The Skeptics

U.S. Should Stop Obsessing about North Korea

The Skeptics

Recent satellite photos indicating that North Korea is upgrading a launch facility have led to a flurry of speculation that Pyongyang may be developing a capability to build and test sophisticated, longer-range missiles. There is little doubt that the North Korean regime has such ambitions. Just a few weeks ago, there was a failed test of a long-range missile—a test that was thinly disguised as an attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

U.S. leaders should take a deep breath and draw two appropriate lessons from the latest photos of heightened activity at the missile site. First, even if North Korea does ultimately develop a new generation of rockets that don’t routinely blow up on the launch pad or in flight, that achievement doesn’t really change much in terms of a power relationship with the United States. The North Korean leadership would have to be suicidal to use such weapons—especially against the United States. Despite the fevered agitation that has occurred from time to time among politicians and pundits in this country that American cities would be at risk, North Korean leaders know perfectly well that even a pinprick attack would lead to massive retaliation and the end of their regime. There is not a shred of evidence that members of North Korea’s political and military elite are suicidal. That point is equally true of Iran’s regime—which makes the argument that Pyongyang or Tehran cannot be deterred extremely dubious.

North Korean leaders undoubtedly enjoy the agitation that their nuclear or missile activities cause in American policy and opinion circles. Consequently, giving such moves an extraordinary amount of attention is the last thing Washington should do. A collective yawn would be a better response, denying Pyongyang the attention it craves.

The second lesson that U.S. policy makers should draw from the latest development is that it is well past time to turn the North Korea problem over to North Korea’s neighbors. It is a perverse distortion of a normal international system that the United States is always expected by the countries of East Asia—and by America’s own political leaders—to take primary responsibility for dealing with that troublesome regime. There is no logical reason that America should be more concerned than South Korea, Japan, China and Russia about North Korea’s behavior. Those countries are a lot closer than the United States to any potential trouble from that source. Indeed, absent the obsolete U.S. troop presence in South Korea, there would be little reason for Americans to be more agitated about North Korean trouble making than about the obnoxious behavior of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Unfortunately, Washington has always pushed itself into the forefront of East Asian security matters, thereby incurring unnecessary risks. The most pernicious aspect of that strategy has been to encourage U.S. allies, especially South Korea and Japan, to free ride on America’s defense guarantees. That they have happily done. Despite having a nasty, volatile neighbor in Pyongyang, South Korea spends an anemic 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Japan spends barely one percent, and despite occasional assertive rhetoric, Tokyo shows few signs of taking responsibility for its own defense, much less the security and stability of its region.

Part of the problem is laziness and exploitive behavior on the part of security clients who have become accustomed to a generous American defense subsidy over the decades. But Washington also bears heavy responsibility for fostering—indeed, even insisting upon—such dependency. It is especially troubling, for example, that the U.S. government has persisted in limiting the range of South Korea’s missiles and placing other foolish, counterproductive restrictions on Seoul’s military.

A new policy is long overdue, and the latest concerns about North Korea ought to serve as a catalyst for change. Washington should make it clear to its East Asian allies—and to China and Russia—that the United States expects those countries to take the lead in dealing with North Korea or any other security problems in their region. And U.S. leaders should back up such a declaration with substantive action—including beginning to withdraw all American ground forces from Japan and South Korea. The days of acting as East Asia’s babysitter need to end.

Image: zennie62

TopicsRogue StatesSecurity RegionsNortheast AsiaNorth Korea

Time to Suspend Sanctions on Zimbabwe

The Skeptics

The U.S. dollar may risk losing its status as the world’s reserve currency, but American dollars are a hot item in Zimbabwe. Three years ago that nation’s economy was in crisis. Hyperinflation made economic life almost impossible. The government issued a 100 trillion (Zimbabwe) dollar note—the highest denomination of money ever printed anywhere. But in 2009, the newly installed “unity” government adopted the U.S. dollar as its own. Inflation is now just 4 percent.

It’s one of the hopeful signs that David Coltart, a Zimbabwean senator who also serves as minister of education, points to. Coltart is visiting America encouraging greater awareness of and improved engagement with his country.

Coltart is a long-time opposition activist who joined the government created with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai as prime minister. The Movement for Democratic Change won the legislative election four years ago, but then President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front essentially staged a “military-backed coup,” forcing Tsvangirai to concede the upcoming presidential election, which he could have won in a free vote, explains Coltart. However, pressure from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) forced Mugabe to accept a coalition government that granted the MDC a majority of the cabinet posts, though none controlling security forces.

