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The Skeptics

The Golden Rule of Foreign Policy

The crescendo for action in Syria continues to grow. From Left to Right, from pundit to politician, the cry is “Do something!”

No surprise, the U.S. Senate’s so-called “Three Amigos,” Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), long have been calling for war. But then, there are few countries in which they do not want to go to war.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently penned a column entitled “Obama AWOL in Syria.” He didn’t urge an invasion—not yet, anyway—but wanted to aid the rebels. And he cited a variety of people pushing more active military involvement, such as a no-fly, no-drive zone.

Naturally, Kristof didn’t spend much time on the risk of things turning out badly. He might have asked Madeleine Albright, whom he quoted in favor of intervention, about the havoc wreaked by the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo after the administration she served lent them America’s air force. But she probably didn’t notice.

Kristof does have an idea on how to limit any ill consequences. He cited Anne-Marie Slaughter’s proposal for military intervention on behalf of rebels who behave nicely. “Some Free Syrian Army commanders have signed such a code of conduct,” he enthused.

At least Kristof opposed the Iraq invasion. Most members of the perpetual-war party exhibit no shame. They just glide past the wreckage of their earlier military crusades and beat the war drums again. For some, war is the ultimate panacea. For instance, Sen. McCain has proposed attacking North Korea and Iran. He wanted to confront Russia when it battled Georgia. He advocated war forever in Iraq and Afghanistan, if necessary. And, of course, he wants action in Syria.

Perhaps even more striking is Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who criticized the president for his “risky, do-nothing doctrine.” The Afghans are afraid the United States is leaving (of course, only after eleven years of costly nation building). The administration isn’t prepared for confrontation with Iran (even though U.S. intelligence agencies find no evidence of an active weapons program, which would seem to be necessary to conceivably justify war). And President Obama is doing nothing in Syria, where the “civil war is approaching genocide” (it’s a nasty conflict, but genocide it most certainly isn’t, and a lot of conflicts have been far worse).

This argument seems particularly disconnected coming from someone who worked for George W. Bush, whose presidency was defined by the Iraq war. We were promised cakewalks, freedom on the march and pro-American democracy. Instead, the result was a ravaged society, a tidal wave of crime and violence, and bitter guerrilla conflict and even more brutal sectarian war. Casualty estimates vary wildly, but a couple hundred thousand Iraqi civilians likely died. The historic Christian community was destroyed. Millions of people were forced from their homes. Add to all that the slow authoritarian and pro-Iranian drift.

People who helped generate such horror should take a deep breath before demanding that Washington again let loose the dogs of war.

Doctors long ago taught us that the first duty of those who would help is to do no harm. That should be the first plank of any foreign policy as well.

Syria

Four Syrian Scenarios

As the fighting in Syria intensifies, it is evident that there are four plausible outcomes. Unfortunately, most of them are rather unpleasant for both regional stability and Western values.

The following scenarios are in ascending order of probability.

The Assad regime manages to suppress the rebellion. If it had not been for outside interference, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Turkey but secondarily from the United States and its core European allies, this would have been the most likely outcome. Given that interference, though, Assad’s days appear to be numbered. The Assad family’s rule was always a fragile one, based on a tacit coalition of its Alawite followers together with Christians and other religious/ethnic minorities. That “government of the minorities” faced the daunting task of maintaining control over the majority Sunni Arab population. The decision by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to fund and arm their Sunni brethren, who dominate the so-called Free Syrian Army, has likely made continued rule by the Alawite-led regime untenable.

The Free Syrian Army ousts Assad and manages a transition to a multireligious, multiethnic democratic Syria. This outcome is Washington’s fondest hope, but the odds are heavily against it. Although the FSA is likely to prevail militarily—at least in most areas of the country—the emergence of a democratic political system is a long shot. Not only does Syria lack a meaningful democratic tradition, it has a weak economy and civil society. That is worrisome, since a strong economy and a vibrant civil society are important factors for a stable, tolerant, democratic system. And there are the stark religious and ethnic divisions in Syria. The combination of all of these factors makes the emergence of a democratic Syria highly unlikely.

