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The Skeptics

Groundhog Day in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan tragically feels like the movie Groundhog Day: reliving and retelling the same stories repeatedly but with the situation worse than it was the previous time. The United States is perpetually stuck in a repetitive series of setbacks and scandals that damage the mission. It cannot escape the shadow that ruinous events cast over the prospect of defeating the Taliban.

Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times published photos of U.S. soldiers posing with the mangled corpses of alleged insurgents. This latest grisly and embarrassing episode, much like the incidental burning of Korans, the murder of seventeen Afghan civilians by a U.S. army sergeant, and the U.S. kill team that collected the fingers and teeth of Afghan corpses as trophies, is yet another scandal that damages what America stands for. Certainly, war breeds hatred for one’s enemies. But perhaps even more troubling is that over a decade of fighting has—as military expert Carl Prine and others have observed—led to a serious breakdown in military discipline, leadership and chain of command.

These photos also come after a series of coordinated assaults rocked Kabul and three provincial capitals this past weekend. The Taliban’s annual spring offensive has commenced. These attacks do not bode well for America’s plan to transition to Afghan forces, or for the 2001 Bonn Agreement proclamations of bringing about “national reconciliation” and “lasting peace.” Of the many interpretations one can glean about the significance of these recent attacks in the heart of the capital city, three stand out.

First, they show that despite coalition night raids and drone strikes that have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders and weapons facilitators, the insurgents still have the upper hand in terms of local knowledge and connections with the Afghan people—including high-level officials. As a classified NATO report from January stated, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact,” and, “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

Second, these attacks send the unequivocal message to the Afghan people that their government is vulnerable and thus unable to protect them. While some commentators have pointed to the performance of the Afghan security forces, the attacks, if anything, underscore the fragility of a Kabul-centric government reliant on an endless stream of foreign-aid dollars. After all, in addition to these attacks, there was the coordinated assault on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters last September and the growing number of top Afghan leaders who have been assassinated one by one. These include Jan Mohhammed Khan, the former governor of Uruzgan province; Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother; General Daud Daud, the governor of Takhar province; Khan Mohammed Mujahed, the police chief of Kandahar; and others.

Third, as one astute observer has noted, the mainstream media has reported on the attacks in Kabul, Pol-e-Alam (Logar), Gardez (Paktia) and Jalalabad (Nangarhar) but overlooked the attempted attack in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. This would have undercut the conventional narrative that the anti-Afghan government insurgency remains where the Obama administration’s “surge” was most focused: in the South. But rather than remaining in one pocket of the country, the complex blend of factions that includes the Hezb-i-Islami militia, the Haqqani network and other loosely affiliated groups has spread to the north as well. Paradoxically, much of the international community’s development aid and military resources have gone to some of Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces. As Oxfam International’s former head of policy in Afghanistan Matt Waldman writes, if Helmand province were a state, it would be “the world’s fifth largest recipient of funds” from USAID.

As usual, political leaders and military commanders have downplayed these latest attacks as yet another “one-off” incident. Americans know better. To them, these attacks—and the photos—will serve as yet another stunning reminder of how poorly things are going and why we need to leave.

Image: DVIDSHUB

Afghanistan

China, Old and New

The developing scandal and opaque power struggle surrounding fallen princeling Bo Xiali, once thought to be a shoe-in for a top party position, reminds us of the old China. The fate of a nation of 1.3 billion people has been decided by relatively few men in Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s leadership compound. Bo’s ouster appears more likely to strengthen those dedicated to maintaining a system of stable authoritarianism than those hoping to promote political liberalism, but the outcome may still be better than the alternative.

Although in this way the “new” China doesn’t look very different from the perpetual back-room machinations under Mao Zedong, the communist Humpty Dumpty really has fallen off the wall, never to be put back together again. After all, during the Cultural Revolution no one looked to citizens of the People’s Republic of China to enhance the profits of upscale New York City retailers. Today, Chinese travelers are spending some of their country’s expansive export earnings in America.

Reports the New York Times:

Over five days in January, a group of visitors to New York was treated to a private concert with the pianist Lang Lang at the Montblanc store, cocktails and a fashion show attended by the designers Oscar de la Renta and Diane Von Furstenberg, and a tour of Estée Lauder’s original office.