The unity agreement obviously is imperfect, but, argues Coltart, there was “no alternative to it.” Economic sanctions “would have destroyed the country.” He points to education—eight thousand schools had closed. Thousands of people could have died in a devastating cholera epidemic. But “there has been a lot of good since 2008,” he notes.

The schools have reopened; public health has improved. With the U.S. dollar as the national currency, the government faces financial accountability: it “no longer can print money,” he notes. Supermarket shelves were empty three years ago; today the stores are stocked with goods. The human-rights situation also is much better. “More than 400 people were murdered or disappeared in 2008,” says Coltart, but virtually none this year. (An MDC activist reportedly was murdered on Saturday.)

Zimbabwe still faces major economic and political challenges. Elections must be held next year, and Mugabe is talking about holding an early vote. “There is deep concern” in ZANU-PF about Mugabe, who “though a fit 88 is still 88,” Coltart explains. Hard-line elements also fear ongoing political reform because “if there is a new constitution and decentralization of power with new election rules it will be a lot tougher for them to win an election.” Moreover, ZANU-PF activists may fear that the longer the economy improves “the greater the contrast with the chaos before and even their own supporters will be less inclined to go back.”

Coltart urges increased U.S. and European engagement. He complains that “current policy seems to be to wait until Robert Mugabe goes.” However, he believes the West could play a more positive role by lifting sanctions, largely targeted against ZANU-PF figures and restricting Zimbabwe’s access to World Bank and IMF credit. He views the issue as mostly symbolic, but “lifting sanctions wouldn’t cost America anything and would send a very clear signal of a preparedness to engage.”

He acknowledges that many in the exile community feel differently, but “surely those of us in the trenches should be listened to.” He has “great sympathy” for the exile viewpoint but notes that “it is easy to advocate hard-line policies if you don’t have to deal with the consequences.”

By following Africa’s lead in this regard, Washington also could reaffirm the positive role played by Zimbabwe’s neighbors. “SADC and the African Union said there was no choice but for” Mugabe to enter into the unity agreement and currently are pressing him to finish constitutional and electoral reform before holding elections, says Coltart. In his view “South Africa in particular and Zimbabwe’s immediate neighbors are not going to budge” on this issue. In turn, they have “said to the U.S. and Europe, trust us.” They know that “if it falls apart, it will undermine their credibility.”

The coming months will prove critical for Zimbabwe’s future. Should crisis again envelop the country, the impact would be felt throughout the region. In contrast, successful political reform would strengthen the MDC and ZANU-PF moderates, creating the possibility of a peaceful transition of power in the future. In Zimbabwe, like Burma, Washington should shift its policy from isolation to engagement.

Image: Al Jazeera English

TopicsEconomicsCurrencyEconomic DevelopmentSanctionsTrade RegionsZimbabwe

MANPADS Myths in Libya

The Skeptics

C.J. Chivers's excellent post for the New York Times’s “At War” blog dispels the widely reported contention that the Libyan weapons stockpiles looted amidst last year’s fighting included shoulder-launched SA-24 air-defense missile systems. The post explains that while Libya did acquire SA-24s, they were not the shoulder-launched or MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) variety. Because vehicle-launched SA-24s like Libya’s are harder than MANPADS to surreptitiously transport and operate, they are a smaller proliferation risk, especially where terrorists are concerned.

Libya did have SA-7 MANPADS, some of which appear to have been looted from weapons stockpiles. These are less reliable than SA-24s due to age and far less capable even when young. Last spring, U.S. officials began to say that Libya had acquired twenty thousand SA-7 missiles. I complained about that estimate here. No U.S. official has ever said where that figure comes from, and it vastly exceeds prior published estimates.

As Chivers explains on his own blog, if Libya had twenty thousand missiles, it likely acquired far fewer reusable components and had far fewer complete systems. It’s like how you buy fewer cannons than cannon balls. But as the twenty thousand claim has been widely repeated, reporters have often replaced the “missiles” part with “MANPADS,” which means the whole system. A quick Google search gives countless examples. Even Andrew Shapiro, the state department's assistant secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said twenty thousand lost Libya MANPADS in prepared remarks in February.

