Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Why Washington Still Doesn’t Really Debate Grand Strategy

Former colleague and flourishing restaurateur Justin Logan and I have an essay in the current edition of Strategic Studies Quarterly: Why Washington Doesn’t Debate Grand Strategy. For now, you can read it for free.

Our argument is that defense policy analysis here is mostly in the grips of what we call an operational mindset, which accepts the existing policy goals and evaluates the means of achieving them—building a better mousetrap rather than asking whether a mousetrap is worth building. In the essay, we describe both the demand for and supply of analysis about grand strategy, which means a theory about how states create security for themselves.

We argue that there’s little demand for such analysis in Washington because of a near consensus in the foreign policy establishment in favor of the grand strategy of primacy, which is sometimes called “liberal hegemony” or even “deep engagement.” We discuss the limits and cause of that consensus. It comes, we argue, mostly from the historical growth of U.S. wealth and military power. We reject two alternatives sources, democratic preferences and inherent intellectual superiority, by noting that neither the public nor academics are nearly as fond of primacy as foreign policy thinkers in Washington.

How Ready Is Ready Enough?

The incoming Trump administration and the Congressional majority plan a push to repeal federal spending caps in order to boost military spending. A key talking point for this push claims that the Obama administration’s anemic military spending has caused a “readiness crisis,” where the U.S. military lacks the men, weapons, and funds to do its job. On the campaign trail, or Hannity, the claim became that the Obama is “gutting the military.” The president-elect typically went further, calling the U.S. military a “disaster” and in “shambles.”

In a recent presentation, embedded below, I raised three problems with these claims. One is that military spending remains high. The recent drawdown cut military spending by more twenty percent in real terms, but it came after buildup of nearly fifty percent. It’s now around Cold War peaks, in real terms.

Second, the military is shrinking partly because of its heightened quality. Rising personnel costs reflect the heightened professionalization of American troops. Similarly, U.S. weapons systems have grown deadlier, more complex, and costlier to maintain. The net result is forces are fewer but substantially more capable than previously possible.

Here I’ll focus on the third problem with complaints of a readiness crisis, which is that they’re mostly complaints about other issues. Overall, U.S. military readiness is alright, better when it comes to fighting current wars. Complaints about readiness mostly accompany requests for higher military spending. What readiness shortfalls exist could be solved without increasing the existing Pentagon budget. Those that complain the loudest about readiness, like the majority of the House Armed Services Committee, could improve it through reallocation, but they prefer to hype the crisis as a way to push for a higher total budget and stave off sacrifices

In the U.S. military, readiness generally refers to “the ability of forces to perform the missions and tasks assigned to them,” as Todd Harrison puts it. That metric depends on variables like whether units are adequately manned, the quality of training, equipment condition, and overall morale. The Pentagon tracks readiness through two internal tracking systems and classified reports to Congress.

With the exception of some military leaders, those complaining of a readiness crisis rarely mention these scorecards. Pentagon insiders and outside analysts largely agree that official readiness ratings are a poor guide for actual performance of military missions, especially in combat. Various unmeasured factors, like enemy capabilities, impact how those missions go. Questions of the military balance thus invade real readiness discussions. The vagueness and variability of readiness means that, as Brad Carson and Morgan Plummer note, debates occur without a shared definition, and the sides talk past each other.

For example, last summer, in two articles, David Petraeus and the Michael O’Hanlon attacked the idea of a readiness crisis by arguing that U.S. military forces remain well-trained and equipped for the fights they face. They note that readiness is far from perfect, especially in areas like Marine Corps aviation, but that ships and planes are mostly well-operated, and in good shape, especially compared to possible enemies. The torrent of responses chose to focus on other things: complaining that spending should be higher, worrying that preparation for future wars should be better, in some instances even acknowledging the absence of a readiness crisis before discussing various shortfalls.

Likewise, the service chiefs, whose cries about the dangers of sequestration (by which they mean budgets restrained by spending caps that Congress has annually increased and augmented with alleged war funds) inflame the “gutting the military” crowd, avoid the word “crisis” when pressed. They highlight areas of future risk or capabilities they would like, note problem areas, request more money, and mostly reject politicians’ contentions that U.S. forces are broken and weak.

To the extent that there is a readiness problem, it is partly the fault of those that most lament it: the Armed Services Committees, especially in the House, which has held numerous hearings on the topic. Its chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, recently blamed the Obama administration for a helicopter crash in Hawaii that killed twelve Marines. He argued that because the administration was “playing political games” and limiting operational funds needed for flight training, it bore responsibility for the crash.