The insurgents win a decisive victory and establish an authoritarian state. Ominously, radical Islamist elements appear to be ascendant within the insurgency, and rebel units are already engaging in practices reminiscent of Al Qaeda. That development is unsurprising since Saudi Arabia’s theocratic regime has such a prominent sponsoring role. Even if the rebels can gain and maintain control of most of the country (a very big assumption), a post-Assad Syria is more likely to be Islamist and authoritarian than democratic. Indeed, authoritarian elements seem even better positioned for victory over secular, democratic factions in Syria than they are in Iraq, Egypt and Libya—and democratic fortunes over the long term are none too good in any of those countries.

Syria fragments into religious and ethnic enclaves or ministates. Given Syria’s complex ethnic and religious composition, this is the most probable outcome. Assad’s Alawite-dominated military shows signs of trying to establish an Alawite-Christian redoubt in the western part of the country. Absent massive interference by Turkey (or the United States and principal European allies), that coalition may have enough strength to sustain such an entity. However, that development would likely be the first, not the last, stage of Syria’s fragmentation. Syria’s Kurds are already establishing armed checkpoints in the northeast, where they are most numerous. The chance to form a de facto independent Kurdish state (a la the Kurdish region in Iraq) could prove irresistible.

All of the plausible scenarios have negative implications for regional stability. Syria has already become the pawn of a nasty power play involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. Assad’s continued rule would still face a simmering Sunni-led insurgency backed by both Ankara and Riyadh. Conversely, a definitive Sunni victory, whether that led to a democratic or authoritarian Syria, would provoke countermeasures by the leading Shiite power, Iran. And a fragmented Syria would be an arena for endless brass knuckles maneuvers by all of those powers.

Pundits in the West who assume that Assad’s ouster would usher in an era of stability and freedom are as delusional as they were when they made the same assumption about the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Syria and the greater region are in for a very bumpy ride. And Washington would be well-advised to stay off of that dangerous roller coaster.

Image: PanARMENIAN_photo

Syria

Felipe Calderón’s Arrogant Call for U.S. Gun Control

The blood had barely dried in the tragic Aurora, Colorado, shooting before Mexican president Felipe Calderón put the blame on permissive U.S. gun laws. In a post on his Twitter account, Calderón offered his condolences to the victims but then added that the incident showed that “the American Congress must review its mistaken legislation on guns. It’s doing damage to us all.”

It was hardly a new theme from Mexico’s lame-duck president. But his latest statement requires an extraordinary amount of gall. During Calderón’s presidency, more than fifty thousand of his people have died in the war on drugs that he chose to escalate. A foreign leader with that awful of a track record daring to lecture the United States on its policies regarding firearms is not likely to sit well with most Americans.

But Calderón repeatedly has blamed U.S. gun laws rather than his decision to launch a military-led offensive against the drug cartels for the resulting violence in his country. The Mexican government even posted a massive sign on the border with the United States between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso reading “No More Weapons!” The sign was made from recycled guns seized by Mexican security forces.

But the location of that sign undercuts Calderón’s own argument. Juarez has been for the past five years the epicenter of gun violence in Mexico. Yet El Paso has a very low violent-crime rate. If “lax” U.S. gun laws were the cause of the carnage in Juarez, wouldn’t El Paso also be awash in blood? Some other factor must account for the extraordinary violence south of the border.

Extensive research on restrictive gun laws in both U.S. and foreign jurisdictions shows no correlation between tough laws and a decline in homicides and other crimes. Mexico’s own experience confirms that point. Following sometimes violent radical leftist challenges to the government in the late 1960s, Mexico enacted some of the strictest gun-control measures in the world. Today, it is nearly impossible for a civilian to possess a handgun or rifle legally in that country. Yet such tough restrictions have done nothing to disarm the drug gangs. In fact, those measures may have made it easier for cartel enforcers to terrorize portions of the country, since they don’t have to worry much about law-abiding civilians being armed and able to defend themselves and their families.

Conversely, the trend over the past decade or so in various jurisdictions throughout the United States toward conceal-carry and other permissive policies regarding firearms has not produced the surge of killings that gun-control zealots predicted. To the contrary, the rates of homicides and other violent crimes in most of those jurisdictions have actually gone down.

Calderón should have had the decency not to exploit the Aurora tragedy to push his misguided gun-control agenda for the United States. During his remaining months in office, he should instead focus on easing the suffering that his policies have caused in his own country.