They were not celebrities. They were not government officials. They were Chinese tourists with a lot of money.

Tthe most important relationship of the twenty-first century is likely to be that between the United States and China. Both countries have a big stake in emphasizing cooperation over confrontation. But a prosperous, even democratic PRC still could pose a significant geopolitical challenge to America. After all, nationalism knows no ideological bounds, wealth enhances military potential and vote-seeking politicians have been known to harness the whirlwind of demagoguery to win. Nevertheless, a China where the majority of citizens are still desperate to climb the income ladder and the elite are enjoying their privileges is far less likely to intentionally blow up the international system that has moved their nation from poverty to prosperity.

Whether out of ideological conviction or political convenience, Bo was seen as pushing for a return to Maoist values. However, most Chinese seem to believe “Been there, done that” during the not-so Great Leap Forward and the catastrophic Cultural Revolution. For a lucky few in the new China, it’s now even time to shop at Bergdorf Goodman.

China

Stop It with the Kony 2012, Already

I admire the efforts of journalists and activists to humanize foreign civil conflicts. That appreciation held me back from weighing in on the campaign by Invisible Children to publicize the atrocities meted out by Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). But the phenomenon surrounding Kony 2012 keeps gaining momentum, and I thought I would offer some brief comments.

It seems that by deploying U.S. military advisers last November to parts of Central Africa in search of Kony and his thugs, the Obama administration supposedly demonstrated its selflessness in the promotion of human rights. However, the dispatching of advisers also sheds a harsh light on the stark opportunism of central planners in Washington who revile the LRA yet support Arab tyrannies guilty of human-rights abuses on a vastly larger scale.

I am often the first to argue that diplomatic and economic engagement with loathsome foreign powers is unavoidable in statecraft—but open engagement is one thing, active endorsement is quite another. For a prime example, look no further than Egypt, which arguably makes the violence the LRA unleashes pale in comparison.

While many in Washington may not like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists who are coming to power in Cairo, we are taking it on the chin for backing Hosni Mubarak and his twenty-nine year authoritarian rule. Understandably, Egyptians have not quickly forgotten that Washington backed—to the tune of more than $60 billion—a harsh dictatorship that perpetuated its power through the denial of free speech, arbitrary imprisonment, routine torture, and other forms of savage repression. At Egyptian detention facilities, the torture methods used include water boarding, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, electric shock, and suspension from metal hooks. Washington’s concern for human rights was one it rarely applied to this brutal tyrant, and our use of his slaughterhouse contradicted the basic moral principles that we purport to impose on the rest of the world.

Additionally, Mubarak’s authoritarianism—and America’s patronage to it—served as a potent rallying cry for extremists determined to attack America, while Mubarak suppressed the ascendance of deeply conservative Islamist forces as well as moderate, reform-minded critics and proponents of liberal, secular thought. Why doesn’t Washington end U.S. aid to Egypt? If the argument is that aid furthers Egyptian-Israeli peace, foreign-policy planners should keep in mind that Mubarak’s secular government routinely stifled broader elements of lasting peace, including the full normalization of relations (i.e. expanded cultural relations, educational exchanges, tourism, etc). No wonder Israeli officials and analysts described their country’s relations with Egypt as a “cold peace.”

Not to be outdone, another police state that does horrible and unspeakable things to its people with our tacit acceptance is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, arguably the most oppressive regime in the region. The al-Saud royal family maintains a draconian judicial system that amputates the limbs of petty thieves. More abhorrent is that apostates and homosexuals can be sentenced to execution, sometimes by beheading. In extreme cases, criminals are crucified in public.

For a glimpse into daily life, the Saudi regime’s morality police (mutawwa’in) have been known to black out faces in advertisements and prohibit the sale of children’s dolls for their representation of human beings; charge women with prostitution for socializing with men who are not their male relatives; and prowl the streets to ensure that businesses remain closed in observance of the five daily prayers. For those who retort that the Arab kingdom is a staunch ally in the global war on terror, consider that Saudi donors still constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide.

