Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Some Context on Pentagon Spending

General David Petraeus and Brookings Fellow Michael O’Hanlon recently took to the Wall Street Journal to assure the American people that, despite sequestration, there is no military readiness crisis. A few days later, Thomas Donnelly and Roger Zakheim published a rebuttal in the National Review claiming that the challenges of too few personnel and aging, overextended equipment induced a “wasting disease.” They alleged that the size of the defense budget was a misleading statistic without context.

So, here’s some context. After a rapid demobilization following World War II, the United States slowly rebuilt its forces to balance against the Soviet Union. Spending remained far above pre-World War II levels for the remainder of the decades-long conflict, and ever since. The Pentagon budget averaged $462 billion from 1948–1990 (in FY2017 dollars), with notable spikes for the Korean War, Vietnam War, and the Reagan build up in the 1980’s (See Figure 1). With the end of the Cold War, we see a fairly steep decline in military spending during the H.W. Bush and Clinton years. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the reductions of the 90s gave way to much larger Pentagon budgets, as the George W. Bush administration embarked on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Defense spending during the early years of the Obama administration remained above $750 billion as the president ramped up the war in Afghanistan while working to end the war in Iraq. In constant, 2017 dollars, annual Pentagon spending during Bush 43’s eight years in office averaged $612 billion; under Obama, the average is $675 billion (See Figure 2).

One side-note regarding the grouping by presidential administration: Taken alone, the picture can be misleading, in that Reagan inherited Carter’s final budget, Clinton inherited H.W. Bush’s, etc. And, besides, Congress, not any single president, makes the final decision on what the government spends. It is also true, however, that Congress has typically deferred to presidential preferences, particularly when it comes to military spending. Had Clinton wanted more, he likely would have gotten it (and did, starting in 1999); Obama, meanwhile, could have requested less (and, eventually, did). Those variations within four- or eight-year terms get lost in a graph that lumps all the years together in one fat bar for each president.

With respect to whether current spending levels are far too low, far too high, or somewhere in between, the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 and its threat of sequestration tried to rein in spending on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending, but has been only partly successful. Congress has found ways around the defense caps, in part by funneling extra money to the base budget through the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which is exempted under the BCA. And, under the BCA caps revised late last year, estimated military spending would average at least $551 billion from 2017 to 2021 (.pdf, see page 15) – and likely more than that if Congress doesn’t kick its OCO addiction. That’s 28 percent higher than in 2000, and 19 percent higher than the Cold War average.

In short, if there is a readiness gap, it’s not due to lack of funding. The BCA, by itself, has not resulted in significant cuts in military spending. In inflation-adjusted dollars, we spend more today than during the average Cold War year, and more than we spent at the start of the War on Terror. It would appear that we are mostly getting less “bang for our buck” than during previous generations.

America’s Allies Deserve to Be Disturbed

America collects allies like Americans collect Facebook friends. As a result, Washington defends more than a score of prosperous European states, several leading Asian nations, and a gaggle of Middle Eastern regimes.

Yet most of the countries on the Pentagon dole appear to be perpetually unhappy, constantly demanding reassurance of Washington’s love. Their sense of entitlement exceeds that of the typical trust fund baby.

As a result, the U.S. is expected to protect virtually every prosperous, populous, industrialized nation. But that’s just a start. Washington also must coddle and otherwise placate the same countries.

Once great powers, they now believe it to be America’s duty to handle their defense. Alas, U.S. officials are only too willing to enable this counterproductive behavior.

Except for Donald Trump.

There is much to say about his candidacy, most of it bad. Nevertheless, he’s right not to be interested in reassuring allies.

Which has horrified the gaggle of well-to-do nations on America’s defense dole. For instance, the New York Times reported “an undercurrent of quiet desperation” among European officials. They went to Hillary Clinton’s campaign begging for, yes, reassurance!

As for Washington’s major Asian defense dependents, Bloomberg explained that they found Trump’s views “baffling.” The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily proclaimed itself to be “dumbfounded.”

Alas, both Republicans and Democrats rushed to promise well-heeled allies that they shouldn’t lose any sleep over Trump’s message, that nothing will change. Indeed, the Times reported European leaders visiting the Democratic convention, where they found the message “soothing.”

Washington officials have lost sight of why America should participate in an alliance. Alliances should be a means to an end.

Their purpose is to increase American security. They aren’t particularly useful where there’s no significant threat to the U.S., Washington can easily deter any adversary on its own, and/or America’s friends are capable of protecting their own interests. Which is the case for most U.S. allies today.

Make America (Realize It’s) Safe Again

Donald Trump keeps insisting we live in dangerous times. “I don’t think America is a safe place for Americans” he said earlier this year. And most Americans agree with him. In June 71% of Americans said they expected further terrorist attacks in the United States over the next several weeks. And 53% recently said they worry a great deal about crime while 70% believe that there is more crime in the United States than there was a year ago.

It may have been smart politics for Trump to use Make America Safe Again as the theme for the opening day of the Republican National Convention. The facts, however, suggest Americans are already quite safe.

