Blogs: The Skeptics

America Needs Allies, Not Dependents

The Skeptics

America’s international position is distinguished by its alliance networks. Presidential candidates decry today’s dangerous world, yet the United States is allied with every major industrialized power, including China and Russia. It is a position Washington’s few potential adversaries must envy.

Unfortunately, littering the globe with security commitments is costly. Equally important, America’s defense and support transforms friends and allies into dependents. The principle is the same as domestic welfare. Why do it yourself if someone else will?

In his recent interview with the Atlantic, President Barack Obama complained, “Free-riders aggravate me.” But Washington has created a world filled with free—or at least cheap—riders.

The president recently visited one of the targets of his ire: Saudi Arabia. The royals long ago assumed the U.S. military would act as their de facto bodyguard. The first Gulf War was more about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Kuwait.

At least the KSA began putting more money into its military when it perceived the Obama administration’s commitment to Riyadh was waning. The kingdom was outraged at Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and refusal to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war. Yet the “alliance” has still dragged the United States into the KSA’s war in Yemen, which has gone from a local civil war to a regional sectarian conflict.

Content to spend barely 1 percent of its GDP on the military throughout the Cold War while facing the Soviet Union and Maoist China, Japan has started doing a bit more. It appears Tokyo is worried that Washington might not go to war with Beijing over the Senkakyu/Diaoyu Islands. For decades, Japan’s only responsibility as an ally was to be defended, but recently Japan passed legislation allowing its military to aid U.S. forces under attack.

Washington’s Korean commitment grows out of the Korean War, which ended sixty-three years ago. Since then the Republic of Korea has raced ahead of the North, with an economy as much as forty times as large, a population twice as big, and a dramatic lead in technological prowess, international influence and most every other measure of national power.

Yet the ROK, facing a supposed existential threat, spends a lower percent of its GDP on the military than America does. Although Seoul’s military is qualitatively superior to that of the North, South Korea’s forces lag in quantity—because the ROK expects to be defended by America.

Then there are the Europeans. After World War II, western Europe was prostrate and eastern Europe had been swallowed by the Soviet Union. Today, the Europeans not only vastly outmatch Russia, their only potential antagonist, but they possess a larger economy and population than America.

Yet Washington’s desperate, even humiliating pleas for its allies to do more continue to fall on deaf ears. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took great pleasure earlier this year when he announced that NATO’s European members only slightly reduced their military outlays in 2015, after years of significant cuts. This is considered progress.

In all of these cases the United States has variously insisted, demanded and requested that its friends do more. When they did not, it often turned to begging and whining, with no greater success.

One could at least argue that during the Cold War, it was in America’s interest to defend countries even if they would not protect themselves. No longer. Washington faces no hegemonic threat, no ideological competitor, no international peer. There isn’t any “there there,” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.

Yet the alliances commit America to go to war in defense of other nations’ interests, inflating the Pentagon’s budget by tens or hundreds of billions of dollars annually. At the same time, such guarantees dissuade friendly states from doing more on their own behalf. If deterrence fails, as it often has throughout history, the good times will come to a dramatic and bloody end.

Washington has tolerated allied free riding for far too long. It’s time for America to engage in burden shedding, rather than hope for burden sharing. In its quest to maximize its number of allies, the United States has needlessly created a gaggle of dependents.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is a foreign policy fellow and scholar at Defense Priorities.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

Clinton's Road to the White House Paved with War

The Skeptics

America’s international position is distinguished by its alliance networks. Presidential candidates decry today’s dangerous world, yet the United States is allied with every major industrialized power, including China and Russia. It is a position Washington’s few potential adversaries must envy.

Unfortunately, littering the globe with security commitments is costly. Equally important, America’s defense and support transforms friends and allies into dependents. The principle is the same as domestic welfare. Why do it yourself if someone else will?

In his recent interview with the Atlantic, President Barack Obama complained, “Free-riders aggravate me.” But Washington has created a world filled with free—or at least cheap—riders.

