Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Senate Votes to End Production of F-22 Raptor

As I have written previously, President Obama and the members of Congress who voted to kill funding for the F-22 did the right thing.

The Washington Post reports:

The Senate voted Tuesday to kill the nation’s premier fighter-jet program, embracing by a 58 to 40 margin the argument of President Obama and his top military advisers that more F-22s are not needed for the nation’s defense and would be a costly drag on the Pentagon’s budget in an era of small wars and counterinsurgency efforts.

While this vote marks a step in the right direction, the fight isn’t over. The F-22’s supporters in the House inserted additional monies in the defense authorization bill, and the differences will need to be reconciled in conference. But the vote for the Levin-McCain amendment signals that Congress will take seriously President Obama and Secretary Gates’ intent to bring some measure of rationality to defense budgeting.

The Raptor’s whopping price tag— nearly $350 million per aircraft counting costs over the life of the program— and its poor air-to-ground capabilities always undermined the case for building more than the 187 already programmed.

In the past week, Congress has learned more about the F-22’s poor maintenance record, which has driven the operating costs well above those of any comparable fighter. And, of course, the plane hasn’t seen action over either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely never will.

Beyond the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, we need a renewed emphasis in military procurement on cost containment. This can only occur within an environment of shrinking defense budgets. Defense contractors who are best able to meet stringent cost and quality standards will win the privilege of providing our military with the necessary tools, but at far less expense to the taxpayers. And those who cannot will have to find other business.

Weekly Standard Wants to Use F-22s in Afghanistan

goldfarbThe Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb is particularly set off by the fact that the Senate has declined to continue funding the F-22 program for which SecDef Gates and President Obama requested no more funds.  He laments that Obama and Gates are representing their decision to expand the Army by 22,000 soldiers as being paid for by cuts in the F-22 budget.  Goldfarb remarks that this leaves us in a situation where

We may have more troops to patrol Afghanistan, but they’ll be patrolling on bicycles – because it’s a zero-sum game.

Is it impolitic to observe that “The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan”?

Moreover, it’s my understanding that the Weekly Standard folks, Goldfarb included, believe in the importance of fighting a series of labor-intensive counterinsurgency wars across the Islamic world.  Based on Goldfarb’s remarks, he does not wish to support this objective by making cuts in capital to fund more labor.  What would be good to know, then, just to set up the debate, is how much he thinks we ought to be spending on defense.  We spend roughly (depending on how you count and whether you include the two wars we’re fighting) the same as the entire rest of the world combined.  Based on my consumption of the Weekly Standard’s foreign-policy output over the past several years, you could easily convince me that the between $600,000,000,000 and $800,000,000,000 American taxpayers spend each year on defense is insufficient to support the Weekly Standard’s foreign-policy aims.  But if there should not be a tradeoff like the one Gates pointed to in this discussion, how much is enough?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Why War in Afghanistan Is Futile

A couple weeks ago, my Cato colleague, Justin Logan, wrote a post on Rory Stewart’s brilliant article that appeared in the London Review of Books. Justin offered compelling reasons why arguments for nation building, and the concomitant “state failure is a threat to humanity,” are deeply flawed. But I think Stewart’s piece offers arguments that bears emphasis.

Stewart is Chief Executive of The Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization based in Kabul. According to Stewart, many policymakers and prominent opinion leaders are prone to:

minimizing differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandizing our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals… [these irresistible illusions] papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy… It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions. It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable.

Perhaps Stewart’s most important point:

But Osama bin Laden is still in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. He chooses to be there precisely because Pakistan can be more assertive in its state sovereignty than Afghanistan and restricts US operations. From a narrow (and harsh) US national security perspective, a poor failed state could be easier to handle than a more developed one: Yemen is less threatening than Iran, Somalia than Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan than Pakistan.

The argument that America’s security depends on rebuilding failed states, like Afghanistan, fails partly since terrorists can move to governed spaces. Rather than setting up in weak, ungoverned states, enemies can flourish in strong states because these countries have formally recognized governments with the sovereignty to reject interference in their internal affairs.

Insurgents know they can’t fight a conventional army directly. With a protracted war of attrition, however, they can gradually expand their political and economic influence.

Thus, as we’ve seen in Vietnam, Iraq, and today in Afghanistan, insurgents leave areas where American troops concentrate and then return when those troops deploy elsewhere. And Afghan militants find sanctuary in neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is not targeting the original Afghan Taliban.