What all this amounts to is underreported good news. At least, the news is far better than even careful newspaper readers have realized. Rather than twenty thousand MANPADS, including some high-end types, floating around Libya and who knows where else, the number is almost certainly far lower and consists of less capable or even unusable components.

That good news makes the already dubious case for paying to protect commercial aircraft against MANPADS even worse. Someone tell Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Few security reporters have C.J. Chivers’s experience with weapons and military organizations. But there is nothing preventing them from having stronger BS detectors and approaching scary official claims with more skepticism.

TopicsArms ControlDefensePost-ConflictSecurity RegionsLibya

Romney, Kerry Miss the Point on Threats: Size Matters

The Skeptics

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is the latest person to mock Mitt Romney’s declaration that the Russian Federation “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe.” It was a pretty silly statement, particularly given the fact that Russia is a demographic basket case and a very humble economic power. But there’s all sorts of weirdness going on in Romney’s assertions and those of his critics.

Take, for example, Wolf Blitzer’s follow up to the Romney assertion:

BLITZER: But you think Russia is a bigger foe right now than, let's say, Iran or China or North Korea? Is that - is that what you're suggesting, Governor?

ROMNEY: Well, I'm saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world's worst actors. Of course, the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran. A nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough.

But when these - these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when - when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go - we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world's worst actors?

It is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

And - and so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that's on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is, of course, a - a massive nuclear power, Russia is the - the geopolitical foe and - and the - and they're - the idea that our president is - is planning on doing something with them that he's not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

So in fairness to Governor Romney, it does seem like he realizes he’s made a gaffe here, so he tries to back up and take another run at it. But in doing so, he just FUBARs it worse. Taking a mulligan, he tries to pivot from the Russia allegation by folding in Iran (“the greatest threat the world faces”) and North Korea, and gesturing at Syria.

It’s the same thing Kerry does in his condescending lecture to Romney:

We have much bigger problems on this planet in the Middle East, with the evolution of Egypt, with the challenge of Syria, terrorism, al-Qaeda in Yemen, and so forth.

Both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves. And they ought to be light-headed from the amount of threat inflation they’re doing. We spend too much time debating the relative size of our enemies and too little debating their absolute size. Every country at all times has a number one, number two, and number three “geopolitical foe.” But the threat environments posed by those foes vary radically.

In a better world, American political elites would discuss the absolute level of threat they face rather than just bickering over our enemies’ batting order. As Ben Friedman and I recently wrote in Orbis:

The dirty little secret of U.S. defense politics is that the United States is safe—probably the most secure great power in modern history. Weak neighbors, vast ocean barriers, nuclear weapons and the wealth to build up forces make almost nonexistent the threats that militaries traditionally existed to thwart. Americans cannot seriously fear territorial conquest, civil war, annexation of peripheral territories, or blockade. What passes for enemies here are small potatoes compared with what worried most states at most times. Most U.S. military interventions affect U.S. security at best marginally. We have hopes and sometimes interests in the places where we send troops, but no matter how much we repeat it to honor the troops, it is untrue that they are fighting to protect our freedom.

Part of the reason our national security politics are pathological is that we focus disproportionately on debating which enemy is the biggest without stopping to ask how big the enemies are.

If your three biggest problems are being infected with Black Death, having a bull rhino charging at you, and being knee-deep in quicksand, you can wonder—for a few seconds, at least—which is your number one problem. Similarly, if your three biggest problems are that you got into an argument with your spouse about who left a dish in the sink, your shoelaces are untied, and you can’t log in to Facebook, you can puzzle over which of those is bigger. But only a fool would miss the distinctions between the two scenarios.

TopicsDemographyElectionsGrand StrategyThe PresidencyRogue StatesSecurity RegionsChinaRussiaIranNorth Korea

535 Secretaries of State

The Skeptics

Congress, especially the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, has become hyperactive on the foreign-policy front in recent weeks. In rapid succession, the House passed two important amendments to the defense-authorization bill, both of which have the potential to cause major complications for U.S. diplomacy in East Asia. The latest measure would require the sale of sixty-six F-16 C/D model fighters to Taiwan, which drew an immediate, angry response from Beijing. The earlier amendment would press the Defense Department to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. President George H. W. Bush removed such weapons at the beginning the 1990s.

