Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Is America About to Be Overrun by the Chinese/Russians/Anybody?

One of the frequent tropes of recent years is the notion that the United States is in decline, and America is plunging from being the only great power in the system to a status merely as first among equals.  A veritable slew of books have come out in recent years making this argument.  You also get this rhetoric when folks are arguing that we need more F-22s than we actually do, or for various other military-industrial-congressional boondoggles that the MIC complex and its supporters don’t want to give up.

One rhetorical tactic these folks have used is the “defense spending as a share of GDP” approach, which implicitly argues that defense needs should not be based on threat assessment, but rather on economic growth.  The more economic growth, the more defense needs we have.  (By this ramshackle logic, an uncharitable critic like me could note, economic growth is deleterious to national security.  By contrast, if we went into a serious and enduring economic downturn, we’d get much more secure.)

A couple of useful data points have recently emerged that could help lower our pulse a little.  The folks over at the U.S. Naval Institute blog point to the sixth failure of the latest Russian SLBM technology, snarkily observing that “generally speaking, the preferred direction for a ballistic missile, especially a sub-launched one is UP.”

In addition, Tom Donnelly offers a sensible take on the “Russia is going to reassemble the USSR” argument, noting

Moscow’s ability to enforce its writ in the hinterlands has fallen far down. And even Putin isn’t spending the rubles required to rebuild the Red Army. Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union cost the Russian empire about 400 years worth of conquests. Retaking Abkhazia [sic] might seem like a first step, but the road to great power status – as measured by something more than nuclear weapons and commodity prices – is very long.

Still, recognizing that Russia is not capable of reassembling the Soviet empire does not mean that we ought to be sending Joe “Ukrainian Chicks Are Hot” Biden over to Georgia and Ukraine to plump for NATO expansion and dance on the Soviet grave.

But the new panic we’re supposed to take up is the latest discernment of the glacial Chinese move toward developing their first aircraft carrier.  The USNI blog points to an op-ed by the Brookings Institute’s Peter Singer throwing cold water (sorry) over the bow of said carrier:

In trying to justify Cold War-era structures, people often point to the danger presented by the rise of another “peer” state that is building a blue-water fleet just like our own. This is Pentagonese for China as a “rising sea dragon,” with their desire to match our aircraft carriers perhaps the most widely cited manifestation of their menace.

[…]

But a little reality check may be in order. First, their “new” carrier is not all that new. Actually, the Varyag was first laid down back in 1985. Originally planned for the Soviet fleet, it was never completed. Instead, at the Cold War’s end, it was scrapped of all its electronics and engines and sold off to be a floating casino. Even if the Chinese can refurbish it, at best they will be getting an old, untested ship that carries only a third as many planes as a U.S. carrier.

Similarly, the idea that the Chinese can build four new carriers over the next decade is less than realistic. It takes approximately six years to build one of our aircraft carriers, and we have been doing this for more than eight decades. By comparison, the biggest warship the Chinese have yet to build on their own is 17,000 tons, a quarter the size. More importantly, building a ship is not the same as operating it successfully.

Maybe we’re all going to survive after all.  My colleague Ted Carpenter has described our tendency to overrate our threat environment as “strategic hypochondria.”  We should get over it.  It’s unbecoming in a country, as Sen. J. William Fulbright noted, “whose modern history has been an almost uninterrupted chronicle of success.”  Such a country, wrote Fulbright, “should be so sure of its own power as to be capable of magnanimity.”  Meanwhile, some of the most serious problems the country faces, as has become evident, come from within.  It’s going to be much harder to fix them while we’re simultaneously trying to run the planet.

Message to the International Community: There’s Separation of Powers in Honduras

Roberto Michelleti, the interim president of Honduras, has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that should be read by members of the international community that continue to push for the immediate restoration of Manuel Zelaya to the presidency.