In short, my aim is not to impugn those infatuated with the Kony 2012 phenomenon, as too few Americans care about human-rights conditions in foreign countries. But I must admit that I am completely baffled by U.S. officials who are appalled by Kony and the LRA and implicitly neglect the flagrant hypocrisy at the heart of American foreign policy. The United States is not obliged to protect human rights around the world. Nor is it obligated to provide unceasing support and political cover to police states that systematically repress their own people.

Washington’s Dead Policies Toward Pyongyang and Tehran

In the next week, the Obama administration could face its toughest test yet in handling Iran and North Korea’s quest for nuclear capabilities. If Washington continues to pursue the same sterile policies toward these distasteful regimes, little progress will be made. Diplomacy is still a workable option in each case, but the administration must seek to establish diplomatic relations with Tehran and Pyongyang, even though such a wise goal will be politically controversial.

North Korea seems to be on the brink of conducting a long-range missile test thinly disguised as a satellite launch. And according to the Associated Press, South Korean intelligence officials claim the North is preparing for a third nuclear test. The P5+1 talks with Iran are now set to begin April 14 in Istanbul, but tensions remain high.

The developments on the Korean peninsula are particularly worrisome, if unsurprising. They confirm that Washington’s policy of threatening the North Korean regime with stark international isolation if it does not abandon its ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons program is increasingly an exercise in futility. Most experts believe that Pyongyang already has enough fissile material for four to six weapons and may have already built two or three such weapons. And the North Korean missile-development effort has gone forward, despite periodic setbacks. The effort to isolate Pyongyang has fallen far short of Washington’s goal—with China especially continuing to give Kim Jong-un’s government the food and energy aid that it needs to stay afloat.

U.S. policy toward Iran has not fared much better. Despite getting the international community to impose ever tighter economic sanctions, Tehran’s nuclear program also seems to have made steady progress. Indeed, the sanctions system is notable for its leakage. Frustrated political leaders and pundits in the United States and Israel mutter darkly about resorting to military action to halt Tehran’s march toward a nuclear capability. But the risks of waging a counterproliferation war against Iran are obvious, worrisome and potentially catastrophic.

The nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Salisbury once observed that “the commonest error in politics is clinging to the carcasses of dead policies.” The sad state of U.S. efforts to prevent Pyongyang and Tehran from joining the ranks of nuclear-weapons states is Exhibit A in support of Salisbury’s observation. U.S. policy makers have doggedly pursued their attempts to isolate the two “rogue” regimes for decades—with almost no evidence of success. Washington now faces the prospect of utterly bankrupt policies on both fronts. Indeed, the United States risks ending up with the worst possible combination—the emergence of two new nuclear powers with whom Washington has no formal relations and unrelentingly hostile informal relations. That combination is both futile and dangerous.

Wise statesmen learn to abandon obsolete or unworkable policies. President Richard Nixon did so with his opening to China in 1972, and President Bill Clinton did so with his normalization of diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam in the late 1990s. The results have been clearly positive in both cases, even though the regimes in Beijing and Hanoi are still highly authoritarian and engage in some repulsive actions.

The Obama administration needs to show the same judgment and courage by making a sustained effort at the highest level to establish something at least resembling a normal relationship with Pyongyang and Tehran. It is well past time to bury the rotting carcasses of Washington’s ineffectual policies toward those two governments.

Image, Kim Jong-un: petersnoopy

Image: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Daniella Zalcman

Iran, North Korea

Intervention in Libya and Syria Isn’t Humanitarian or Liberal

Proponents of foreign military intervention in Libya argued that giving air support to rebels there would spread liberalism and save Libyan lives. But the success of that revolution has thus far delivered political chaos destructive to both ends. That result is worth noting as backers of the Libya intervention offer it as a model for aiding Syrian rebels in the name of similar goals.

Advocates of both interventions underestimate coercion’s contribution to political order. Autocratic rule in these countries is partially a consequence of state weakness—the absence of strong liberal norms, government institutions and nationalism. By helping remove the levers of coercion in places like Libya and Syria, we risk producing anarchy—continual civil war or long-lived violent disorder. Either outcome would likely worsen suffering through widespread murder, a collapse of sanitation and health services, and the stunting of economic growth conducive to well-being. And the most promising paths to new of forms of unity and order in these states are illiberal: religious rule, war or new autocrats. The humanitarian and liberal cases for these interventions are unconvincing.

