its housing market has rebounded, and price changes today are on par with national trends.

As a measure of a community’s economic health, municipal bond rating is about as literal as it gets. Using information from Michael Touchton and Amanda J. Ashley’s research, we looked at what these communities had as their bond ratings before closure, and several years after closure.

In each case, bond ratings increased, sometimes substantially. In the cases of Portsmouth and Philadelphia, both went from Ba (below investment grade) to Aaa, the highest grade possible.

Another key marker is total tax revenue, but that must be controlled for population growth. We looked at tax revenue per capita and found in each of the three cases this key metric has increased over time. Only Austin experienced a brief decline, and it quickly recovered.

And finally, we decided to look at population growth. One of the biggest fears with base closure is that associated job losses will cause people to move away in search of better prospects elsewhere.

Here, the picture is more mixed. Both Portsmouth and Philadelphia experienced population loss, with Portsmouth seeing a 21.5 percent decline between 1990 and 2000. As the smallest of the communities studied (population 26,160), the loss of the base would prove more significant than for Austin or Philly. At closure, Pease had employed over 4,500 people, both active duty military and civilians. The Air Force had also estimated that Pease created 2,466 secondary jobs in the surrounding communities. As for Philadelphia, the city had been experiencing population losses for at least a decade prior to the closure of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, but it has begun to recover somewhat, so its hard to say whether the base closure had an effect or not. By comparison, Austin has seen considerable population growth, likely due to a number of factors completely unrelated to the closure of Bergstrom AFB.

These three cases, and these measures of economic health, are merely snapshots into how base closure can affect a community, but they provide an important perspective. Taken together, they reveal how post‐​BRAC communities recover following a base closure. These facts should be taken into consideration in any future discussion over whether or not to authorize another BRAC round.

January 8, 2020 2:03PM

Trump the Decider

The MQ‑9 Reaper attack that took out Iranian General Qassim Suleimani was a drone strike for peace, President Trump explained last week: we took action “to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” That’s a theory, and it’s going to be put to the test. “All is well!” the president tweeted last night as a salvo of Iranian missiles fell on U.S. positions in Iraq: “So far, so good!”

Trump’s decision to target Suleimani—a figure described as the Iranian equivalent of “an American Vice President, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and CIA director rolled into one”—wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has aimed lethal force at a top government official. There’s the checkered—and occasionally absurd—history of the CIA’s Cold War assassination attempts, including the Kennedys’ efforts to kill Fidel Castro. But we’ve also gone after legitimate targets in congressionally authorized wars: the downing of Admiral Yamamoto’s plane in WWII and the attempted decapitation strike against Saddam Hussein at the start of the Iraq War.


Ready. Fire. Aim.

The Suleimani killing was something new under the sun. It marked the first time an American president has publicly ordered the assassination of a top government official for a country we’re not legally at war with.

This is where you’re supposed to acknowledge that the Quds Force commandant was an evil guy who got what he deserved. Done. But that’s got nothing to do with whether the move was wise or constitutionally permissible.

U.S. forces took out Suleimani “at the direction of the President,” per the Pentagon’s announcement. On what authority, exactly? For now, the official rationale is classified. In terms of public justification, all we have is some hand‐​waving by Trump’s national security adviser about the president’s “constitutional authorities as commander in chief to defend our nation” and the 17‐​year old Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq (2002 AUMF). Neither comes close to vesting the president with the power to set off a whole new war.

The 2002 AUMF authorizes the president to use military force in order to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” and enforce various UN resolutions “regarding Iraq.” Unless “45” is going to break out the presidential sharpie and change the “q”s to “n”s, that’s not going to cut it. Neither will the 2001 AUMF, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere (See: “Repeal Old AUMFs and Salt the Earth”).

If and when the administration deigns to reveal its legal theory, the argument will probably be: (1) the AUMFs license our continuing presence in Iraq; and (2) the president has inherent power under Article II to defend our personnel from the sort of attacks Iranian proxies have carried out in recent weeks. (National Review’s David French outlines that theory here.)

How far up the escalation ladder are these powers supposed to extend, however? “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits atop the military chain of command and apparently had to approve the recent militia attacks. Does Article II empower Trump to order a hit on the Ayatollah? That we wouldn’t miss that guy either seems rather beside the point.

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