The president recently visited one of the targets of his ire: Saudi Arabia. The royals long ago assumed the U.S. military would act as their de facto bodyguard. The first Gulf War was more about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Kuwait.

At least the KSA began putting more money into its military when it perceived the Obama administration’s commitment to Riyadh was waning. The kingdom was outraged at Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and refusal to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war. Yet the “alliance” has still dragged the United States into the KSA’s war in Yemen, which has gone from a local civil war to a regional sectarian conflict.

Content to spend barely 1 percent of its GDP on the military throughout the Cold War while facing the Soviet Union and Maoist China, Japan has started doing a bit more. It appears Tokyo is worried that Washington might not go to war with Beijing over the Senkakyu/Diaoyu Islands. For decades, Japan’s only responsibility as an ally was to be defended, but recently Japan passed legislation allowing its military to aid U.S. forces under attack.

Washington’s Korean commitment grows out of the Korean War, which ended sixty-three years ago. Since then the Republic of Korea has raced ahead of the North, with an economy as much as forty times as large, a population twice as big, and a dramatic lead in technological prowess, international influence and most every other measure of national power.

Yet the ROK, facing a supposed existential threat, spends a lower percent of its GDP on the military than America does. Although Seoul’s military is qualitatively superior to that of the North, South Korea’s forces lag in quantity—because the ROK expects to be defended by America.

Then there are the Europeans. After World War II, western Europe was prostrate and eastern Europe had been swallowed by the Soviet Union. Today, the Europeans not only vastly outmatch Russia, their only potential antagonist, but they possess a larger economy and population than America.

Yet Washington’s desperate, even humiliating pleas for its allies to do more continue to fall on deaf ears. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took great pleasure earlier this year when he announced that NATO’s European members only slightly reduced their military outlays in 2015, after years of significant cuts. This is considered progress.

In all of these cases the United States has variously insisted, demanded and requested that its friends do more. When they did not, it often turned to begging and whining, with no greater success.

One could at least argue that during the Cold War, it was in America’s interest to defend countries even if they would not protect themselves. No longer. Washington faces no hegemonic threat, no ideological competitor, no international peer. There isn’t any “there there,” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.

Yet the alliances commit America to go to war in defense of other nations’ interests, inflating the Pentagon’s budget by tens or hundreds of billions of dollars annually. At the same time, such guarantees dissuade friendly states from doing more on their own behalf. If deterrence fails, as it often has throughout history, the good times will come to a dramatic and bloody end.

Washington has tolerated allied free riding for far too long. It’s time for America to engage in burden shedding, rather than hope for burden sharing. In its quest to maximize its number of allies, the United States has needlessly created a gaggle of dependents.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is a foreign policy fellow and scholar at Defense Priorities.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

Pages

Trump Chases the NATO Burden-Sharing Unicorn

The Skeptics

America’s international position is distinguished by its alliance networks. Presidential candidates decry today’s dangerous world, yet the United States is allied with every major industrialized power, including China and Russia. It is a position Washington’s few potential adversaries must envy.

Unfortunately, littering the globe with security commitments is costly. Equally important, America’s defense and support transforms friends and allies into dependents. The principle is the same as domestic welfare. Why do it yourself if someone else will?

In his recent interview with the Atlantic, President Barack Obama complained, “Free-riders aggravate me.” But Washington has created a world filled with free—or at least cheap—riders.

The president recently visited one of the targets of his ire: Saudi Arabia. The royals long ago assumed the U.S. military would act as their de facto bodyguard. The first Gulf War was more about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Kuwait.

At least the KSA began putting more money into its military when it perceived the Obama administration’s commitment to Riyadh was waning. The kingdom was outraged at Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and refusal to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war. Yet the “alliance” has still dragged the United States into the KSA’s war in Yemen, which has gone from a local civil war to a regional sectarian conflict.