Aside from Qaddafi’s fall, U.S. leaders gave three primary rationales for military intervention Libya (I repeatedly criticized them last spring). One was to show other dictators that the international community would not tolerate the violent suppression of dissenters. That reverse domino theory has obviously failed. If Qaddafi’s fate taught neighboring leaders like Bashar al-Assad anything, it is to brutally nip opposition movements in the bud before they coalesce, attract foreign arms and air support, and kill you—or, if you’re lucky, ship you off to the Hague.

The second rationale was the establishment of liberal democracy. But Libya, like Syria, lacks the traditional building blocks of liberal democracy. And history suggests that foreign military intervention impedes democratization. Whether or not it manages to hold elections, Libya seems unlikely to become a truly liberal state any time soon. As with Syria, any path to that outcome is likely to be long and bloody.

Meanwhile, Libya’s revolution has destabilized Mali. Qaddafi’s fall pushed hundreds of Tuareg tribesmen that fought on his side back to their native Mali, where they promptly reignited an old insurgency. Malian military officers, citing their government’s insufficient vigor against the rebels, mounted a coup, overthrowing democracy that had lasted over twenty years. Thus far, the military intervention in Libya has reduced the number of democracies by one.

The most widely cited rationale for helping Libya’s rebels was to save civilians from the regime. Along with many commentators, President Obama and his aides insisted that Qaddafi promised to slaughter civilians in towns that his forces were poised to retake last March. Thus, intervention saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A minor problem with this claim is that Qaddafi’s speeches actually threatened rebel fighters, not civilians, and he explicitly exempted those rebels that put down arms. More importantly, if Qaddafi intended to massacre civilians, his forces had ample opportunity to do it. They did commit war crimes, using force indiscriminately and executing and torturing prisoners. But the sort of wholesale slaughter that the Obama administration warned of did not occur—maybe because the regime’s forces lacked the organization needed for systematic slaughter.

The limited nature of the regime’s brutality does not itself invalidate humanitarian concerns. It might be worthwhile to stop even a historically mild suppression of rebellion if the cost of doing so is low enough. The trouble with the humanitarian argument for intervention in Libya is instead that the intervention and the chaos it produced may ultimately cause more suffering than the atrocities it prevented. Libya’s rebel leaders have thus far failed to resurrect central authority. Hundreds of militias police cities and occasionally battle. There are many credible reports that militias have unlawfully detained thousands of regime supporters, executed others, driven mistrusted communities from their homes and engaged in widespread torture.

The looting of Libya’s weapons stockpiles is also likely to contribute to Libya’s misery, in part by arming the militias that obstruct central authority. The weapons depots reportedly included thousands of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), some of which may still work. It is worth noting that the widely reported claim that Libya lost twenty thousand MANPADS appears exaggerated. That figure comes from Senate testimony last spring by the head of Africa Command, who did not substantiate it (my two requests to Africa’s Command PR people for information on this claim were ignored). A State Department official recently gave the same figure before essentially admitting that we have no idea what the right figure is.

No one can say with certainty whether Libya’s anarchy will produce more suffering than a Qaddafi victory would have. But that argument is plausible. Autocracies tend to serve human well-being better than chaos. That does not make it inherently immoral to help overthrow despots. It simply suggests that such interventions, whether or not they are moral or wise, do not deserve the adjective “humanitarian.”

The same goes for Syria. One need not support its brutal rulers to agree that their fall, like Qaddafi’s, is likely to produce extended illiberal chaos or another set of autocrats. I don’t know what the right U.S. policy is toward the crisis in Syria. But I doubt any policy exists that can avoid sacrificing one of our hopes for another.

Image: Freedom House

Libya, Syria

More Signs of Trouble in Iraq

Three developments in just the past week confirm that the high hopes Washington once had for post-Saddam Iraq were illusory. The Arab-Kurd and Sunni-Shia fissures in that society are as bitter and intractable as ever. And the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is increasingly unresponsive—if not outright hostile—to U.S. policy goals in the Middle East.