Image: expertinfantry

United States, Mexico

A Vicious Cycle of Intervention in Somalia

On Sunday, the L.A. Times revealed that the United States is equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to fight Al Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government. For now, outsourcing the combat to African countries may appear to bring America minimal risk, but Washington’s renewal of its multidecade attachment to Somalia continues a cycle of deciding its winners and losers. Among an assortment of tribes, clans and African states fighting for self-serving ends, Washington has handcuffed itself to a hornet’s nest.

The hubris of policy makers who believe they can remedy Somalia’s problems could produce policies that draw more recruits to the cause of militant groups, much as similar policies have in the past. Policy makers have failed repeatedly to bring order to the destitute African state, such as when it descended into clan-based warfare in the early 1990s.

At the time, U.S. officials agreed to enforce a March 1993 U.N. resolution that pledged to rehabilitate Somalia’s economy and reestablish national and regional institutions. State Department official David Shinn spoke of “basically re-creating a country,” while then U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright said America’s mission in Somalia “aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” The humanitarian mission eventually tasked America’s military with disarming Somali warlords and conducting house-to-house weapons searches. What began as U.S. leaders imbued with the best of intentions eventually ended with our brave military’s ignominious defeat.

Today, the United States fights Al Shabab by proxy. The group poses no direct threat to the security of the United States; however, exaggerated claims about the specter of Al Qaeda could produce policy decisions that exacerbate a localized, regional problem into a global one. Amid news that African troops are doing the fighting but that “The United States is doing almost everything else,” African Union forces could be seen as a puppet proxy of Uncle Sam.

Washington is supplementing the training of African troops with private contractors. Outsourcing makes intervention easier, as policy makers can hide the costs of a mission they have yet to clearly define. Intervention on the cheap also becomes costly in other ways. For a commander in chief who allegedly believes he should take moral responsibility for America’s lethal counterterrorism operations, privatizing intervention allows him and his administration to escape accountability should the forces we train, or the weapons we provide, turn against us or our allies.

Like moths to a flame, disparate Somali groups may rally around the perception they are fighting against the injustice of foreign meddling. Moreover, while military analysts were boasting back in June that Al Shabab could be facing the end of its once-powerful rule, questions surrounding what form of political stability will fill the Al Shabab vacuum remain unasked and unanswered.

The United States began fighting Al Shabab after December 2006, when Washington backed Ethiopia in toppling Somalia’s loose network of Islamist sharia courts. The intervention backfired. The Islamist movement grew more powerful, and today U.S. officials fear Al Qaeda could gain a foothold unless Al Shabab is defeated.

Sadly, America's history of intervention in Somalia aptly demonstrates the resiliency of unintended consequences. Although developments in Somalia have some observers arguing that America should become more involved, the more reasonable conclusion to draw—looking at the historical record—is that America has tried and failed repeatedly to transform Somalia at an acceptable cost.

Image: U.S. Army Africa

Somalia

Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security

At hearings of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month, former congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), now head of the Wilson Center in Washington, made a gallant stab at coming up with, and hailing, some homeland-security functions that “execute well.”

At the top of Harman’s list was the observation that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last year stopped more than 3,100 individuals from boarding U.S.-bound aircraft at foreign airports for national-security reasons. Since these were plucked out of more than fifteen million travelers that went through fifteen preclearance locations overseas, it was, she exclaimed enthusiastically, “like picking needles from a haystack!”

Committee chair Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) waxed even more enthusiastic about the number, concluding grandly that it “took very sophisticated data systems and implementation of those systems to make that happen” and that “we’re all safer as a result of it.”

This was an exercise in serial innumeracy, of course, because the relevant statistic is not how many individuals were denied entry but how many of those denied actually presented a security threat. Neither enthusiast presented relevant data, but, judging from the fact that no one apparently was arrested (we’d tend to know if they had been), the number was likely just about zero. Nor was information presented about the problems or costly inconvenience inflicted upon the many who were likely waylaid in error.

Moreover, it is not clear where the Harman/Lieberman number even comes from. According to Homeland Security officials interviewed by Michael Schmidt for a recent article in the New York Times, only 250 people in each of the last two years were turned away or even pulled aside for questioning as potential national security risks by preclearance screeners. Maybe CBP is even more “sophisticated” at picking needles from haystacks than Harman and Lieberman give it credit for. Does that mean we’re even safer as a result? Or less so?