In fact, Islamabad still supports the original Afghan Taliban that at one time controlled most of Afghanistan. The Swat valley offensives we keep hearing about feature the Pakistanis fighting indigenous Pakistani Taliban groups that have proliferated in response to Islamabad’s alignment with the United States in the so-called “war on terror.”

Honestly, America has no business stopping Pakistan from influencing Afghanistan. Let them have it! As I argue here, “the war’s strategic rationale still remains tenuous. Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States, and America’s security will not necessarily be endangered even if an oppressive regime takes over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory.”

Sadly, however, bureaucratic inertia and misconceptions of Washington’s moral obligations could trap the United States in Afghanistan for decades. Hopefully, some people in the Obama White House will inform the president that Afghanistan is not a winnable war.

Gates Lays Down the Gauntlet on the F-22

Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn’t known for his stirring oratory, and his speech to the Economic Club of Chicago is representative of his understated style. But when it comes to the F-22, the SecDef’s ire shows through.

The overarching theme of the speech was the future of the U.S. military, a rather obvious topic. I don’t agree with all that Gates has done, and is preparing to do. I question his fixation on population-centric counterinsurgency and post-conflict reconstruction. I think he could have done more to cut unnecessary weapons systems, although he deserves credit for tackling the low-hanging fruit.

By the same token, much of the criticism leveled against Gates is unfair, and some of it is absurd. Gates demolishes the charge that he has slashed defense spending, by pointing out that the FY2010 budget is $534 billion, $19 billion more than in FY09. “Only in the parallel universe that is Washington, D.C.,” Gates noted, “would that be considered ‘gutting’ defense.”

But he hasn’t shied from making some cuts, and he has taken on some politically popular programs. And the F-22 is at the top of this list. Gates devoted nearly a third of the speech to the F-22, and the bottom line is this:

[I]f we can’t bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision [to terminate the program at 187 aircraft] — reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, and the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, where do we draw the line? And if not now, when? If we can’t get this right — what on earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing Defense business as usual. The President has drawn that line. And that red line is a veto.  And it is real.

No one reading this speech should have any doubts that Gates and President Obama are serious. We’ll know perhaps as soon as Monday — the Senate is supposed to vote on the McCain-Levin amendment to strip funding for the F-22 from the Defense Authorization bill — whether Congress is paying attention.

Obama Is Right to Stare Down Congress Over the F-22

If Congress votes to build even more F-22s in the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, it will be a sad example of parochial interests overriding our nation’s security. The move would defy the wishes of the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Gates, who have wisely called for the program to come to an end.

The Raptor’s whopping price tag—$356 million per aircraft counting costs over the life of the program— and its poor air-to-ground capabilities always undermined the case for building more than the 187 already programmed.

In the past week, Congress has learned more about the F-22’s poor maintenance record, which has driven the operating costs to more than $44,000 per hour of flying, which is well above those of any comparable fighter. And, of course, the plane hasn’t seen action over either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely never will.

If Obama is serious about getting a handle on the enormous federal budget deficit, confronting Congress over the clear wastefulness of the F-22 is certainly a good place to start.

Rory Stewart on the Deep Confusion Underpinning Our Afghanistan Strategy

Rory Stewart has a terrific piece in the London Review of Books arguing that Beltway foreign-policy thinkers are “minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals” when it comes to Afghanistan:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security. If you have the Taliban you have terrorists, if you don’t have development you have terrorists, and as Obama informed the New Yorker, ‘If you have ungoverned spaces, they become havens for terrorists.’

These connections are global: in Obama’s words, ‘our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.’ Or, as a British foreign minister recently rephrased it, ‘our security depends on their development.’ Indeed, at times it seems that all these activities – building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al-Qaida and eliminating poverty – are the same activity. The new US army and marine corps counter-insurgency doctrine sounds like a World Bank policy document, replete with commitments to the rule of law, economic development, governance, state-building and human rights. In Obama’s words, ‘security and humanitarian concerns are all part of one project.’

This policy rests on misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state…

Stewart’s prognosis is at once dispiriting and fortifying.  On the one hand, “it is unlikely that we will be able to defeat the Taliban.”  More sharply, “30 years of investment might allow its army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan.  But Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”  On the other, “the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole.”  Why not?

It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul.

Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?

So what on earth are we doing?  “No politician wants to be perceived to have underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the ‘blood and treasure’ that we have sunk into Afghanistan; or to admit defeat. Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble; Obama’s motto is not ‘no we can’t;’ soldiers are not trained to admit defeat or to say a mission is impossible.”

Who’s the Isolationist?