One development was the decision by the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to cut back oil exports. That move marked a sharp escalation in the ongoing feud between the KRG and Baghdad over the sharing of oil revenues and other matters. Just a few weeks ago, KRG president Masoud Barzani charged that the Maliki government owed Kurdistan more than $1 billion for oil shipments in 2011 and warned of unspecified actions if the money was not paid promptly.

But revenue sharing is merely one of several contentious issues between Erbil and Baghdad. The KRG is furious that the central government repeatedly refuses to recognize contracts that Erbil has concluded with international oil companies and other corporations. KRG officials believe, with some justification, that Baghdad’s obstructionism is a needless drag on Kurdistan’s economic growth. And then there is the festering issue over the political status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and its environs. Kurds have been pressing for years for Baghdad to hold a promised referendum on the city’s status—which, given the demographics, would probably lead to Kirkuk becoming part of Kurdistan, something that Iraq’s majority Arab population vehemently opposes. The KRG’s patience is rapidly dissipating, and the Kirkuk quarrel could lead to big trouble.

The second development was the move by Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, to seek assistance from Qatar and other Sunni Gulf states for his feud with the Maliki government. Maliki has accused Hashimi of directing Sunni death squads, and the Shia-dominated regime seeks to put him on trial for treason. He, in turn, accuses the Maliki government of framing him as part of a power play to establish a Shiite dictatorship. Hashimi originally fled to Kurdistan for refuge, and then went on to Qatar. Both Erbil and the government of Qatar scorned Baghdad’s extradition requests. The Hashimi episode underscores the depth of the continuing Sunni-Shia animosity in Iraq.

And finally, there is the matter of Baghdad’s response to Western proposals to fund or arm Syrian rebel forces trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. That is a priority for the United States—in part because Assad is a close ally of the Iranian government. But Iraq’s foreign minister announced that Baghdad strongly opposed international involvement in Syria’s civil strife—especially intervention on the side of the largely Sunni rebels. And Maliki this weekend argued against Arab countries arming and materially supporting the Syrian opposition. Once again, the Maliki government is siding with the Shiite regime in Tehran rather than with Washington. If U.S. leaders expected gratitude from Iraq’s Shia for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, they should have learned by now that such gratitude is in short supply. It certainly does not extend to supporting U.S. objectives against Iran and its Syrian ally.

U.S. leaders believed that post-Saddam Iraq would be a united, secular, democratic model for the rest of the Middle East and that it would be a loyal supporter of U.S. aims. Instead, it has turned out to be a corrupt autocracy with bitter ethnic and religious divisions that show no signs of easing. And Baghdad is closer to being an Iranian ally than it is a U.S. ally. That’s not much of a reward for nearly a trillion U.S. tax dollars and 4,400 dead American soldiers. It should be a stark lesson for Americans the next time that an administration wants to launch a military crusade in the Middle East.

Image: Darwinek

Young Men in War

Since 2006, journalist Neil Shea has embedded with U.S. military units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many soldiers serve valiantly, and most never commit atrocities; however, Shea argues in the latest issue of The American Scholar that we tend to overlook the daily activities that erode efforts to win hearts and minds.

In Afghanistan, Shea recalls the bluster of young men with guns who shot as many animals as they could in an attempt to deny the Taliban resources. After all, a sheep could be Taliban food, or a camel could be Taliban transportation. The result was an appalling disregard for Afghan property that angered average Afghans. He writes:

Many times I have watched soldiers or Marines, driven by boredom or fear, behave selfishly and meanly, even illegally, in minor ways. In a few searing moments I have wondered what would come next, what the men would do to prisoners or civilians or suspected insurgents. And I have wondered how to describe these moments without reporting melodramatic minutiae or betraying the men who allowed me in.

He recounts night raids in which men blew open doors with more explosives than necessary because it was “fun.” They broke furniture, smashed dishes, kicked over grain baskets to search for weapons and contraband, and forced people down on their knees. Unsurprisingly, such actions drove many hapless locals into the arms of the Taliban. As one solider told Shea:

“Yeah, we definitely made some Taliban out here. It was like a week-long Taliban recruiting drive. And we had fun doing it. I love recruiting for the Taliban. It’s called job security.” [Emphasis added.]