Schmidt also supplies information that calls into question the whole preclearance enterprise. Stimulated in considerable measure by the failed underwear-bomber attempt to blow up an airliner flying from Europe to Detroit in 2009, the program is, as Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano stresses “an expensive proposition.” Although it has been instituted so far only in airports in Canada, the Caribbean and Ireland, it already costs $115 million a year. Expansion to hundreds of other airports (including the one the underwear bomber actually took off from) is not only costly but also requires a major diplomatic effort because it involves cajoling foreign governments into granting the United States police-like powers on their own soil. The program has not foiled any major plots thus far, notes Schmidt, and he pointedly adds that it would scarcely be difficult for a would-be terrorist to avoid the few airports with preclearance screening to board at one of the many that do not enjoy that security frill.

But the main innumeracy issue in all this is that the key question, as usual when homeland security is up for consideration, is simply left out of the discussion. The place to begin is not “are we safer” with the security measure in place but how safe are we without it.

We have calculated that, for the twelve-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in twenty-two million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists.

The question that should be asked of the numerically challenged, then, is the one posed a decade ago by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther: “How much should we be willing to pay for small reductions in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

Romney’s Foreign-Policy Opportunity

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duel on foreign policy this week as they both address the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Romney heads off to Britain, Israel and Poland to burnish his foreign-policy credentials. It will be difficult for Romney to overcome Obama on this set of issues. Denizens of neoconservatism scorn the president as a weakling on terrorism and other international issues, but that is not how most Americans see him. The killing of Osama Bin Laden (as well as dozens of other high-level Al Qaeda operatives) has largely inoculated Obama against the “weak on terrorism” allegation, and the public generally gives him decent marks on most other foreign-policy issues.

In the two areas where there has been grumbling about the president’s performance—escalating and perpetuating the war in Afghanistan and doing little about the bloated Pentagon budget—Romney’s neoconservative allies advocate measures that most voters dislike even more than they do Obama’s approach. If Romney is to seize the opportunity to score points against the president on foreign policy, he needs to break with the hawkish extremists in his party and take a very different tack than he has done so far in the campaign. Unfortunately, his harsh statements toward China and Russia—including describing the latter as America’s principal global adversary—and his alarmingly bellicose rhetoric toward Iran suggest that he is taking his foreign-policy positions from George W. Bush’s playbook. That is a bad move both politically and in terms of good policy.

In his speech to the VFW, Romney should outline a new security strategy built on the foundation of cautious, national-interest realism—a position that once characterized the GOP and still finds some resonance among the party’s rank and file. That move, though, would require him to challenge the neoconservative conventional wisdom on four major issues.

First, he needs to advocate a prompt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, even faster than the Obama administration’s alleged commitment to have U.S. forces out of that country in 2014. The intervention in Afghanistan is the poster child for how a limited and justified punitive expedition against a terrorist adversary (Al Qaeda) can morph into an open-ended, nation-building crusade on behalf of an inept, corrupt Third World government. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern whether Romney has a policy regarding Afghanistan. To the extent he has said anything substantive on the issue, it creates worries that he may want to keep American troops in that snake pit indefinitely.

Adopting a new, smarter position on Afghanistan leads to the second point Romney should emphasize in his VFW speech: a repudiation of nation building as a U.S. foreign-policy goal. It is bitterly ironic that, beginning with the Bush administration, Republicans seem to have become more enthusiastic than Democrats about humanitarian interventions and nation-building ventures. Republicans rightly used to scorn such crusades as wasteful, utopian schemes. Condoleezza Rice once remarked that it should not be the mission of the U.S. military to escort children to school in foreign countries. Romney needs to return the GOP to that wise skepticism.

Third, Romney should advocate a complete reassessment of Washington’s overgrown network of formal and informal security commitments around the world. It is absurd for the United States to continue subsidizing the defense of allies in Europe and East Asia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire and nearly seven decades after the end of World War II. Those allies shamelessly free ride on America’s security exertions, choosing to underinvest in their own defenses and refusing to make a serious effort to manage the security affairs in their respective regions. Even if the U.S. government was cash rich and running chronic budget surpluses, the current policy toward obsolete alliances would be wasteful and ill-advised. Maintaining such a policy when Washington has to borrow money from China and other foreign creditors to do so borders on insanity.