In addition to those two amendments, resolutions are kicking about in both chambers of Congress that seek to dictate to the Obama administration, in pretentious detail, the policy it ought to pursue toward Iran. Among other things, those resolutions try to prevent the administration from even considering containment and deterrence as a strategy for dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The only options acceptable to hawkish advocates appear to be 1) accepting Iran’s abject surrender on every issue in dispute, or 2) a strategy of escalating coercion, up to and including the use of preemptive military force.

It would be an understatement to say that such attempts at congressional direction of foreign policy on highly sensitive matters are most unhelpful. Fortunately, the amendments to the defense-authorization bill may not pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. And the Iran resolutions, despite their rhetorical swagger, are not binding on the executive branch.

But the intent behind those measures is worrisome. And there is more than a little irony involved. Conservatives, especially conservative Republicans, are the most vocal supporters of all three items. Yet, prominent conservatives over the decades, including Ronald Reagan and John McCain, have repeatedly invoked the cliché that the United States cannot afford to have “535 secretaries of state.” In other words, Congress must defer to the president in the arena of foreign affairs. That deference, they argue further, is what the Constitution intends.

Unfortunately, conservatives have been most adamant about such deference when it involved chief executives who launched or sought to maintain presidential wars. The view that Congress should tamely acquiesce in such conflicts is a perversion of the Constitution. Both the language of the document and the history of the revolutionary and early national periods in U.S. history make it clear that the founders intended Congress, not the president, to determine whether the republic should go to war.

Conversely, the founders did intend the president, rather than Congress, to manage the day-to-day foreign policy of the United States. We now, quite literally, have the opposite of what they and the Constitution envisioned. Congress has totally abdicated its responsibilities regarding the war power, while it increasingly tries to micromanage key features of the nation’s diplomacy.

That is a profoundly unhealthy situation. Policies toward Iran, North Korea and Taiwan are extremely sensitive matters, and it is unwise of Congress to try to force the president into adopting initiatives that could foment or worsen crises. Such posturing may score political points—or, as in the case of pressure for the sale of advanced-model F-16s, bring lucrative contracts to firms in key states and congressional districts—but it does not serve the national interest.

TopicsCongressDemocracyGrand StrategyThe PresidencyNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesPolitics RegionsChinaNortheast AsiaIranSouth KoreaTaiwan

Negotiations with Iran: What Has Changed?

The Skeptics

On May 23, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) will enter into talks with the Iranian leadership about the latter’s nuclear program. The Baghdad talks come after talks last month in Istanbul. A number of observers have raised expectations for the talks in Baghdad. The latest hopeful development is IAEA chief Yukiya Amano’s declaration, on the heels of his visit to Tehran, that he expects a structured agreement for inspections to be signed “quite soon.” Any progress toward a diplomatic solution would be preferable to backsliding or a collapse. Unfortunately, the talks are unlikely to live up to the high expectations.

Beyond Amano’s visit to Tehran, the big change since last month’s talks is French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s loss to the socialist François Hollande, who appears less truculent on Iran than was Sarkozy. Previously, Sarkozy was the hardest-driving member of the P5+1, so Hollande’s victory is likely to bring the P5+1 into closer harmony. More broadly, the considerable anxiety over the prospect of an outright collapse of the euro is likely to diminish European interest in focusing too much attention overseas.

Despite these changes, however, one wonders how the underlying calculus of negotiations has changed. The United States is still threatening to bomb Iran in order to prevent it from developing a nuclear deterrent. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to define “success” in a way such that it cannot realistically be achieved and to warn that anything less than total Iranian capitulation is failure. Like-minded U.S. legislators, such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), agree that the only acceptable Iranian move is immediate surrender. And high-ranking Iranian military officials are declaring that Iran is “standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel.”

Given these two sets of developments, the question remains: Have sanctions by the United States and its partners caused enough pain and fear of instability in Iran that its leadership will forego a nuclear program that it likely feels is vital for its legitimacy and security? Most skeptics, this writer included, would like to be proved wrong, but they still appear to have the better of the argument.

Image: Sinaf7798n

TopicsUNSanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue StatesWeapons InspectionsSecurity RegionsIran

NATO Summit Will Reaffirm Afghanistan’s Weakness

The Skeptics

The focus of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago will be Afghanistan. President Obama is expected to speak of the need for solidarity from the international community. His only major success will be a pledge from NATO members to commit funds to Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Difficult questions surrounding the mission’s long-term sustainability will remain unanswered. But any long-term plan for stabilization must put Afghans in the lead. That is the country’s true path to self-sufficiency.