There may be no more vicious epithet from neoconservatives these days than “isolationist.”  One would think the term would mean something like xenophobic no-nothings who want to have nothing to do with the rest of the world.  No trade or immigration.  Little or no cultural exchange and political cooperation.  Autarchy all around.

But no.  ”Isolationist” apparently means something quite different.  Never mind your views of the merits of international engagement.  If you don’t want to kill lots of foreigners in lots of foreign wars you are automatically considered to be an isolationist.

President Bill Clinton called Republican legislators “isolationists” for not wanting to insert the U.S. military into the middle of a complex but strategically irrelevant guerrilla conflict in Kosovo.  (He made the same criticism against them for not supporting even more money for foreign aid, which presumably meant the Heritage Foundation was filled with isolationists at the time). 

But the definition is even broader today.  It means not willing to go to war for any country that clamors for a security guarantee irrespective of its relevance to American security.  At least, that appears to be the definition applied by Sally McNamara of Heritage.

On Monday in National Interest online I criticized the argument advanced by Ms. McNamara and others that alliances and military commitments automatically prevent war.  More specifically, the claim is that  if only the U.S. would bring the country of Georgia into NATO – or simply issue a Membership Action Plan, which neither offers a security promise nor guarantees NATO membership – Moscow would never dare take the risk of attacking Georgia.

History suggests this is a dangerous assumption.  Both World Wars I and II featured alliances that were supposed to prevent conflict but which instead acted as transmission belts of war.  One can argue whether or not the alliances were prudent.  One cannot argue that they prevented conflict as so many people thought (and certainly hoped) they would.

Thus, alliances should be viewed as serious organizations.  A promise to defend another nation should be treated as a momentous undertaking.  And the public should be aware of all of the risks of policies advanced by the nation’s leaders.  This should go double when a nuclear-armed power is involved and treble when the geopolitical stakes are trivial for the U.S. while significant for the opposing state.

For suggesting this Ms. McNamara argues that I am both an isolationist and a neo-isolationist.  (I’m not sure of the difference between the two.  Maybe the latter indicates that she realizes I believe in free trade, increased immigration, and international cooperation, which makes for a curious kind of “isolationism.”  Still, advocating a reduction in military commitments and the consequent risk of war, rather than a policy of galloping about the globe tossing security guarantees hither and yon, apparently means I am at least a “neo-isolationist.”)

Even worse, I am accused of “appeasement” for suggesting that being prepared to trade Washington for Tbilisi is a bad bargain.  Ah, the “A” word.  To count the cost and not support every commitment, no matter how distant or irrelevant, is the same as encouraging the next Adolf Hitler.

Please.

It is time for a serious discussion as to why we have alliances today.  If it isn’t to promote American security, let’s be clear about that.  If NATO is an international social club, or a second European Union, or a global Good Housekeeping seal of sorts, then policymakers should level with the American people who are paying the bills.

Even more so, if the alliance is geared to defending everyone else, then let’s admit that too.  Georgia would not be defending America.  Nor will Albania, Croatia, Estonia, and the other geopolitical titans recently inducted into the NATO fraternity.  The security commitment effectively runs one way.

So for what stakes are NATO expansion advocates willing to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia?  To hope that America’s commitment is never called is no substitute for honestly assessing the risks, interests, and trade-offs at stake.

If none of these considerations is relevant – if failing to constantly add new defense welfare clients is the same as “withdrawing from the world” and giving Hitler a green light – is there any stopping point? Presumably no.  If Georgia is to come in, then presumably Ukraine too.  If Ukraine, how about Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia?  Why not Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan?  Maybe go a bit further.  Perhaps Sri Lanka? 

But why stop there?  Should not any nation which desires protection from any other nation be entitled to American protection?  After all, to say no would, in Ms. McNamara’s words, offer “a geo-political victory to Moscow” or someone else, whether Beijing, New Delhi, Ankara, or whoever.  Failing to protect weak states – East Timor, Congo, Belize, and more – would demonstrate that we have failed to learn the lesson that “appeasement simply does not work.”

It is easy to conjure up new missions for the U.S. military.  But the most important question is whether these tasks advance the security of America – this nation, its people, and its system of constitutional liberty.  Scattering security guarantees about the globe as if they were party favors – treating them as a costless panacea to the problem of war – makes America less, not more secure. 

And making that argument does not mean one is an “isolationist” advocating “appeasement.”  Unless the Founders were isolationist appeasers as well.

As George Washington observed in his Farewell Address:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

His sentiments apply even more today, when America’s adversaries are pitiful and few, and America’s friends are many and dominant.  The U.S. need not – and should not – withdraw from the world.  But Washington should stop making unnecessary and dangerous military commitments.