Content to spend barely 1 percent of its GDP on the military throughout the Cold War while facing the Soviet Union and Maoist China, Japan has started doing a bit more. It appears Tokyo is worried that Washington might not go to war with Beijing over the Senkakyu/Diaoyu Islands. For decades, Japan’s only responsibility as an ally was to be defended, but recently Japan passed legislation allowing its military to aid U.S. forces under attack.

Washington’s Korean commitment grows out of the Korean War, which ended sixty-three years ago. Since then the Republic of Korea has raced ahead of the North, with an economy as much as forty times as large, a population twice as big, and a dramatic lead in technological prowess, international influence and most every other measure of national power.

Yet the ROK, facing a supposed existential threat, spends a lower percent of its GDP on the military than America does. Although Seoul’s military is qualitatively superior to that of the North, South Korea’s forces lag in quantity—because the ROK expects to be defended by America.

Then there are the Europeans. After World War II, western Europe was prostrate and eastern Europe had been swallowed by the Soviet Union. Today, the Europeans not only vastly outmatch Russia, their only potential antagonist, but they possess a larger economy and population than America.

Yet Washington’s desperate, even humiliating pleas for its allies to do more continue to fall on deaf ears. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took great pleasure earlier this year when he announced that NATO’s European members only slightly reduced their military outlays in 2015, after years of significant cuts. This is considered progress.

In all of these cases the United States has variously insisted, demanded and requested that its friends do more. When they did not, it often turned to begging and whining, with no greater success.

One could at least argue that during the Cold War, it was in America’s interest to defend countries even if they would not protect themselves. No longer. Washington faces no hegemonic threat, no ideological competitor, no international peer. There isn’t any “there there,” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.

Yet the alliances commit America to go to war in defense of other nations’ interests, inflating the Pentagon’s budget by tens or hundreds of billions of dollars annually. At the same time, such guarantees dissuade friendly states from doing more on their own behalf. If deterrence fails, as it often has throughout history, the good times will come to a dramatic and bloody end.

Washington has tolerated allied free riding for far too long. It’s time for America to engage in burden shedding, rather than hope for burden sharing. In its quest to maximize its number of allies, the United States has needlessly created a gaggle of dependents.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is a foreign policy fellow and scholar at Defense Priorities.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

Pages

Syria's Unclear Path Forward

The Skeptics

America’s international position is distinguished by its alliance networks. Presidential candidates decry today’s dangerous world, yet the United States is allied with every major industrialized power, including China and Russia. It is a position Washington’s few potential adversaries must envy.

Unfortunately, littering the globe with security commitments is costly. Equally important, America’s defense and support transforms friends and allies into dependents. The principle is the same as domestic welfare. Why do it yourself if someone else will?

In his recent interview with the Atlantic, President Barack Obama complained, “Free-riders aggravate me.” But Washington has created a world filled with free—or at least cheap—riders.

The president recently visited one of the targets of his ire: Saudi Arabia. The royals long ago assumed the U.S. military would act as their de facto bodyguard. The first Gulf War was more about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Kuwait.

At least the KSA began putting more money into its military when it perceived the Obama administration’s commitment to Riyadh was waning. The kingdom was outraged at Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and refusal to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war. Yet the “alliance” has still dragged the United States into the KSA’s war in Yemen, which has gone from a local civil war to a regional sectarian conflict.

Content to spend barely 1 percent of its GDP on the military throughout the Cold War while facing the Soviet Union and Maoist China, Japan has started doing a bit more. It appears Tokyo is worried that Washington might not go to war with Beijing over the Senkakyu/Diaoyu Islands. For decades, Japan’s only responsibility as an ally was to be defended, but recently Japan passed legislation allowing its military to aid U.S. forces under attack.

Washington’s Korean commitment grows out of the Korean War, which ended sixty-three years ago. Since then the Republic of Korea has raced ahead of the North, with an economy as much as forty times as large, a population twice as big, and a dramatic lead in technological prowess, international influence and most every other measure of national power.