It’s true that investigators believe that low readiness in terms of training and morale helped cause the crash. But Thornberry is himself guilty of using readiness as a political game. Though his committee has less say than appropriators, it could push to shift funds into the operations and maintenance accounts that fund readiness at the expense of some acquisition spending. However, acquisition is generally of greater interest to Congressmen because the money goes to their local production facilities and creates jobs in their districts. Thornberry prefers to keep the readiness issue as a lever to push for higher military spending. Meanwhile, the administration has tended to push for operations and maintenance funding at some cost to acquisition.

A review of the debate about the readiness crisis reveals not only that there’s little real crisis, but also that’s there’s no real debate about it. The debate is actually a vehicle for other issues, like how much we ought to spend and what we ought to do to meet threats. Readiness has become a kind of synonym for a strong defense—a concept so capacious and positive that everyone uses it to mean what they want. It’s best to discard the term and recognize that military spending choices are largely about what you want to be ready for, not how ready you are for everything.

Should Think Tanks Collaborate (More)?

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has a solution for the fake news epidemic: better collaboration among think tanks. “In an era of ‘fake news,’ with a president-elect who regularly lies and partisan hacks who dispute that there are such things as ‘facts,’ think tanks seem more important than ever,” Rubin wrote.

Among her specific recommendations for improving the quality and salience of think tanks’s ouput, Rubin would like to see more efforts to dispel false rumors, and confirm the accurate ones. For example, “a joint project confirming Russian attempts to interfere with our and our allies’ elections.” 

She also suggests that “reducing think tank partisanship and involving those outside the Beltway might go a long way toward finding legislative consensus and stimulating civil debate.”

But one of her other suggestions particularly caught my eye: civil debate and respectful disagreement.

Think tanks like to put on programs featuring a parade of essentially like-minded experts. There is much more to be gained by, say, the Cato Institute inviting professional colleagues from, say, the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss American support for democratic values in the world. If nothing else, inculcating an atmosphere of convivial debate may spread to pundits, lawmakers, activists and voters themselves. 

As it happens, Cato did host a colleague from the Council on Foreign Relations just a few weeks ago, to discuss a recent paper on North Korea. And I think that we generally do a pretty good job of assembling panels of speakers who are not all singing from the same playbook, but who instead disagree with one another, from time to time, and usually in a civil and respectful way. In short, we already collaborate quite a bit.

But I decided to test my assumptions. With the help of my able assistant James Knupp, I compiled a list of the 16 public events hosted and organized by the defense and foreign policy department in 2016. All but one included participants from institutions other than Cato, a total of 42 speakers. Of these, nearly 60 percent (25) are not primarily affiliated with a think tank, but rather work as full-time professors at a major research university. This is consistent with Rubin’s suggestion that DC think tanks reach beyond the Beltway, and it reflects Cato’s ongoing commitment to expand outreach between academia and the policy community. This effort includes our visiting fellows program, and the publication of papers by non-Cato scholars in the academy (e.g. here and here). 

Of the 17 speakers from think tanks, many major institutions were represented, including Brookings (3 times); and CNAS, CSIS, and New America (2 times, each); as well as the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, Hoover, RAND, and USIP.

And, as it happens, we’re continuing this tradition into the new year. Our first foreign policy event of 2017, on January 17th, features, among others, Kathleen Hicks from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and will be moderated by the Post’s own Karen DeYoung. I will be thrilled if Rubin attends. If she does, she will see that we value a frank discussion of ideas, ones that do not fit within neatly partisan labels.

The open question arising from Rubin’s suggestion for greater collaboration among think tanks is whether that will actually cause people to change their minds, especially about facts that challenge preconceived notions, or that are uncomfortable. But, despite what I’ve read about cognitive shortcuts (e.g. confirmation bias), and of experts’ collective inability to influence major events (the 2016 presidential election being merely the latest case in point), I’m willing to give it a try. So I look forward to speaking at many think tanks around town in 2017, just as I’m sure we’ll continue to welcome their experts here.

Is 2016 Over Yet?

By the end of the year, 2016 had accrued a list of international crises, celebrity deaths and electoral shenanigans so long that a spate of articles appeared questioning whether it was the worst year ever, while social media appeared to be primarily filled with people asking “Is 2016 over yet?” But at least in the realm of foreign policy, there’s little hope that 2017 will bring much respite.  

It would, of course, take an extraordinarily narrow view of history to argue that 2016 was really the worst year on record. That would require one to overlook 1942-3, the height of Second World War barbarity, or 1914, the year when the “war to end all wars” began. 1968 wasn’t that great, either, bringing us the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the crushing of the Prague Spring, Vietnam War massacres, and a plane accident involving four nuclear bombs.  Or if you want to go back further in history, it’s pretty hard to ignore 1347, the year the Black Death reached Europe.