Reassessing alliances and other security commitments points to the final change that Romney should advocate: a willingness to cut military spending. The United States spends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. The House of Representatives just voted to appropriate $606 billion for defense—and that figure does not include $11 billion to pay for the nuclear arsenal, a budget item housed in the Energy Department. Instead of promising to increase military spending to 4 percent of GDP—an extra $2.5 trillion over ten years—Romney should reverse course and support cutting that bureaucracy’s budget as part of an overall austerity program for the federal government. And as noted, the overseas missions should be trimmed or eliminated to match the capabilities and budget of a smaller force.

Such an agenda might not please the attendees at the VFW convention, and it certainly would not please the junior varsity from the Bush-Cheney administration that Romney has been relying upon thus far for advice on foreign policy. But it would appeal to a wide swath of American voters and put Barack Obama on the defensive. Most important, it would be a wise policy alternative for the American republic.

Image: Gage Skidmore

Three Paths to Nuclear Escalation with China

The U.S. military has enjoyed extraordinary freedom of maneuver since the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that no one else was left to seriously challenge the United States when it decided to act abroad. Today, however, strategists worry that U.S. rivals are developing weapons that will make it difficult or impossible to gain access to contested areas. Dealing with the so-called “anti-access” problem has become a central task for civilian and military planners—and something close to an obsession for the navy.

One popular solution is AirSea Battle (ASB). In its most general sense, ASB is about increasing integration between the navy and the air force. Service leaders argue that without serious advance planning, coordination is likely to break down in the midst of a conflict. This must include not just operational discussions about war fighting but also integrated training, data sharing and weapons procurement. As the air force and navy service chiefs put it in a recent article, the idea is to “take ‘jointness’ to a new level.” Jointness is a favorite buzzword in Washington, and enthusiastic defense officials recently opened the AirSea Battle Office in the Pentagon.

Strangely, much of the discussion about AirSea Battle has been about what it is not. Officials have stressed that ASB is not a single operational concept about how to fight wars; they simply say that they want to maximize interservice integration so that regional combatant commanders have maximum confidence in their ability to carry out their operational decisions. Officials also have stressed that ASB is not about China or any other country. At a press conference describing the purposes of the AirSea Battle Office, they went to great lengths to fend off such suggestions from incredulous reporters.

Not everyone buys these arguments. In theory, the proliferation of anti-access weapons means that any country could create problems for forward-deployed U.S. forces. In reality, there is a very short list of countries that have both the interest and wherewithal to make life nasty for the United States. China is first on the list. No one is investing more in anti-access capabilities than China, which in the last decade has acquired an impressive array of submarines, antiship ballistic missiles, antiship cruise missiles and antisatellite weapons. And no one has a clearer interest in denying U.S. forces entry in the event of a crisis. China has particularly strong reasons for wanting to keep the U.S. Navy from undertaking a show of force in or around the Taiwan Strait, as it did during previous crises. U.S. planners are not naive about China's motives, and they seek new ways of undermining China's new capabilities. “Let's just say it,” two Naval War College professors recently wrote, “AirSea Battle in East Asia is about China.”

Nor is it the case that AirSea Battle is just about jointness. Last year the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a long monograph on the concept, which remains the most comprehensive treatment to date. According to CSBA, AirSea Battle envisions a sequence of operations designed to overcome enemy obstacles and guarantee U.S. access. The first step is a “blinding attack” on key facilities, including long-range weapons that threaten U.S. bases and carrier groups, along with the radar systems needed to cue them. This initial volley would deliberately strike the enemy’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems and make it impossible to organize an attack in the aftermath. The second step includes efforts to bottle up the enemy’s naval fleet behind a distant blockade, which would allow the United States plenty of time to bring superior forces to the theater.

While officials have not been specific about AirSea Battle, there are reasons to believe that the CSBA version is close to the mark. The United States, after all, has danced the same two-step in all of its recent conventional wars. And despite arguments that ASB is not a single operational approach, the service chiefs and officers from the AirSea Battle Office write that it relies on a construct called “disrupt-destroy-defeat” that closely follows the CSBA script. By disrupt they mean attacking the enemy's ISR and command-and-control facilities. By destroy they mean killing things like “ships, submarines, aircraft, and missile launchers.” Defeating the enemy will be much easier after these two steps are complete.