The estimated cost of paying for the 230,000-350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) hovers between $4-6 billion, annually. The President will seek $1.3 billion from allies, which in an age of austerity will be difficult for NATO partners, leaving the United States to foot much of the bill.

Although it is cheaper to fund Afghan forces than deploy foreign troops, long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the ANSF may continue through 2025. Building security and governance to the point where locals can stand on their own is an indefinite commitment, not an exit strategy.

The real story of the summit is that Untied States and NATO officials plan to extend their financial support to Afghanistan in the face of war-weary publics at home, brazen insurgent attacks in the capital, and a string of scandals involving coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts. Lingering issues that will go unresolved include the quality of the ANSF, the seemingly indefatigable insurgency, and the long-talked about negotiated peace settlement with extremists and regional powers.

Beyond the cost and size of the security forces, President Obama will also speak of the lofty commitments in the recently signed U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership framework, which include “protecting and promoting shared democratic values” and “social and economic development.” What remains unanswered is what will happen if Afghanistan does not meet these ambitious benchmarks?

What will happen if the fundamental rights and freedoms of women are not protected? What will happen if the 2014 presidential elections are not free and fair? What will happen if security and national unity are not advanced? Does failure void the agreement, and for how long will Afghanistan rely on the United States if we do not see progress? These questions persist as American taxpayers spend $2 billion a week on an unpopular war, and as widespread local corruption and perceptions of social injustice continue to fuel passive support to the insurgency.

The international community’s pledge to never abandon Afghanistan is well-intentioned, especially since Washington was partly responsible for that country’s past and present turmoil. But it is also imperative that the international community not become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch. Afghans desperately seek foreign assistance, but what really matters is the long-term sustainability of Afghanistan’s institutions. Sadly, social and political changes won’t be seen as legitimate if they depend on institutions that appear to be at odds with local traditions or are excessively reliant on foreign patronage.

Paradoxically, the U.S. and NATO may wind up both helping and hindering Afghanistan on its path toward self-sufficiency.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyNATOThe PresidencySecurity RegionsAfghanistan

Euro 2012 and the Price of Repression

The Skeptics

Ukraine has suffered a tortured post-Soviet independence. Its second president, Leonid Kuchma, was accused of ordering the murder of an opposition journalist. Kuchma’s successor, Viktor Yushchenko, was pro-Western but utterly ineffective, even incompetent. The current president, Viktor Yanukovich, turns out to be almost as pro-Western, but his chief ability appears to be beating up his opponents.

Now, he and his country are paying the price for his politicized prosecution of his last electoral opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko. At least eight foreign leaders, led by the presidents of Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany, threatened to boycott a Central and Eastern European summit scheduled last weekend at Yalta in the Crimea. With so many heads of state indicating they weren’t coming, Kiev was forced to postpone the gathering.

Moreover, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, has told the Ukrainian prime minister not to attend a EU-Ukraine meeting scheduled for next week. The Yanukovich government looks especially foolish being banned from a meeting about the country it governs. And several European leaders are pressing for a boycott of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, scheduled for next month and cohosted by the Ukraine and Poland. The event, in which Ukraine has invested $9 billion worth of facilities, will go on, but only under a cloud—and the guarantee of numerous media stories about Tymoshenko’s condition and Yanukovich’s governance.

Admittedly, it’s hard to pick sides in Ukraine. Many participants in the political system are unsavory. Virtually no business oligarch, including Tymoshenko, once known as the “gas princess,” likely is entirely clean. She and Yushchenko, the joint victors over Yanukovich in the so-called “Orange Revolution,” had a bitter falling out. Despite his pro-Russian reputation, Yanukovich has emphasized an orientation toward Brussels over Moscow.

But no one is served by gratuitous repression. One can at least understand brutality intended to keep the existing regime in power. The prosecution of Tymoshenko has the air of persecution, the vengeful destruction of an already defeated opponent. Indeed, it looks a bit like Vladimir Putin’s seeming obsession with keeping one-time billionaire and potential political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars.

In Yanukovich’s case the practice also smells of political weakness. He faces a tough legislative election in October, when all 450 seats in the Rada will be in play. Now, he has suffered the humiliation of being rejected by his peers throughout the region on top of pressure from European leaders who will decide on Ukraine’s suitability for the European Union.

