The Skeptics

Fear and Exhilaration in America

The Skeptics

Chaos in Cairo’s streets has wrecked Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. The collapse of any dictatorship should please Americans. One of the world’s most durable dictators is being tossed into history’s dustbin. However, the process in Egypt has only started. The most difficult question always is how any so-called revolution ends. Tragically, revolts against repressive regimes often lead to even greater tyranny: consider the French, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions. The American experience to the contrary is almost unique in history.

Moreover, Mubarak long has been a key Washington ally. U.S. policymakers used to “doing business” with his regime fear that any government arising from the street will be more hostile to America, as well as Israel, which seems to matter almost as much to many U.S. policy-makers. For instance, potential GOP presidential candidate Michael Huckabee lamented that the Obama administration had done too little to support Egypt’s dictator. Yet Uncle Sam today is little more than an interested bystander in Egypt. The Obama administration has stumbled along, first standing by Mubarak, then issuing platitudes about reform, and finally pressing for a peaceful “transition.” But Washington’s opinion simply doesn’t matter much. Observed Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “neither the protestors nor the government are relying on signals from the United States.”

The Egyptian crowds seeking to oust Mubarak have no interest in what the U.S. desires. Indeed, many were angered by the administration’s original refusal, highlighted by Vice President Joe Biden’s reluctance to call Mubarak a dictator, to stand by the Egyptian people. Washington’s popular reputation, already low, fell even further. Alterman warned: “I don’t think there’s anything the U.S. can say or do that would change” the perception of U.S. backing for the Mubarak government.

Regime elites, including top commanders in the army, may care more about Washington’s opinion, but survival is their first priority. Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son and one-time presumed heir, is not the only member of the ruling establishment reported to flee overseas. Indeed, for members of the regime to stay in Cairo is to risk life as well as any ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no good options. Washington has been attempting to influence events in Egypt for decades. Once an ally of the Soviet Union, Cairo shifted to America’s side and made peace with Israel. Mubarak promoted U.S. foreign policy objectives in return for American acquiescence in his oppressive policies at home as well as bribes thinly disguised as aid, about $60 billion worth over the past three decades.

Long identified with Mubarak, Washington needs to try to separate itself from his regime and demonstrate that it cares more for the hopes of Egypt’s people than the power of Egypt’s elite. Even the Bush administration never pushed its celebrated support for democracy very hard, preferring perceived stability to opening a possible Islamic Pandora’s Box. The Obama administration has only been slowly edging in the democratic direction, worrying about future of authoritarian allies in Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere. However, going further and attempting to promote particular individuals or factions is likely to be counterproductive. Having chosen wrong for so long, Washington is unlikely to choose right this time. U.S. policymakers have never demonstrated the necessary knowledge, foresight, and wisdom. More important, the U.S. government has no credibility even if anyone in Cairo was inclined to listen to those who previously embraced Mubarak so tightly. In Lebanon Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently joined with Hezbollah to oust the government backed by Washington. He observed: “Why should we follow American advice in the name of democracy? They have nothing to teach us when they have supported dictators.” In Egypt today U.S. backing would be more likely to discredit than advantage friendly politicians. Thus, the Obama administration has little choice but to watch from Egypt’s sidelines, while preparing to deal with whatever replaces the Mubarak regime. Much ink has been spilled on Egypt’s alleged geopolitical importance. However that country matters far less today than during the Cold War.

Having an allied government in Cairo is helpful, not vital. A new government might reduce or end anti-terrorism cooperation, though even a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood would be unlikely to support attacks on the U.S. If a radical regime closed the Suez Canal it would risk dooming itself by cutting foreign revenue needed to pacify an angry population.

Some Americans worry about Israel, placing concern for its security on par or even above that of America. For instance, Michael Huckabee, in Israel to celebrate construction of another illegal settlement on Palestinian territory, cited “real shock and surprise down to the average, on-the-street Israeli citizen at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year-ally.” But if a new Egyptian government was foolish enough to attack Israel Cairo likely would become another occupied territory—and perhaps home to its own Israeli settlements, also to be promoted by Huckabee.