Take crime, for example. The statistics suggest that the public has it entirely backwards. In 2013 and 2014 Americans experienced their safest years on record. The murder rate per hundred thousand was 4.5, well below half of what it was at its worst point in the 1980s and early 1990s, lower even than the murder rate in 1963, the previous safest year on record. The numbers are nearly identical for other types of violent crime. According to the FBI’s crime statistics, the past five years have been the safest of the last half century.

Terrorism is another case where the numbers don’t support the heightened level of fear. The attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando certainly set people on edge, but Americans have a better chance of being killed by lightning or drowning in their own bathtubs than being killed by a terrorist.

Over the past two decades, the tragic attacks of 9/11 included, Muslim extremists were responsible for less than one percent of murders in the United States. And in the past 10 years that number has dropped substantially, with radical Islamists responsible for less than one-tenth of one percent of the killings in America.

Washington’s First Obligation Is to Defend America, Not the World

The last NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, hailed from Denmark, which has 17,200 citizens under arms. That position did not allow him to deploy the American military, but it did give him unusual influence over U.S. policy.

Even as the American people tire of trying to solve other nations’ problems, Rasmussen wants the United States to continue its interventionist course. Politico recently interviewed Rasmussen, who promoted an “American-led world order”—at American expense, of course. Rasmussen’s greatest fear is the end of Washington’s unique global role: “What is at stake here is the American role as the global superpower.”

He agreed that Europeans should do more on behalf of their own defense, but offered no strategy to make serious and permanent increases a reality. Rasmussen was critical of Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia, even though in a conflict the Danes would do little to help defeat Moscow.

Remembering Boris Yeltsin’s Finest Moment

Yeltsin on tankTwenty-five years ago today I was driving back to Boston from Cape Cod. Two stories dominated the radio news that morning. Hurricane Bob was headed straight for New England, putting my return to Washington in doubt. And Russian hard-liners had staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, who was being held incommunicado in his dacha in Crimea. Eventually I got back to Washington, by a very slow train rather than by plane. The other story had more lasting consequences.

On that morning of August 19, 1991, as the coup plotters issued a declaration of a new Soviet president and seized control of Russian media, supporters of democracy gathered at the Russian parliament. And Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federal Republic, decided to go out and speak to the soldiers and people outside the parliament building. He climbed up on a tank and rallied opposition to the coup. Two days later it collapsed, and Yeltsin was a national hero. As I wrote when Yeltsin died in 2007:

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalizes Mikhail Gorbachev’s accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn’t contain. Once people were allowed to criticize the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly–partly because of Yeltsin’s unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia’s first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition.  He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

He went on to effectively dismantle the Soviet Union and to let 14 of the Soviet republics go their own way. He set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world. It was far from an ideal privatization process. But there weren’t many models for wholesale transformation of a communist economy into a market economy. As I wrote in 2007,

Yeltsin wasn’t perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.  But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer’s policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria’s worry in 1997 that Yeltsin’s creation of a “Russian super-presidency” might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia’s history, he became something even more important–the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

For all his mistakes, Yeltsin helped to free a continent and end the Cold War. And 25 years ago today was his finest hour.

 

Stop Counterproductive Western Whining about North Korea

Washington long has told the rest of the world what to do. But the world usually pays little attention. When ignored, U.S. officials typically talk tougher and louder, with no better result.

That describes American policy toward North Korea. It would be better for Washington to say less than frantically denounce every provocation. The U.S. and its allies typically respond with angry complaints and empty threats, which only encourages the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to provoke again.

North Korea recently launched two missiles. It was more of the same, barely worth a second thought.

Will Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Match Her Campaign Rhetoric? Or Her Record?

A number of outspoken hawks have praised Hillary Clinton’s approach to foreign policy over the past few months, with at least one stepping up to raise funds for her campaign. This might be surprising if one assumes that hawks tend to support Republicans. It also doesn’t make sense if one believes Donald Trump’s contention that Clinton’s approach to the world is identical to Barack Obama’s, and that Obama is a naïve and foolish dove.

It is not surprising that hawks prefer Clinton over Trump, however, if you realize that Hillary Clinton supported every one of the last seven U.S. military interventions abroad, plus two others we ended up not fighting. Given this, it seems that the members of America’s interventionist class doubt that she would be as reluctant to initiate new wars, or expand the current ones, as her campaign rhetoric has suggested.

For much of her career, Hillary Clinton has been one of the most hawkish Democrats in Washington, and one of the more hawkish American politicians, period (my Cato colleague Caroline Dorminey helped compile an early report card here). Clinton has supported the use of the U.S. military for a range of issues, not simply or primarily to advance U.S. national interests, but also to defend the security of other countries and pursue humanitarian objectives.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote, “It’s impossible to know which national security crises she [Hillary] would be forced to confront, of course. But those who vote for her should know that she will approach such crises with a long track record of being generally supportive of initiating U.S. military interventions and expanding them.”

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton encouraged her husband to intervene in Bosnia in 1995–1996, and then again in Kosovo in 1999. Two years later, Senator Hillary Clinton voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) following the September 11th attacks, and then for the Iraq war AUMF in September 2002, a vote she now claims to regret. Notably, she also regrets voting against the Bush administration’s Iraq “surge” in January of 2007.