AirSea Battle is seductive. Some officials believe that it may act as a competitive strategy that will lure rival states into self-defeating arms races with the richer and more technologically advanced United States. They also hope that AirSea Battle acts as a deterrent. If adversaries like China become convinced that they cannot overcome U.S. military superiority, they are unlikely to pick a fight in the first place. Most important, however, is the alluring idea that AirSea Battle can undue years of efforts by the Chinese to keep the United States out. China has invested greatly in solving one big operational problem. AirSea Battle is an appealing way to “unsolve” its operational breakthrough.

But there are also serious risks to this approach, including the danger of nuclear escalation if AirSea Battle is ever implemented in a shooting war with China.

There are three pathways to nuclear escalation. Psychological pressures can lead to serious misperceptions about enemy intentions, causing states to overreact to limited military actions. Political pressures also can make escalation possible, especially if the target government fears that it will lose power if it loses the war. In these cases the government might take extraordinary risks in order to “gamble for resurrection.” Finally, inadvertent escalation can occur when conventional attacks put the enemy's nuclear capabilities at risk. In these cases the enemy might worry that the attack is only the first phase of a larger war.

AirSea Battle opens all three pathways to escalation. By deliberately launching a blinding attack, it would increase the chance of serious misperceptions and complicate any effort to reassure China of limited U.S. intentions. It also would exacerbate the political problem for the Chinese Communist Party, which long ago gave up its ideological mandate and now relies on a combination of nationalism and economic growth in order to stay in power. Given signs of weakness in the Chinese economy, we soon may face a situation in which the CCP relies on nationalism alone. Under these circumstances it is likely to be very risk acceptant, and, if faced with a humiliating defeat in the early stages of a conflict with the United States, it will have strong political incentives to escalate.

Finally, AirSea Battle runs the risk of inadvertent escalation, especially if the United States strikes the Chinese mainland. The fact that strategists are so concerned about land-based Chinese ballistic missiles suggests that these might well be targeted. U.S. planners may believe they can distinguish conventional from nuclear sites, but Chinese leaders might reasonably fear that the United States is attempting a preemptive strike against its nuclear weapons and associated command-and-control systems. In this scenario, Beijing might face a terrible use-it-or-lose-it dilemma.

The original CSBA monograph, which seems to be close to the “official” version of AirSea Battle, ignored the danger of nuclear escalation. Instead, it simply assumed that any war between the United States and China will remain at the conventional level because “agreement not to use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons would appear to be in both parties’ interests.” But strikes on the Chinese mainland might provoke an overreaction even if Chinese leaders would do better to show restraint. We should expect nothing less: states do not take kindly to attacks on their own soil. Other analysts recognize this danger and have offered operational concepts that attempt to mitigate the risk of escalation by stressing patience and less provocative plans. Given the stakes involved, defense officials should take these alternatives seriously.

For a longer version of this essay, see “AirSea Battle and Escalation Risks,” U.C. San Diego Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Policy Brief 12 (January 2012). The views here are the author’s alone. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Image: Defense Media Activity Hawaii

Air Force, Navy, War

Obama Is Right about Hugo Chavez

President Obama recently created a stir when he stated that Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez did not pose a “serious security threat” to the United States. Mitt Romney’s campaign pounced on that supposed verbal gaffe, criticizing Obama for being naïve about yet another foreign policy issue. But Obama is right about Chavez, and Romney’s failure to understand that point makes him the one to exhibit worrisome signs about a lack of foreign policy judgment.

There is no question that Hugo Chavez is an obnoxious, tin-pot dictator who has been a political and economic disaster for Venezuela. It will likely take Venezuela a generation or more to recover from the damage he and his corrupt cronies have inflicted. But even the fear that existed a few years ago that Chavez’s brand of leftist authoritarian populism might sweep through much of Latin America has proven to be exaggerated. Initially, other similar figures did come to power, most notably Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega’s resurgence in Nicaragua. But Chavez’s ambitious goal of a “Bolivarian revolution” throughout the hemisphere did not materialize. Indeed, Chavez’s own ugly police-state tactics and dismal economic performance in Venezuela probably served to inoculate other countries from the disease of authoritarian populism.

The Chavez regime has managed to cause some problems for neighboring countries, with the support for the Marxist insurgency in Colombia being the most prominent example. But the disruptive actions of Caracas have been more of an irritant than a threat to those countries, much less a threat to the United States.

To most American hawks, Chavez’s principal offense has not been his effort to export a Bolivarian revolution. Instead, it has been his flirtation with countries that the hawks hate. In particular, his agreements (limited though they are) in the economic and security spheres with Iran and Russia have provoked their wrath.