Thus, while adapting current policies towards fast-moving events in Egypt, the Obama administration should begin a longer-term transformation. The U.S. government should back away from attempting to micro-manage politics in Egypt or other foreign nations. Americans should support democracy and a liberal society in the best sense of the word. But U.S. officials should not be in the business of attempting to bolster or oust even authoritarian governments.

Washington has a long history of supporting foreign thugs to advance perceived geopolitical interests. Sometimes horrible choices must be made, such as allying with Joseph Stalin against Adolf Hitler. In most cases, however, the interests being advanced are not worth the moral price of underwriting brutal repression.

For instance, former Reagan official Daniel Oliver declared: “however great the interest of the Egyptian people in their own freedom and human rights, it is eclipsed, even if they don’t realize it, by the national security interest of the United States.” It is hard to imagine what cause short of national survival could warrant Americans keeping the Egyptian people in chains for the benefit of America.

And such a policy would ensure enduring hostility, since the Egyptian people would be unlikely to view their “freedom and human rights” as mere incidentals to be tossed aside at Washington’s behest. Thus, even when the U.S. government is successful in buying authoritarian friends, it inevitably makes enemies, many of whom have long memories.

When such regimes ultimately collapse, as in Iran, the results are not pretty. Tehran now is perhaps Washington’s global enemy number one, a predictable outgrowth of Washington’s quarter century of support for the Shah’s despotic rule. The U.S. faces a similar threat in Egypt.

Attempting to forcibly reform, or even overthrow, repressive regimes is more satisfying morally. But the outcome is not necessarily more positive. It is far easier to blow up a society than put it back together. Look at Iraq, 200,000 civilian deaths after America’s ill-considered invasion. The Mubarak government long has used the threat of Islamic radicalism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood to win U.S. support. That possibility seems exaggerated, but it illustrates a real dilemma: democracy often yields regimes hostile to Washington. The U.S. government pressed for elections in the Palestinian territories, which propelled Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip in 2006. Washington then refused to recognize the result, adding hypocrisy to stupidity. U.S. policy in Lebanon has similarly run aground on the shoal of Hezbollah’s popularity.

And abrupt changes of regime are more likely to result in violence and repression. While Washington should not oppose democratic movements even if they seem less likely to promote U.S. geopolitical interests, the U.S. government should not actively spur revolution. American policymakers lack the wisdom, as well as practical control over events once set in motion, necessary for any attempt at social engineering in other societies. Washington simply doesn’t know how to get there or even where “there” is. That certainly is the case in Egypt, where possible outcomes include direct military rule, domination by Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a reformulated authoritarian regime, or real democracy. The fact that most Americans presumably would prefer the latter does not mean the U.S. government can make it happen.

Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, said the U.S. “must do a better job of encouraging democracy” in the Middle East. But how? There is much discussion about what “we” should do. But this assumes an illusory world in which Washington can simply tell everyone else what to do.

Even in pushing for the liberal ideal American officials risk doing more harm than good. Washington likely will be blamed for whatever results. Notes Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group: “Every time we open our mouths, it runs a risk of hurting the objective we’re pursuing.” Better for the U.S. government to disengage, leaving Egypt’s course in the hands of Egyptians. Advocate respect for human rights and democracy, and then shut up. The less said by Washington about what the U.S. government desires, the better. 

The Egyptian people deserve liberation. Unfortunately, history suggests that it will take more than street demonstrations to create a free society. Rather than attempt to dictate outcomes in foreign nations, Washington should recognize the limitations on its ability to influence events, and even more important, to influence events positively. Americans outside of government can do more to promote the principles of liberty and the national culture in which those principles are most likely to ultimately flourish. We all would benefit if the U.S. adopted the sort of “humble” foreign policy that President George W. Bush originally advocated.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon)

TopicsAutocracyDemocracySecurity RegionsEgypt

The GOP’s Military Spending “Cuts” That Aren’t

The Skeptics

On Thursday, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced spending levels for the remainder of the 2011 Fiscal Year. Under the plan, discretionary spending would be cut by $74 billion, and security spending—defense, homeland security, and other related agencies—would be cut by $16 billion.