Shea’s article, and his personal reflection of the conflict with American Public Media’s Dick Gordon, offer a candid perspective of life on the battlefield that ordinary Americans rarely hear about. That we ask our men and women in uniform to have a “light-switch control over their aggression” offers some insight into the senseless slaughter of Afghan civilians by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Shea writes despondently:

[W]e have no good method for dealing with men who grow too dangerous. We vaguely hope their anger does not spill over, or come home. It is not simple. My own reaction to the men of Destroyer is difficult. I liked them. I still want to believe they were merely full of bravado.

Afghanistan

Give Talks with Iran a Chance

In today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, my coauthor Doug Bandow and I argue that Washington must engage Tehran in order to keep it from following the same course as Pyongyang—a nuclear regime ruling over a population anguishing under international sanctions.

Negotiating with Iranian leaders will not resolve the nuclear issue in the next few months. What’s needed is a process that encourages Tehran to make tactical concessions, such as persuading it to forestall uranium enrichment at higher levels and allowing for more intrusive inspections. Next month, when Turkey hosts talks between Iran and the “5+1 group”—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany—American officials should move toward adopting a long-term policy that incorporates Iran into the community of nations. Diplomacy remains the best means of containing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, diplomacy is unpopular with those who see war as the answer to most international problems.

But an attack is not in America’s national interest. Rather than promoting regime change or bringing hope and prosperity to the region, an attack will unify a divided country, likely lead to a regional conflagration and potentially leave the global economy in turmoil. Moreover, an attack would be counterproductive. As those opposed to the prospect of military action have argued, bombing Iran is the fastest way to ensure that Iran gets a bomb.

The United States is willing to allow Iran to have civilian nuclear power but not nuclear weapons. As Bandow and I argue in our piece, “Virtually no one wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons. But war would almost certainly leave America worse off, and sanctions could well fail while punishing the Iranian people for no good reason.”

This Friday, the Cato Institute is hosting a half-day conference to examine two main questions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program: What are the prospects for a diplomatic solution? And what are the options should diplomacy fail? Two excellent panels with diverse views, including the Skeptics' own Justin Logan, will debate the topic. You can sign up here or watch it live here.

Iran, North Korea

Arms Reduction: Just Do It

In his lively and engaging speech to South Korean students earlier this week, President Barack Obama disclosed that a “comprehensive study of our nuclear forces” was underway and that he could “already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need.” Accordingly, he was planning to meet with the Russians in the hope that “working together, we can continue to make progress and reduce our nuclear stockpiles.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, with no apparent sense of irony, quickly assured the press and Congress that we would never reduce the number of our unnecessary nuclear trinkets—which cost several billion dollars a year to maintain—unless we do so under the auspices of bilateral negotiations with the Russians.

Thus, the need to have agreement in order to reduce unneeded weapons is the only reason for keeping them around. It is a bizarre situation.

Arms control is essentially a form of centralized regulation and carries with it the usual defects of that approach. Participants will volunteer for such regulation only with great caution, because once under its control they are often unable to adjust subtly to unanticipated changes.

Arms deals can also generate perverse incentives: the strategic arms agreement of 1972 limited the number of missiles each side could have, but it allowed them to embroider their missiles with multiple warheads and to improve missile accuracy, thereby encouraging them to develop a potentially dangerous first-strike capability.

And, as in the present case, talks can actually hamper arms limitations: in 1973, a proposal for a unilateral reduction of U.S. troops in West Europe failed in the Senate because many felt that it would undercut upcoming arms-control negotiations—which then ran on unproductively for years.

The Cold War arms buildup, after all, was not accomplished through written agreement; instead, there was a sort of market process in which each side, keeping a wary eye on the other, sought security by purchasing varying amounts of weapons and troops. As requirements and perspectives changed, so did the force structure of each side.

The same process can work in reverse: as tensions decline, so can the arms that are their consequence. It would likely to be chaotic, halting, ambiguous, self-interested and potentially reversible, but arms can be significantly reduced.