But 2016 did present an impressive series of foreign policy and political disasters, ranging from a coup in Turkey to Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process to terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Russian and Syrian government troops finally succeeded in crushing opposition in Aleppo at massive humanitarian cost. And crises that in any other year would have been front page news – like North Korean missile tests or worsening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were sidelined in favor of more urgent crises.

2016 also saw a global surge in populism, with the election of bluntly anti-establishment politicians like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, and the surprising victory of pro-Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union.  Indeed, one of the few positive foreign policy events of the year – Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC, ending a 50-year conflict – was almost derailed when voters rejected the deal at the ballot box.

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that 2017 will substantially improve matters. Many of this year’s crises will in fact carry over into next year: the war in Syria continues apace, Brexit negotiations are ongoing, and North Korea is likely to continue its saber rattling. Worse, some of this year’s less visible crises have the potential to deteriorate further, like the war in Yemen or Venezuela’s economic and social collapse.

More broadly, the overarching trends that defined much of the foreign policy landscape in 2016 look set to continue for the foreseeable future. Populism is likely to impact next year’s key European elections. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front looks likely to do well, as does Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland. In the Netherlands, anti-EU sentiment has some speculating that March’s election could precipitate a ‘Nexit’ from the EU.    

The complexity of this year’s crises – and the broader shift towards a more multipolar international system – also looks set to continue. This will create challenges for U.S. policymakers, who may have to seek cooperation with states like Russia or China on key issues at the same time as opposing them on others. And authoritarian backsliding by countries within U.S. alliances, most notably Turkey, raises key questions about what U.S. security guarantees in some areas actually achieve.

Still, as one cliché points out: “Prediction is hard, especially the future.” This pessimistic view of foreign policy in 2017 may well turn out be inaccurate. It simply seems unlikely given the growing global trends which precipitated many of this year’s big foreign policy surprises. Pretty soon, we may be asking if 2017 is over yet. 

Navy Corruption Scandal

The Washington Post has published another report on the Glenn Defense Navy scandal. For more than a decade, the head of Glenn Defense, Leonard Glenn Francis, cozied up to Navy leaders in the Pacific to win lucrative contracts for resupplying ships. He cashed in on overpriced contracts and fraudulent invoices, and he had numerous moles inside the Navy to ensure his continued enrichment.

Francis wined and dined Navy officers, providing them with gifts, prostitutes, and other favors to get their help and protection. The episode is appalling in so many ways, and it has disturbing implications: If Navy officers were so easily seduced by this Singapore con artist, are leaders in other military and intelligence services just as vulnerable to old-fashioned, low-tech bribes?

Here are some highlights from the Post:

The Navy allowed the worst corruption scandal in its history to fester for several years by dismissing a flood of evidence that the rotund Asian defense contractor was cheating the service out of millions of dollars and bribing officers with booze, sex and lavish dinners, newly released ­documents show.

The Singapore-based contractor, Leonard Glenn Francis, found it especially easy to outwit the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the renowned law enforcement agency that has inspired one of the longest-running cop shows on television.

Starting in 2006, in response to a multitude of fraud complaints, NCIS opened 27 separate investigations into Francis’s company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia. In each of those instances, however, NCIS closed the case after failing to dig up sufficient evidence to take action against the firm, according to hundreds of pages of law enforcement records ­obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

Known as Fat Leonard for his 350-pound physique, Francis held lucrative contracts to resupply U.S. warships and submarines in ports throughout Asia. He was also legendary within the Navy for throwing hedonistic parties, often with prostitutes, to entertain sailors.

Other Navy documents obtained by The Post show that staffers at U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters were so worried about the potential for trouble that they drafted a new ethics policy to discourage Navy personnel from accepting favors from Francis. But their effort was blocked for more than two years by admirals who were friendly with the contractor, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Despite rising signs of widespread fraud, the Navy kept awarding business to Francis’s company. In 2011, Glenn Defense won deals valued at $200 million to service U.S. vessels at ports stretching from the Russian Far East to Australia.

Besides Francis, 12 people — including an admiral and nine other Navy personnel — have pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Five other defendants still face charges.

Justice Department officials say there is no end in sight to the investigation and that 200 people have fallen under scrutiny. Among them are about 30 current or retired admirals, according to Navy ­officials.

… In exchange for paid sex with prostitutes, cash and luxury vacations, Francis’s informants fed him a near-daily diet of classified material and inside information that enabled him to keep gouging the Navy and outfox his pursuers for years, according to court records.