Michelletti states that

“The Honduran people must have confidence that their Congress is a co-equal branch of government. They must be assured that the rule of law in Honduras applies to everyone, even their president, and that their Supreme Court’s orders will not be dismissed and swept aside by other nations as inconvenient obstacles.”

The message is clear: there’s separation of powers in Honduras, and the country’s authorities cannot simply ignore the rulings of both Congress and the Supreme Court in order to reach an agreement. The international community, which is supposedly acting on behalf of democracy, should know that.

Remembering Government at Its Worst

The 20th Century featured many examples of genocide, mass murder, brutality, and other forms of human horror at the hands of totalitarian governments.  Perhaps none was worse – at least in terms of the proportion of the population slaughtered and resulting impact on the survivors – than Cambodia.

The commandant of the notorious S-21, or Tuol Sleng, is currently on trial.  The proceedings offer a stark reminder of what monstrosities cruel social engineers with guns can wreak.  Reports Reuters:

A senior Khmer Rouge prison guard on Thursday told a war crimes tribunal he was forced to send thousands of detainees to an execution site, where they were brutally killed and their bodies thrown into mass graves.

Him Huy, 54, a guard at Phnom Penh’s notorious S-21 prison, said he was ordered by Pol Pot’s chief jailor to transport prisoners to a rice field where they were stripped naked and beaten with clubs as they bled to death.

“All prisoners were blindfolded so they did not know where they were taken and their hands were tied up to prevent them from contesting us,” Huy told the joint United Nations-Cambodian tribunal.

“They were asked to sit on the edge of the pits and they were struck with stick on their necks,” he said, his voice breaking as he gave his harrowing account of the Choeung Ek executions.

“Their throats were slashed before we removed their handcuffs and clothes, and they were thrown into the pits.”

Huy was testifying against S-21 chief Duch, whose real name is Kaing Guek Eav, the first of the five indicted former Khmer Rouge cadres to face trial.

I’ve visited both Tuol Sleng and the so-called Killing Fields.  The experience is incredibly depressing and moving.  These sites should be mandatory viewing for anyone tempted to surrender his or her liberty, even to the most supposedly well-meaning politicians, bureaucrats, and activists.

(H/t to Paul Chesser, who has been blogging regularly on the trial.)

Time to Cut Back Boondoggle Embassy in Iraq

The Bush administration has many legacies.  One is the more than $700 million U.S. embassy, set on 104 acres, only slightly smaller than the Vatican’s land holdings, in Baghdad.  It was an embassy designed for an imperial power intent on ruling a puppet state.

It turns out that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki doesn’t plan on being anyone’s puppet.  U.S. troops have come out of the cities and will be coming home in coming months.  Provincial reconstruction teams also will be leaving.  The Bush administration’s plan for maintaining scores of bases for use in attacking Iran or other troublesome Middle Eastern states is stillborn.  And Prime Minister Maliki isn’t likely to ask for Washington’s advice on what kind of society U.S. officials want him to create.

So just what should the Obama administration do with this White Elephant on the Euphrates?  Cut it down, says the State Department’s own Inspector General.

Reports the Washington Post:

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad – the United States’ largest and most costly overseas diplomatic mission, with 1,873 employees – is overstaffed and must be reduced to a size more in keeping with the evolving U.S.-Iraq relationship and budget constraints, government auditors said in a report issued Wednesday.

The State Department’s inspector general said that although the U.S. presence in Iraq will become more civilian as the military withdraws over the next two years, the embassy “should be able to carry out all of its responsibilities with significantly fewer staff and in a much-reduced footprint.” The reduction “has to begin immediately,” the report said, before Foreign Service officers complete their next assignment bidding cycle and other employees are extended or hired.

The U.S. should be preparing to have a normal relationship with Iraq.  That includes maintaining a normal embassy.

Maybe Europe Isn’t Lost to Islamic Terrorism

Europe has come into a lot of criticism lately.  Much of it is justified.  For instance, cutting military forces while expecting the U.S. to maintain security guarantees is more than little irritating for Americans facing trillions of dollars in deficits and tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities for various bail-outs and social programs.