Yanukovich also has squandered any chance of exercising regional leadership. Ukraine is the largest former Soviet Republic, after Russia, to achieve independence. For countries seeking cooperation with Moscow while maintaining their independence, Kiev could play a lead role. But Yanukovich risks turning his nation as well as himself into a pariah. Admittedly, Ukraine won’t be North Korea, but no one will be looking to Ukraine for leadership on any issue.

Engagement usually is a better foreign-policy strategy than isolation when attempting to transform a recalcitrant state. Indeed, economic and trade sanctions often are counterproductive, discouraging reform. However, in this case engagement did not prevent repression, so a little bit of isolation seems called for. Especially important is tarnishing the upcoming games, which apparently were a favorite prestige project for Yanukovich. Reported Andrew Rettman in the EU Observer: “Markiyan Lubkivskyi, Ukraine’s man in charge of preparing the event, has said Euro 2012 is the president’s baby.”

Ukraine should be a leader among not only the former Soviet republics but the independent Eastern European nations once dominated by the U.S.S.R. However, Yanukovich’s ruthless rule is squandering Ukraine’s opportunity. It’s a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but also for anyone else who would benefit from a freer and wealthier Ukraine.

Image: Pavol Frešo

TopicsEuropean UnionCivil SocietyDemocracyHuman RightsSociety RegionsUkraine

Rough Seas Ahead for Navy’s Surface Fleet?

The Skeptics

In its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee proposed a number of changes to the Obama administration’s plans for the U.S. Navy. The NDAA rescinds the retirement of three cruisers and restricts retirement of ballistic-missile submarines (so as not to fall below a minimum of twelve). The bill also contains an amendment which authorizes a GAO review of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. The amendments collectively reflect the committee’s concern that the navy won’t be able to fulfill its current missions with fewer and perhaps less capable ships. Unfortunately, no one is asking whether any of those missions could be modified, eliminated or shifted to others.

I will address some of those issues at a Cato policy forum this Monday, May 21, at noon. I am particularly thrilled to be joined by Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work, Ben Freeman of the Project on Government Oversight and Eric J. Labs of the Congressional Budget Office. Those three make this an all-star cast to discuss the future of a U.S. surface fleet that is undergoing some major changes. With the retirement of the navy’s cruisers and frigates, the development of bigger and more complex destroyers, and the introduction of the LCS, tomorrow’s surface fleet will look quite different than today’s.

Congress is particularly concerned about the LCS because of reports of design and construction flaws and operational problems, including this letter issued by the Project on Government Oversight and a subsequent article in Aviation Week. But some are also concerned that even though LCSs eventually will constitute about one-third of the navy’s surface combatants, the LCS is not supposed to engage in combat. In addition, its mission modules, especially the antisubmarine-warfare package, are years away from operability.

Our panel will address many of the questions swirling around the surface fleet today, including: How will the replacement of thirty frigates with the still-untested LCS affect the navy’s overall capability? Will the ballistic-missile-defense requirement reduce the availability of destroyers for other missions? Could the navy pursue a different strategy to advance U.S. national security that could be executed with fewer ships? Of course, the answers to all of those questions are framed within the context of declining procurement budgets. Given that reality, one could argue that the greatest threat to the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is its undersea fleet: the looming SSBN(X) program could devour the shipbuilding budget for a decade.

So, with no shortage of difficult and far-reaching decisions ahead for the navy, it is a privilege to have Undersecretary Work, Ben and Eric to help us navigate the way. I hope you can join us on Monday.

TopicsDefenseState of the MilitarySecurity

Why Americans Are Less Hawkish than Their Leaders

The Skeptics

American leaders are reliably more hawkish than Americans. That gap marks a failure in democratic decision making. Under some circumstances, the free marketplace of ideas not only fails to produce good policy but actually thwarts it.

That problem underlies a new joint study published by the Stimson Center. Based on a survey of 665 Americans, the study shows that when presented with arguments for and against cutting the defense budget, Americans want to cut it—a lot. Respondents rated general arguments for and against cutting total defense spending, finding most arguments convincing but dovish arguments generally more so. They preferred cutting defense spending to raising taxes or cutting other spending (though Republicans somewhat preferred cutting other spending). Asked to set a defense-spending level for next year, nine-tenths of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans cut it. The survey then listed defense-spending categories, gave standard pro and con arguments for each, and asked respondents for their recommendation on each. Their biggest cuts, by percentage, came from the war in Afghanistan and nuclear weapons. The average total cut amounted to about 18 percent of the nonwar defense budget.