A prior Washington Post story on the scandal is here.

A study examining federal bureaucratic failure is here.

Trump Towers or Trump Targets?

Donald Trump’s election ushers in a new challenge for homeland security and counterterrorism both at home and abroad. Trump owns, has a stake in, or has lent his name to scores of properties all over the United States and the world. A terrorist could decide to target a Trump Tower in Stuttgart, a Trump hotel in South Korea, or a Trump golf resort in Dubai. A terrorist might even decide to target the famous carousel in Central Park, which Trump also owns. The attraction to the terrorist is obvious: Trump’s hotels, resorts, and condominiums are vulnerable “soft targets,” without any of the serious security measures surrounding American embassies or other government buildings. Even better, most of these targets have the president’s name on them in huge letters. Clearly the symbolic damage of such an attack would be immense.

What is not clear, however, is just how great a threat this exposure represents and how the United States should deal with it.

A quick look at the list of Trump’s properties reveals that several of them are located in countries with significant serious civil unrest and instability. Trump Tower in Istanbul, for example, probably seemed like a pretty safe bet five or ten years ago as Turkey was working towards membership of the European Union. But today, thanks to spillover from the Syrian civil war, the failed military coup, and the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, the neighborhood seems much less secure than it used to.

Trump properties in Muslim-majority nations may present the greatest risk of attack, given Trump’s hardline rhetoric towards the Islamic State and towards Muslims and Islam more generally. Trump Tower Manila, for example, sits within easy striking distance of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and has a history of bombing attacks. Trump also owns high-visibility properties in Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, and India, all of which house one or more jihadist groups. Even Trump Tower in Seoul might not be safe: ISIS has recently labeled South Korea an enemy of the caliphate, attempting to incite attacks on U.S. installations in South Korea. In all of these locales, Trump Towers might prove to be an irresistible target.

Trump’s properties clearly present a new kind of Achilles heel for the United States, but what exactly should be done about the potential threat? One position might be to argue that the United States should do nothing. After all, the United States government bears no legal responsibility for providing security at these private establishments. But practically speaking it seems obvious that a major terrorist attack on one of Trump’s towers would have political and security implications that go well beyond the legal question. Attacks on American embassies from Tehran to Benghazi, for example, have always provoked anger and support for retaliation among U.S. citizens. Aware of the symbolism of an attack on a Trump Tower, Americans would likely feel similarly, putting pressure on the U.S. government to respond.

Perhaps one of the most critical aspects to consider along these lines is the reaction of the president himself. How would Trump respond if Trump Tower in Istanbul went up in smoke, killing hundreds of people? From everything we have seen since he began his presidential campaign, it seems likely that Trump would take such an act extremely personally. And given his hawkish rhetoric about dealing with terrorism, it is possible that Trump would respond emotionally, using his executive authority to take extreme measures beyond those dictated by a cool calculation of costs and benefits. Unfortunately, not only might such a response be dangerous and counterproductive for the United States, it might also play right into the hands of terrorists seeking to provoke just such an overreaction.

A second possibility is for Trump to divest from his private holdings and to begin to take the necessary steps to rename his associated properties. This would have the benefit of dramatically reducing the symbolic value of the properties as targets while simultaneously reducing the potential emotional impact on Trump himself. An attack on a hotel that “used” to bear Trump’s name is less likely to offend his ego and to provoke him to an overreaction.

If Trump is unwilling to do this, then he must come up with an alternative plan to ensure that his privately-owned properties and those bearing his name do not expose him to potential blackmail or provocation once he becomes president. Unfortunately, Trump’s reluctance to divest from his businesses, or even to acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest, strongly suggests that he will not come up with such a plan, or even admit that such a plan is necessary. If so, Trump will be choosing to leave the United States vulnerable on a new front in the battle against terrorism.

Aleppo Falls, Pound Strengthens, Inflation Subsides

The fog of war, coupled with the output from multiple propaganda machines, makes it difficult to determine which side has the upper hand in any conflict. After the fall of Aleppo, it appears that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are getting the upper hand. But are they?

The best objective way to determine the course of a conflict is to observe black market (read: free market) exchange rates, and to translate changes in those rates via purchasing power parity into implied inflation rates. We, at the Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project, have been doing that for Syria since 2013.

The two accompanying charts—one for the Syrian pound and another for Syria’s implied annual inflation rate—plot the course of the war. It is clear that Assad and his allies are getting the upper hand. With their recent victory in Aleppo, the black-market exchange rate has moved in Assad’s favor and, likewise, inflation has continued to fall.