Yet the ROK, facing a supposed existential threat, spends a lower percent of its GDP on the military than America does. Although Seoul’s military is qualitatively superior to that of the North, South Korea’s forces lag in quantity—because the ROK expects to be defended by America.

Then there are the Europeans. After World War II, western Europe was prostrate and eastern Europe had been swallowed by the Soviet Union. Today, the Europeans not only vastly outmatch Russia, their only potential antagonist, but they possess a larger economy and population than America.

Yet Washington’s desperate, even humiliating pleas for its allies to do more continue to fall on deaf ears. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took great pleasure earlier this year when he announced that NATO’s European members only slightly reduced their military outlays in 2015, after years of significant cuts. This is considered progress.

In all of these cases the United States has variously insisted, demanded and requested that its friends do more. When they did not, it often turned to begging and whining, with no greater success.

One could at least argue that during the Cold War, it was in America’s interest to defend countries even if they would not protect themselves. No longer. Washington faces no hegemonic threat, no ideological competitor, no international peer. There isn’t any “there there,” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.

Yet the alliances commit America to go to war in defense of other nations’ interests, inflating the Pentagon’s budget by tens or hundreds of billions of dollars annually. At the same time, such guarantees dissuade friendly states from doing more on their own behalf. If deterrence fails, as it often has throughout history, the good times will come to a dramatic and bloody end.

Washington has tolerated allied free riding for far too long. It’s time for America to engage in burden shedding, rather than hope for burden sharing. In its quest to maximize its number of allies, the United States has needlessly created a gaggle of dependents.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is a foreign policy fellow and scholar at Defense Priorities.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

Pages

Exclusive: On the Front Lines Facing ISIS

The Skeptics

I have written many times in this space on the evolving situation in Iraq regarding the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). In large part my analysis pieces have been based on the experience gained through my two-plus decades of military service, including four combat deployments (two of which were in Iraq). But for this contemporary situation I have been reliant on reports by journalists on the ground. In the early March, I traveled to Iraq to find out first-hand what the conditions were like in and around the site of the next big fight: the battle for Mosul.

While there I visited four refugee camps, interviewed considerable numbers of displaced persons, met with the commanding general of the Peshmerga in command of troops opposite Mosul, talked with some of his troops, and met with aid workers and journalists from the region. It was an eye-opening visit to say the least.

In some ways I discovered the situation was worse than I’d imagined, the looming fight more complex and multi-layered than I’d imagined, and the brutality of ISIS was even more cruel than i’d heard. But I also discovered pockets of hope and reason for at least some optimism.

In the refugee camps I met with Yazidis, Muslims, and Christians; men, women, teenagers and young children. Two main things stood out during these interviews. First was that even some devout Sunni Muslims I met were angry at ISIS and were adamant in saying the radicals were not genuine followers of Islam but had perverted it for their own ideological agenda; two Sunni Muslims I visited had renounced their faith.

The second thing that stood out from my conversations with displaced persons is that especially among the Christians that had been driven out of Mosul and its environs, there was no hatred or a desire for revenge. “That’s not what our faith teaches,” one man told me. “We must pray for them. Jesus forgave even those people who killed him on the cross.” When I asked him why he wasn’t angry at ISIS, he quickly corrected me. “They should be held accountable for their actions—they drove us from our homes—and we want to get our lives back.” But he said it was up to God, not them, to seek revenge. I have nothing but the highest regard for their strength of character.

There was one other reason for optimism I observed. As is well known, the Iraqi Army dissolved before ISIS in the summer of 2014 and their ability to defeat the Islamic radicals and retake lost territory—especially Mosul—is uncertain. The Peshmerga, however, appear to be cut from a different cloth. I met with the commanding general of the Peshmerga forces opposite Mosul, General Bahram Yassin. I came away very impressed with his understanding of the military, political, and cultural issues complicating the fight against ISIS, as well as his grasp of the tactical tasks necessary to defeat ISIS in Mosul.