At first glance, this seems like a minor victory for deficit hawks. While the amount of security spending cut is still not close to the reductions Christopher Preble, Benjamin Friedman, and others propose, or anywhere near the $100 billion in discretionary spending cuts the GOP proposed in its “Pledge to America,” it is a start. But let’s be clear: the Federal deficit is projected to be $1.5 trillion this year. In no way does $74 billion dollars in cuts address this problem.

And in fact, it’s not even $74 billion. As multiple outlets have correctly reported—reports Ryan’s office continue to deny—the amount of discretionary spending cuts, based on current spending levels, is only $32 billion and security spending will receive an $8 billion increase, not including funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This discrepancy is due to the GOP proposal counting savings against Obama’s FY 2011 budget, which was never enacted, and thus is not the current spending level. The current spending levels are in place via a continuing resolution that sustains the FY 2010 budget, plus inflation, until March 4. And so, the GOP’s numbers are based on a bit of trickery. Although Republicans promised to bring spending back to FY 2008 levels, they miss the mark by $123 billion in discretionary spending, while their plan for funding security-related functions is $81 billion higher than FY 2008.

As Benjamin Friedman explained a few weeks ago, Rep. Ryan, as Budget Committee Chairman, has the power to single-handedly set the top-line mark for the federal budget. But the levels he proposes for departments and agencies are little more than recommendations; they are not binding. The appropriations committees actually distribute the money. Because of this, it is difficult to say where actual cuts may come from and who the winners and losers will be. And the $8 billion increase for security is not yet set in stone.

Fiscal conservatives will likely have the chance to offer amendments to Ryan’s proposal when the next continuing resolution comes to the House floor—necessary before March 4 to avoid a government shutdown. The amendments could have a substantial impact on the top-line, possibly aiming for the promised amount of $100 billion, if members of the Republican Study Committee, which includes about two-thirds of the House, get their way.

So, there is still hope that the GOP will realize that it can’t keep military spending off the table when searching for budget cuts. They should heed the calls of the many conservative heavyweights that have come out in favor of cutting military spending, including the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist. In a Cato Hill Briefing on January 19, Grover, along with Christopher Preble and Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute discussed the need for the 112th Congress to get serious about reigning in the deficit and stop providing a free pass to the Pentagon.  The remarks have just been posted online and you can find them here.

TopicsCongressDefensePolitics RegionsUnited States

Washington and the Political Opposition in Egypt

The Skeptics

 The Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required) reports that “a spectrum of opposition figures banded together to plan an alternative vision” to Mubarak’s regime well before the protests erupted last week. This advanced planning, which included “dozens of meetings lasting more than 100 hours” enabled the opposition to present a unified front. The shadow legislature’s 10-person steering committee quickly coalesced behind a single individual – Mohamed ElBaradei – to be the point person in negotiations with government. But the true power in Egypt is reflected in the parties and interest groups represented on that steering committee.

The Journal published the names and affiliations of the committee’s members in a helpful side bar:

  1. Mohamed ElBaradei: Former head of International Atomic Energy Agency, leader of Egypt's National Association for Change
  2. Mohammad Baltagi: Head of Muslim Brotherhood bloc of lawmakers from 2005 to 2010
  3. Hamdeen Sabahy: Head of the Karama Party, a secular, left-wing Arab Nationalist party
  4. Abdel Galil Mustafa: The coordinator for the National Association for Change, Mr. ElBaradei's group
  5. Mahmoud Al-Khudairi: Former vice president of Egypt's appeals court
  6. George Ishaq: Former head of the Kefaya protest movement, which led the protest against President Mubarak in 2005
  7. Abdel Ezz Hariri: Formerly of Tegammu, a secular leftist party
  8. Ayman Nour: Head of the liberal secular Ghad party. Ran against Mubarak in 2005 elections
  9. Magdy Ahmed Hussein: Head of the pro-Islamist Labor Party
  10. Osama Ghazali Harb: A former member of Mubarak's ruling NDP and Mubarak family confidant; left the party and founded the secular and liberal National Democratic Front. Editor in chief of Siyasat Dowlia, an Egyptian journal on international affairs


(The steering committee also included several youth groups, each of which was asked to send 3-5 members to the committee.)

