The Sphinx and Military Shrinkage

So Russia is clearly trying to be a major player in the Middle East. The question is whether that desire translated into Moscow offering Cairo the makings of a nuclear-weapons program (scientists, materials and maybe arms), as Egypt's UN Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz apparently claims according to a WikiLeaked diplomatic cable. But Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch reports that "there is little evidence that Moscow . . . sought to export its nuclear program to Egypt or other countries."

Speaking of Egypt (and nuclear weapons), Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency chief turned Egyptian opposition leader, has an op-ed in the Washington Post on his country's recent "fraudulent and farcical election." Theoretically, ElBaradei writes, Egypt has a constitution, free press, a multiparty political system, presidential and parliamentary elections, and a working judiciary, but in fact those are all just facades through which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wields his personal power. And Egypt's relative economic success of the past few years is not reaching the public, making this "pseudo-stability based on repression" a "ticking bomb that is dangerously close to exploding."

In the New York Times, Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and company have released their latest status update on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan. Things went pretty well in Iraq, despite Baghdad's government gridlock, but the country "cannot afford as much stalemate" in 2011. Pakistan made strides against some Taliban strongholds, but, unfortunately, Islamabad's "level of cooperation" with Washington "may even have slipped somewhat." The authors think Afghanistan's October elections went pretty well on balance, but the insurgents (and corruption) "have proved resilient" in the face of the American troop surge, making "the war's basic trajectory . . . unclear."

And military spending is always a topic up for debate among commentators, this time featuring Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, author Mark Helprin (in the Wall Street Journal), and blogger and economist John Quiggin. Kristof thinks it's time Republicans and Democrats stop treating the Pentagon budget as "sacrosanct" and avdocates rebalancing the military and diplomatic "tools" (e.g., perhaps the military doesn't need "more people in its marching bands than the State Department has in its foreign service"). Quiggin piles on, noting that "the striking thing about military expenditure is that its failure rate is so high" and Americans have failed "to learn anything from a string of military failures and disappointments" since the initial successes of the Korean War in 1950.

But Helprin disagrees. While the Left and the Right, the press, the academy and the American public all believe that "further reductions in American military power are warranted and unavoidable," Helprin writes, this belief is "based on nothing" and ignores "the cautionary example of World War II." (And thus he avoids dealing with Quiggin's point about post-1950 America.) Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is way down by traditional standards, and we shouldn't use a struggling economy as an excuse to cut it further, Helprin says—just look at what happened when Washington took the same tack during the Great Depression, and don't forget that rearmament was the "superpotent organizing principle and engine of production" that got America out of it.