I was pleasantly surprised at the general’s willingness to discuss—frankly and on the record—the difficulties and challenges facing his mission (I will write more on this conversation in the coming days). After our interview, he took me to meet some of his troops manning the forward fighting positions opposite the ISIS forward defensive positions. There I met a Kurdish fighting man who was adamant in his contention that ISIS fighters were not as fearsome as the media makes them out to be—and how eager he was to fight them. I even met an American volunteer from Idaho at that forward position. He was a former US Army soldier and had traveled at his own expense to provide his services as a combat medic.

How this battle and war plays out is far from certain at this point. But one thing was deeply engrained on me during this visit. The human cost of this war has already been profound, the destruction breathtaking, and the scale of psychological and emotional wounds suffered by the survivors difficult to imagine. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that virtually everyone I spoke with—man, woman, child, Christian, Muslim, Yazidi—all wanted the same thing: a chance to live without the threat of death hanging over their heads every day. 23-year-old Alen al-Kasmousce, a Christian living in a refugee camp in Erbil, summed it up best.

I asked him what he hoped to accomplish in his future. Get a master’s degree? Become an engineer or businessman? Have a family? He calmly responded, “No, my generation doesn’t even think about those things. What we all dream about is just living life without war.” Once the conflict was over, Alen continued, he could consider a family and career. Without peace, however, he dares not dream and deals with surviving one day to another.

Iraq 2016

Description of photos:

1. What the locals in Erbil called a “vertical village” refugee camp. Because the regional economy tanked in 2014 owing to the twin maladies of the ISIS attack and the collapsing of the global oil market, the city of Erbil is littered with high-rise buildings frozen in various degrees of completion, mere shells. Refugees have been given permission in some of them, like the one pictured here, to build make-shift rooms on several of the unfinished floors in which to live. Whole families live in each of these single rooms.

2. The laundry area in the “vertical village.”

3. A luxury: a functioning, rapidly built community toilet. There are no private facilities of any sort. No kitchen, restroom, showers, or laundry.

4. Rows of pre-fab buildings and tents comprising a primarily Yazidi camp erected in the countryside not far from Mosul.

5. An elderly Yazidi man.

6. A young Yazidi father wonders what the future will hold for his son.

7. A Yazidi woman and her baby. One of the women I met at this camp was still grieving because three of her daughters—ages 10, 11 and 13—were taken from her home by ISIS to serve as sex slaves. She has not heard from them since she escaped in 2014.

8. This elderly Yazidi seemed traumatized when I met him.

9. ISIS is brutal to everyone. Even these Muslim women were driven from their homes by the Islamic radicals.

10-13. The children at every camp I visited seemed to fall into two categories. Some were deeply suspicious of any stranger and seemed afraid of me. But most were oblivious to the war and their lives as displaced persons. They were like kids everywhere: wanted to play, be silly, and enjoy life. Even in these camps many succeeded. Regrettably, their parents and those old enough to understand were not so lucky.

14. I accompanied Ali Javanmardi and his television crew from the Voice of America to the ISIS front lines opposite Mosul, escorted by a Peshmerga truck with a machinegun mounted in the bed.

15. Peering over the sandbags of the Peshmerga front lines at the ISIS line.

16. Looking through a gun port in a sandbag wall at the literal front line of ISIS. On the top of this hill stands the black flag of the Islamic State, marking their forward-most position.

17. A Peshmerga fighter: “We are not afraid of Da’esh (ISIS). They should be afraid of us!”

18. American Ryan O’Leary from Iowa, volunteering as a fighter and medic for the Peshmerga. “I want to help liberate Mosul from ISIS and make sure it doesn’t spread,” he said.

19. The children (and even some of the men) of the Yazidi camp loved to have their photo taken.

20. Taking photos of Peshmerga fighters on front line.

21. General Yassin gave me a tour of the forward position overlooking the ISIS line.

Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments, and is a member of the Center for Defense Information's Military Advisory Board. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.

Image: On the front lines. Copyright Daniel L. Davis.

Pages