However, predictions of a radical Islamic takeover of Europe look  less realistic these days.   Forecasting the future is always risky.  Nevertheless, the feared growing population of Islamic extremists hasn’t appeared.  Reports the Guardian:

A district of derelict warehouses, red-brick terraces, and vibrant street life on the canals near the centre of Brussels, Molenbeek was once known as Belgium’s “Little Manchester”. These days it is better known as “Little Morocco” since the population is overwhelmingly Muslim and of North African origin.

By day, the scene is one of children kicking balls on busy streets, of very fast, very small cars with very large sound systems. By night, the cafes and tea houses are no strangers to drug-dealers and mafia from the Maghreb.

For the politically active extreme right, and the anti-Islamic bloggers, Molenbeek is the nightmare shape of things to come: an incubator of tension and terrorism in Europe’s capital, part of a wave of “Islamisation” supposedly sweeping Europe, from the great North Sea cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to Marseille and the Mediterranean.

The dire predictions of religious and identity-based mayhem reached their peak between 2004 and 2006, when bombs exploded in Madrid and London, a controversial film director was shot and stabbed to death in Amsterdam, and angry demonstrators marched against publication of satirical cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.

For Bruce Bawer, author of While Europe Slept, the continent’s future was to “tamely resign itself to a gradual transition to absolute sharia law”. By the end of the century, warned Bernard Lewis, the famous American historian of Islam, “Europe will be Islamic”. The Daily Telegraph asked: “Is France on the way to becoming an Islamic state?” The Daily Mail described the riots that shook the nation in the autumn of 2005 as a “Muslim intifada”.

Yet a few years on, though a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic forecasts continues, such fears are beginning to look misplaced. The warnings focus on three elements: the terrorist threat posed by radical Muslim European populations; a cultural “invasion” due to a failure of integration; and demographic “swamping” by Muslim communities with high fertility rates.

A new poll by Gallup, one of the most comprehensive to date, shows that the feared mass radicalisation of the EU’s 20-odd million Muslims has not taken place. Asked if violent attacks on civilians could be justified, 82% of French Muslims and 91% of German Muslims said no. The number who said violence could be used in a “noble cause” was broadly in line with the general population. Crucially, responses were not determined by religious practice - with no difference between devout worshippers and those for whom “religion [was] not important”.

“The numbers have been pretty steady over a number of years,” said Gallup’s Magali Rheault. “It is important to separate the mainstream views from the actions of the fringe groups, who often receive disproportionate attention. Mainstream Muslims do not appear to exhibit extremist behaviour.”

Obviously, the future is uncertain.  Terrorism will remain a threat to both America and Europe.  However, we must reduce the number of those hostile to the the U.S. and allied countries as well as stop those already determined to do us ill.  So far, thankfully, the news from Europe in this regard appears to be good.

More Anti–PowerPoint Catharsis

In relation to the story that prompted my moaning and wailing about abuse of PowerPoint, “Starbuck” at the Small Wars Journal has posted a follow on.  In it, s/he  passes along the following story:

In January 2009, a military-oriented site, “Company Command”, asked current Army commanders and platoon leaders in Iraq what they spent most of their time doing. One officer, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, answered flat-out: “Making PowerPoint slides”.

When pressed, the lieutenant continued:

I’m dead serious, guys. The one thing I spend more time on than anything else here in combat is making PowerPoint slides. I have to make a storyboard [a PowerPoint slide] complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens. Recon a water pump? Make a storyboard. Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

In addition, the PowerPoint slide that was to have conveyed the “Phase IV” (reconstruction and stabilization) plan in Iraq has been the topic of much discussion, but Starbuck actually posts the final slide:

With this much detail, how could we have gone wrong?

In fairness, before PowerPoint we had “flow charts,” the logic of which was best summed up here.   (There is a much better version with some blue language, but this is a family blog.)