Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Waste, Fraud, Abuse and Trump

Prior to attacking intelligence assessments on Russian hacking and meeting with Kanye this week, the president-elect went on a bit of a defense jag. Monday, @realDonaldTrump bashed Lockheed’s F-35 joint strike fighter program for its “out of control” price-tag.  He said the same of Boeing’s Air Force One replacement last week. Saturday, he vaguely tweeted his approval for a Washington Post story claiming that the Pentagon “buried evidence” that it wastes $25 billion a year. Sunday, on Fox News, Trump criticized both aircraft and implied that their excessive cost results from a corrupt practice: the revolving door, where officials manage weapons programs and then go work for the manufacturer.

Trump’s tweets temporarily lowered defense contractors’ stock prices, prompting speculation that he’s paying CEOs back for criticism, or worse. But Trump’s comments aren’t new. He attacked the F-35 during the campaign. He claimed that he could fund a massive military buildup by “conducting a full audit of the Pentagon, eliminating incorrect payments, reducing duplicative bureaucracy, collecting unpaid taxes, and ending unwanted and unauthorized federal programs.”  He promised to “balance our budget,” by eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” in the federal government. He repeatedly suggested that corporate interests—pharmaceutical, oil, finance and defense companies—have hijacked government and added to its cost.

Trump’s views on Pentagon waste then seem less whim than an outgrowth of his approach to public policy. Does that mean Trump is set to “crack down” on Pentagon spending, “make war on the defense industry or take on the “military-industrial complex?” There are several reasons why the answer is not really.

One is Trump’s appointments. As in other areas, they conflict with his campaign rhetoric. Trump famously said he knows more about ISIS than the generals, but seems inclined to defer to those that he deems “his.”  That’s especially true of his Secretary of Defense pick, retired general James Mattis, who has mostly conventionally-hawkish views on military spending. For example, he repeats the false claim that sequestration, which only occurred once since the 2011 Budget Control Act, in 2013, annually slices the defense budget across-the-board.  He even called sequestration a bigger threat than any U.S. enemy, while testifying in favor of a military spending boost. Mattis casts doubt on Trump’s commitment to defense reform in another way: he raced through the revolving door, going to work for General Dynamics upon his retirement from military service in 2013.

Pentagon Spikes Report on Waste Because It Found Too Much

In 2014, the Pentagon commissioned a study to identify wasteful practices and improve efficiency, but when the researchers found too much waste – approximately $125 billion worth – the officials who asked for the report tried to bury the findings. As reported in the Washinton Post, Pentagon officials worried that “Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget.”

The Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings. A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website.

Particularly telling are a series of comments by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, the Pentagon’s second-highest-ranking official, and Frank Kendall III, the Pentagon’s chief weapons-buyer. 

Will Mattis Be a Voice of Caution at the Pentagon?

“We are going to appoint ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as our secretary of defense,” President-elect Donald Trump told a crowd in Cincinnati last night. He added, “They say he’s the closest thing to Gen. George Patton that we have.”

To be successful, James Mattis will also have to be this generation’s George Marshall, and perhaps its Dwight Eisenhower and George Washington, too.

Upcoming Cato Discussion on China’s Role in Dealing with North Korea

The United Nations Security Council has approved another round of sanctions against North Korea in response to its latest nuclear test. No one really believes that the new penalties, focused on Pyongyang’s coal and other exports, will have any effect. In fact, it is doubtful that China, which purchases most of the North’s goods, will fully enforce the new resolution.

Still, with most policymakers giving up any hope that the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will voluntarily negotiate away its nuclear program, Beijing remains the best option for constraining the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions. The People’s Republic of China so far has refused to play its assigned role, but Washington continues to press the PRC to act.

Getting Beijing to take strong action against North Korea is a long-shot, as I explain in an upcoming Policy Analysis, but worth serious effort by Washington. What that would involve is the subject of a forum at Cato at noon on December 8. Susan Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Scott Snyder of the Council of Foreign Relations will join me in a panel discussed moderated by Cato Vice President Christopher Preble to discuss the challenges and possibilities of engaging China over the issue.

One thing is clear. Washington and its East Asian allies need to persuade rather than demand that the PRC act. How best to convince Beijing, and what mix of carrots and sticks would be most effective in doing so, will be among the issues discussed on the 8th. I hope you can join us: the details, including where to RSVP, are included here.

How Much Defense is Enough? The Outlier’s Take

A new study from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “How Much is Enough? Alternative Defense Strategies,” reports on military spending plans produced by teams from five think tanks, including Cato. CSBA asked each team to use its “Strategic Choices” software to make hundreds of choices amounting to a ten-year budget plan for the Pentagon and to provide a brief statement of their strategic rationale. The report includes those rationales, summaries of each budget, and comparative analysis of them.

As you can tell from the chart below, the Cato team’s answer was that way less is enough. We cut $1.1 trillion over the period. We’d have cut even more had the software allowed us to target all the spending going to “Overseas Contingency Operations,” intelligence programs and nuclear weapons. You can also see that our plan was the outlier. The others all raised spending—in AEI’s case, massively, by $1.3 trillion.

The State of War in Syria — In Two Charts

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. In Syria, it appears from recent reportage from Aleppo 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. The pound has been stabilizing since June of this year and inflation has been trending downwards.

Nat Hentoff’s Interview with Che Guevara

Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff once had the opportunity to interview Fidel Castro’s henchman, Che Guevara.  As Nat relates in this video clip, Che’s gatekeeper messed up–just assuming that since Nat wrote for the Village Voice, he would be another fawning lefty journalist.  Wrong!

In 2003, Nat wrote: “Having interviewed Cubans who survived Castro’s gulags, I have never understood or respected the parade of American entertainers, politicians and intellectuals who travel to Cuba to be entranced by this ruthless dictator who, for me, has all the charisma of a preening thug.”

And here’s Richard Cohen in today’s Washington Post: “Fidel Castro was a killer. He came to power in a revolution and so violence was probably inescapable. But he followed it with mass executions — the guilty, the innocent, it hardly mattered. He imposed a totalitarian system on Cuba even harsher and more homicidal than the one that preceded it. He persecuted homosexuals, dissidents, critical writers and journalists. He would not tolerate a free press, and his own political party was the only one permitted. In the end, he ruined his country’s economy while at the same time exporting terrorism.”  Read the whole thing.