It would be logical for readers to ask: Who among this list of names would we most like to see emerge as the next leader in Egypt? And what, if anything, can and should Washington do to make that happen?

I have a different question: Might it be better to avoid micromanaging Egyptians politics altogether?

Whenever a crisis ensues, in any country in the world, there will always be a hue and cry for the president to do something. This ignores the fact that many of these crises have nothing to do with the United States, and therefore that the United States has no obvious role in resolving them. Such cries for intervention also ignore the possibility that heavy-handed U.S. government involvement in the internal politics of foreign states often makes bad situations worse.

In this particular case, it is not true that Washington has no role to play in Egyptian politics. The U.S. government’s three-decade long support of the Egyptian government, especially the provision of tens of billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer-funded aid, implicates Washington in all that that government does. Even when U.S. officials complain about a lack of political opportunity, the corruption that stifles economic development, or gross violations of basic human rights, such criticisms will inevitably fall short for those who are on the receiving end of these injustices.

But Washington’s “do something” impulse seems to be overpowering common sense. Having backed the wrong person for too long, there is now a countervailing urge to correct our past error by backing the “right” person this time around.

I have a different idea. We should step back and consider that our close relationship with Mubarak over the years created a vicious cycle, one that inclined us to cling tighter and tighter to him as opposition to him grew. And as the relationship deepened, U.S. policy seems to have become nearly paralyzed by the fear that the building anger at Mubarak’s regime would inevitably be directed at us.

We can’t undo our past policies of cozying up to foreign autocrats (the problem extends well beyond Egypt) over the years. And we won’t make things right by simply shifting --or doubling or tripling -- U.S. foreign aid to a new leader. We should instead be open to the idea that an arms-length relationship might be the best one of all.


Image (c) Carlos Latuff

TopicsSecurity RegionsEgypt

The Inanity of “Butting Out” of Egypt

The Skeptics

Some commentators have argued that the United States should abstain from taking sides in Egypt’s unfolding political crisis. What a curious and ill-informed line of thinking.

Since 1979, the United States has provided Egypt with an annual average of $2 billion in economic and military foreign assistance—that totals more than $60 billion over the last 30 years. Newsflash: the United States is already involved. From NBC’s Richard Engel:

Most Egyptians see the United States as having stood solidly by President Mubarak while the government here grew more and more corrupt. And they see the Americans as complicit in it. And just today, for example, when we were out on streets this is what a lot of people were showing us about American involvement. If you can see in my hands this is one of the tear gas canisters and very clearly written in English on it, it says "Made in the USA by Combined Tactical Systems from Jamestown, Pennsylvania.” And they say this is the kind of support that the United States has been giving to the Egyptian government and bears some responsibility, although today it is trying to say that it never backed Mubarak so much, it has been calling for reforms for a long time, Egyptians don't see it that way.

TopicsDemocracyForeign AidSecurity RegionsEgypt

Walt's Ideas on Bad Ideas

The Skeptics

Steve Walt has a good essay in Foreign Policy on the success of bad foreign policy ideas in the United States. I agree with his conclusion that “vigorous, unfettered” debate increases societal wisdom. But Walt doesn’t fully appreciate the central role salesmanship and BS play in a pluralist democracy like ours. He clings to the notion that bad ideas cause bad policy. In reality, it’s more the other way.

Walt deftly summarizes structural realism’s take on the marketplace of the ideas. John Stuart Mill gave us that concept. He thought that liberalism’s protection of free speech would allow the best ideas to outperform the worst, meaning that liberal democracies would produce more truth than non-democracies, learn faster from mistakes, and ultimately have smarter policies. The dean of structural realism, Ken Waltz, long ago pointed out that this habit of self-evaluation should make liberal democracies more attuned to the requirements of success in international policies than other states. That insight provoked a program of quantitative research, which argued that democracies win a higher percentage of their wars than non-democracies. One explanation for this (not uncontroversial) finding is that debate and dissent make democracies liable to choose wars that they can win. To many structural realists, folly in liberal states’ foreign policy comes not from the intrusion of domestic politics into foreign policy making but from the pathologies that impede domestic debates about foreign policy.