The study is a useful exposition of what we knew: Americans are less enthusiastic about war and military spending than U.S. policy on these matters suggests. As Christopher Preble points out, polls show majorities of Americans will gladly slash defense spending to reduce the deficit, are against the war in Afghanistan and remain lukewarm about global policing and current alliances. But the American political system offers only historically modest defense cuts, an endless, albeit reduced, military presence in Afghanistan and preservation of our globocop strategy. Republican voters’ growing opposition to war of late (which, incidentally, Tea Party supporters seem to be hindering, not leading) has not translated into many antiwar positions among Republican leaders. As Ari Berman recently noted in the Nation, Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy advisors are almost entirely neoconservative Bush administration retreads. Democratic voters, of course, are disappointed by the Obama administration’s hawkishness, though it shouldn’t have been surprising.

This gap is not new. Historically, according to Gallup, substantially more Americans say that we spend too much on defense than say we spend too little. Dan Drezner finds Americans are traditionally more realist in their foreign-policy views—thus less inclined to support military adventure—than American elites. In the latest edition of Political Science Quarterly, Joshua Busby and Jonathan Monten show that Republicans elites have long been more prone than Republican voters to favor high defense spending and long-term alliances.

One explanation for this democracy deficit is what Busby and Monten call “dual slack,” the absence of restraint that either voters or international politics put on U.S. defense policy. Foreign-policy issues tend to rank low among voters’ concerns and to contribute little to their voting decisions. So politicians have little incentive to cater to voters’ foreign-policy views. They are relatively free to adopt principled (undemocratic) stances. And with few rivals restricting U.S. military deployments, foreign-policy makers can indulge ideological ambition and fancy.

Relative power causes the two sources of slack. Power lets the United States run amok abroad while insulating citizens from the consequences. For most Americans, even the war in Iraq brought little worse than marginally higher tax rates and unsettling TV images. Americans don’t much care about foreign policy because it is usually inconsequential to their welfare.

Slack is a permissive condition. It explains why foreign-policy makers can ignore the public, not why they do. Understanding their motives means considering how power changed interests and ideology. As in other public-policy areas, minorities with concentrated interests rule over less interested majorities. The Cold War required organized interests in government and beyond that benefit from high defense spending. Foreign-policy elites may not directly work for the iron triangle, but those interests dominate conventional wisdom in both parties. Those seeking political appointment, government funding or credentials as an establishment bigwig can’t safely buck it.

Exercising power abroad also required changing the United States foreign-policy ideology to suit activism. Where once the dominant idea was that preserving liberalism meant staying out of foreign military fights, the new ethos—call it Wilsonianism—said that liberalism’s success required participating in those fights. Advocates of that view included both the narrow interests mentioned above and most others eager to overcome isolationist sentiment and keep the United States military abroad. By further limiting restraints and thus increasing the policies that Wilsonianism had to justify, the Soviet Union’s collapse accelerated that shift. Variants of Wilsonianism are now the operational code of party’s foreign-policy elite, while realism has been cast aside. The public remains relatively realist because it gets less Wilsonian education and socialization.

The public-elite opinion gap on foreign policy is likely to shrink if these issues get more salient, as Trevor Thrall will tell you. As voters get more interested in issues, they gather information about them from sources consistent with their partisan predispositions and should increasingly reflect elite views. From my perspective, that’s ironic: the more Americans learn about foreign policy, the worse their opinions become. Democracy is not the culprit really—elite rule would be worse—but it hardly helps.

This analysis suggests that good U.S. foreign policy requires bad events. As Justin Logan and I discuss in the latest Orbis, if the economy stays flat and deficits further mount, maintaining military costs will increasingly require sacrificing entitlements or low tax rates. Although the public might then become more informed and partisan, the nature of partisanship might shift. That fight should catalyze antidefense interests that slowly move elites toward the realist, public view. Likewise, another brutal war or mounting threats should increase the popularity of restraint and realpolitik among elites. Because none of those conditions are worth rooting for, the public-elite opinion gap is. It’s a bad consequence of good fortune.

TopicsDemocracyGrand StrategyPublic OpinionPoliticsSecurity