It is disappointing that Romney has apparently succumbed to the same exaggerated fears as the hyper hawks about Chavez’s associations with Tehran and Moscow. But it should not be too surprising that he has done so. His views on Iran are taken straight from the neoconservative playbook. And he astonished and appalled knowledgeable observers this spring when he described Russia as America’s principal global adversary—a position that only the most extreme hawks have adopted.

All of these developments raise troubling questions about his foreign policy judgment. So, too, do reports that he is inclined to go first to former vice president Dick Cheney and his acolytes for advice on international issues. Given the horrific foreign policy track record of the Cheneyites, that is akin to a presidential candidate consulting Jimmy Carter and the ghost of Herbert Hoover for advice on economic policy.

Hugo Chavez has been a catastrophe for his country and an annoyance to his neighbors. But those offenses are quite different from posing a security threat—much less a serious security threat—to the United States. Venezuela is a small country with very limited military capabilities, while the United States is a large country with vast military capabilities. Chavez is a gnat, not a rattlesnake.

It is more than a little worrisome that a man who stands a very good chance of becoming president of the United States after the November elections can’t seem to make the basic distinction between an annoyance and genuine security threat.

Russia, Iran, Venezuela

Let Sequestration Happen

Some members of Congress are anxious to undo sequestration, ignoring the inconvenient fact that they created the process in the first place. Instead of accepting responsibility, they are proposing legislation that would force the White House to outline the effects of the cuts. And people wonder why Congress’s approval rating is at an all-time low.

But there is more than enough blame to go around. The Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-led Senate and the Obama White House had a chance to implement a range of proposals aimed at deficit reduction last summer. They chose to kick the can down the road, empowering an independent, bipartisan panel to make the tough choices for them. That effort failed.

If the Super Committee was unable to hammer out a compromise when the conditions were ripe last summer, it is unlikely that one will materialize this summer. Sequestration may be the only way to achieve real spending cuts. Let’s let it happen.

To be clear, sequestration is not the best way to cut the military budget, or federal spending overall. It wasn’t supposed to happen at all; the threat of spending cuts was supposed to compel the various parties to reach a compromise. But it may be the only feasible way to cut spending. And it isn’t going to get any easier in the future.

The Democrats are beginning to show their hand: this was never about cutting spending; it was always about raising taxes. Sen. Patty Murray explained yesterday that her party would allow the cuts in defense and nondefense spending to go forward, and the Bush tax cuts to expire, if Republicans didn’t agree to tax hikes on the wealthy. That isn’t likely to happen, and not just because the GOP is being stubborn. A sizable majority of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, are in favor of cutting military spending. More than half want to extend the Bush tax cuts for all.

Still, there are some Republican politicians who always have been willing to raise taxes in order to protect the Pentagon, despite what the public says it wants. I don’t fault Democrats for holding Pentagon spending hostage as much as I fault Republicans for allowing themselves to be maneuvered into a corner.

The GOP has a straightforward way out of the box: allow the defense and nondefense cuts to go forward, refuse a tax increase and renegotiate a debt reduction deal that doesn't leave entitlements—the real drivers of our long-term fiscal calamity—off the table.

Sequestration likely won’t be as bad as special interests and those in favor of ever-increasing military spending claim. The reductions would only apply to FY 2013 budget authority, not outlays. The Pentagon and Congress will then have greater flexibility starting in FY 2014 to adjust the reductions under the BCA spending caps. In the meantime, many programs could continue on funding already authorized.

We also must keep the cuts in proper perspective. The DOD base budget under sequestration would total $469 billion, about what we spent in 2006, not exactly a lean year for the Pentagon. And as for the claim that the military cuts will result in perhaps one million lost jobs, that seems implausible considering that the cuts would amount to less than three tenths of 1 percent of GDP.

More to the point, the defense budget should never be seen as a jobs program. In a dynamic, market economy, capital and resources adjust to changing demand. Some regions and municipalities that are relatively more dependent upon military spending might suffer some short-term effects, but there is evidence that economies reliant on the military can recover. Some regions could emerge stronger and more diversified. Other reporting indicates that some businesses are already positioning themselves to weather reduced government spending.