There is a notable precedent. After decades of cold war, tensions between the United States and British Canada relaxed in the 1870s, and the ships, forts and installations they had built to confront each other were gradually removed or allowed to rot away over time without any talks or formal agreements. In present times, France has retired most of its nuclear arsenal unilaterally and without discussing it with pretty much anybody.

Under relaxed tensions, reductions will happen best if arms negotiators keep out of the way, and they will proceed most expeditiously if each side feels free to reverse any reduction it later comes to regret. Formal disarmament agreements are likely simply to slow and clutter the process.

Image: Евгений Пурель

On Foreign Policy, Ask the Audience

This Wednesday, the Cato Institute is hosting an event with pollster Scott Rasmussen. I had a chance to read a bit of his new book, The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt, and I selfishly focused on the chapter “How Voters Would Fix Defense.” It is this chapter that will likely be of most interest to regular Skeptics readers.

Rasmussen finds that voters are deeply skeptical of the conventional wisdom in Washington—Rasmussen sets up the book as a conflict between The Public vs. the Political Class—but this divide is particularly wide and deep with respect to U.S foreign policy.

Americans are quite concerned about the nation’s deficit: 82 percent believe the nation’s economic challenges are a bigger concern than our military challenges. Voters have different ideas for how to solve this problem, but only 35 percent of voters would exempt the Pentagon from spending cuts, as Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) plan does (actually, the Ryan plan increases military spending slightly, while cutting nearly everything else). There is some support for cutting military spending despite the fact that 81 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of the military.

These views are not as inconsistent as they appear. Americans believe in supporting the troops but do not reflexively believe that this requires them to support the wars that Washington chooses for them to fight. For example, a majority (51 percent) believe it was a mistake to have gone into Iraq, and nearly 6 in 10 (59 percent) believe U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan within a year. More recent Rasmussen polls find even more support for ending the military mission in Afghanistan within a year (67 percent) and 53 percent favor “an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops” from that country.

Americans are even more skeptical of military missions that do not engage vital U.S. interests. Three of four (75 percent) believe U.S. troops should be deployed abroad only when national security is at stake, which helps explain why so few (20 percent) supported military action in Libya before President Obama chose to initiate it. And the rally-around-the-flag effect was particularly weak in this case: support peaked at 41 percent even after Qaddafi was killed. Rasmussen characterizes the foreign policy favored by American voters as “Protect America First” whereas Washington practices a policy of “Send Americans First.”

There is also considerable skepticism about how the political class defines the U.S. role in the world. Voters reject isolationism, but they wish to remain engaged in the world without having to be in charge of it. Thus, a mere 11 percent embrace our role as global policeman.

This is particularly true when it comes to paying for the security of other countries. Nearly eight of ten voters (79 percent) think we spend too much defending others whereas only four percent think we don’t spend enough. (For more on this, see my latest at the Cato blog). Less than half (49 percent) believe the United States should remain in NATO. By a two-to-one margin (fifty-five to twenty-eight), voters would withdraw U.S. troops from Europe.

Rasmussen freely admits that U.S. foreign policy should not be conducted according to polls, but he raises an important caution for those who think that public sentiment exists either to be manipulated or ignored. Hawks on both the Left and Right who like to lecture other governments about listening to the wishes of their people are throwing stones in a house of glass. It would be far better to practice what they preach. Rasmussen writes:

aligning our military strategy and spending with public opinion would strengthen the most important values of the nation by reaffirming that "governments derive their only just authority from the consent of the governed." The people are sovereign and the politicians are to serve them. We want to display this attitude for the entire world.

He concludes the chapter with a challenge to the political class:

if you don’t like the Protect America First strategy, go to the boss, the American people. This is the strategy they support today. It might be different if there was a vigorous debate, but there’s not telling whether the difference would be more or less to the liking of the Political Class. Still, if there are arguments to be made for a wider US engagement and for interventions in places such as Libya, make them. If there are reasons to leave US troops in Europe forever, state them. If we need to spend more, build support for the taxes needed to finance that spending. Don’t sacrifice America’s greatest asset—our commitment to self-governance—to pursue a more aggressive military strategy than the American people are willing to support.

Image: World Can't Wait

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April 16, 2014