Americans spend more today on our military—in real, inflation-adjusted terms—than during the high point of the Reagan buildup. Some might justify these expenditures by claiming that the world is much more dangerous today. But the evidence for that is pretty thin. The Soviet Union on its worst day could do more damage in a few minutes than Al Qaeda has managed to inflict in over a decade. We are safer than most politicians are willing to admit.

If they embraced our good fortune, policy makers could cut military spending without undermining U.S. security. Shifting resources from a relatively unproductive and inefficient sector to a more productive one would be good for the economy. And lower military spending could even improve our foreign policy.

It simply isn't fair to saddle fewer troops with more missions. If we cut spending and reduced the size of the U.S. military, policy makers would have to be more discriminating in the use of force. But greater restraint by the United States would encourage other countries to take responsibility for their own security and share in the costs and risks of policing the global commons.

Strategic spending cuts informed by a realistic assessment of today’s threats would be ideal. Sequestration may not reach this ideal, but it may be the only way to achieve actual cuts in military spending.

Image: iStockPhoto

Sequestration: It’s Not That Bad

Sequestration, the automatic budget cuts scheduled for January 2013, looms large over Washington, and it seems that almost everyone wants it to go away, Democrats and Republicans alike. The epitome of sequestration doomsaying is a recent comment by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA). At a May 31 dinner honoring the congressman, he claimed that sequestration was an existential threat, warning that it “will do what the Soviets exhausted themselves attempting. It will do what countless tin pot dictators, ideological madmen, and ruthless suicide bombers have failed to do.”

There’s fantastic irony in making such a statement after receiving the Eisenhower Award, given each year by the National Defense Industrial Association (yet more irony). They are either unaware of or ignore the fact that, at the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower cut defense spending by 27 percent. Nevertheless, McKeon’s statement and others like it are simply attempts to scare us into believing that sequestration means a ravaged defense budget and a weakened economy. It’s not that bad.

In reality, sequestration means that we will have roughly the defense budget of 2007, when spending (in real terms) was at its highest since the apex of the Vietnam War in 1968, a more dangerous time for Americans than 2012. Furthermore, we can spend less on war as we have withdrawn from Iraq and continue to withdraw from Afghanistan. Some point to the need to reset the force after a decade of war. To a certain extent, that may be necessary. But before we recapitalize, we should think about what we’re resetting for. A post-sequester budget would certainly be big enough to protect Americans, but our leaders should take this opportunity to make long-neglected choices about our national security interests abroad.

Some complain that sequestration doesn’t allow for those choices because it slashes all programs indiscriminately. However, across-the-board sequestration affects budget authority, not outlays, and occurs only in FY2013. From FY2014 through FY2021, spending caps enforce budget limits. So, even though the initial cut will be broad and blunt, most programs will survive on previously appropriated funds until 2014, when the Pentagon and Congress will have greater flexibility to tailor reductions under those caps.

Another worry is that sequestration will further increase unemployment and damage the industrial base. Recent reports claim at least one million jobs will be lost (over two years) and GDP will suffer. A closer read of those reports reveals that the majority of those supposed losses would be private sector jobs, many of which are not directly related to the defense industry. It is far from certain that local retail, restaurants, or even many contractors will lay off workers or close up shop, especially if they are allowed to keep the taxes they are currently spending on the bloated defense budget.

During the significant defense drawdown of the 1990s (36 percent), when taxes went up, the economy not only survived, it flourished. Unemployment did initially rise from 5.4 percent in 1990 to 7.3 percent in 1992. But by 1995, it had dropped to 5.6 percent, and by 2000, it was 4 percent. Meanwhile, GDP grew from $5.7 trillion in 1990 to $9.8 trillion in 2000. The answer for those who say, “Yes, but there were other factors involved in that growth!” is, of course, “Exactly!” It is extremely difficult to predict the effects of cutting inefficient government spending equal to three-tenths of one percent of GDP per year in an economy so large that Americans can spend $110 billion every year on fast food alone. While some regions heavy with defense industry will indeed feel some effects, history has shown that those areas can and have recovered in a relatively short time.

As legislation goes, sequestration is awful. But it is not the end of the world; it is not the end of the United States; it is not even the end of the defense industry. It is merely a symptom of a long-approaching budgetary reckoning and a symbol of Congress’s cowardice. If it’s as bad as McKeon fears, we are facing no less than the combined cataclysm of invasion, metropolitan destruction and foreign domination. Thankfully, it’s not that bad.

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April 21, 2014