Walt mentions several such impediments. Taboos and national ideologies dissuade people from criticizing some policies. The wealth and safety enjoyed by powerful states, like the United States, limit the consequences of bad foreign policies, preventing the state from learning from its errors. Secrecy and the dominant role executives play in providing information about security matters prevent real debate about many issues. Domestic interest groups hijack foreign policy, dominating debate and shrouding their parochial interests in the nation’s.

The last explanation for bad ideas shows the article’s trouble. Walt writes that “this problem with self-interested individuals and groups interfering in the policy process appears to be getting worse.” That sentence carries the quixotic and undemocratic assumption that there once existed another kind of policy-making process, one free of self-interested actors, where all participants honestly argued in service of the national interest, and that those halcyon days can be restored. But a marketplace of ideas without self-interested groups and actors would be one robbed of the lion’s share of intellectual capital. Self-interest is the engine of policy-making in democracy, not its enemy.

Walt thinks that either the public or the politicians that serve them are like judges, weighing contending views to arrive at wise policy; or like academics, studying ideas to arrive at preferences, which they simply enact. A more accurate description of policy-making comes from pluralism (pluralist scholars include David Truman, Edward Banfield, Charles Lindblom, James Q. Wilson, and Robert Dahl), which imagines a more intense, but less efficient, marketplace of ideas. The American government, pluralists tell us, is an arena for the competition of interest groups (ideological or economic), manifested in pressure groups and governmental agencies. Collective action theory explains that only these concentrated interests will be reliably motivated to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Those interests’ contention is our politics; its current outcome is policy. Presidents preside over this fray, but their control is far less than we generally imagine. They accept the status quo far more than they change it, and having accepted it, they sell that compromise as their own policy, using ideas to match it to the national interest.

Bad ideas then persist because they are useful weapons in policy-fights. Policy-makers are more like lawyers than judges, using arguments about how their preferred policies serve the national interest to win adherents. Walt cites the resurrection of domino theory to illustrate his argument, arguing as if its intellectual defeat would prevent the policies it justifies. Instead, if no one believed in the domino theory, hawks would simply employ another argument about why we should fight in Afghanistan, or wherever we are next.

Because elites are avatars of competing preferences largely talking past each other, their debate produces noise and passion but little progress toward agreed truth, as Trevor Thrall taught me. The media conveys self-interested claims with little evaluation. The public either fails to pay attention or is aroused by its side and believes it. Its schisms mirror elites’. Because interests check each other by marshalling support, their conflict causes stasis, not wisdom. Where sides fail to contend, little debate will occur, and no segment of the public will resist the dominant interest’s goals. Restraint will come only from the limits of its desires.

This is not to say that bad ideas have no effect on policy or that they can never die in democracy. The point is that their effect is generally overrated, and they typically change along with policies that cause them. Policies change where interests change, often because the policies cause trouble for some existing interest group or awaken a new one. Walt’s argument about wealth and safety allowing folly is consistent with this point. For example, the U.S. occupation of Europe continues, along with the ideas that justify it, because it has no economic or security consequences sufficient to concentrate an interest powerful enough to change it. To change bad ideas, you need to change the incentive structure that produces them.

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsPolitical Theory RegionsUnited States

Washington's Egyptian Conundrum

The Skeptics

The Obama administration appears to have been caught a bit flat-footed with the events in Egypt over the past week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s prediction last Tuesday that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was stable, and Vice President Biden’s claim that Mubarak is not a dictator, are unlikely to be celebrated in the annals of American diplomacy alongside Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall.”

But predicting the future is always a dangerous business. On the question of what the U.S. government should do right now, a consensus is building in support of the Obama administration’s decision to suspend aid, and calls to resume that aid only when a new government is in place in Egypt, one that is committed to principles of liberal democracy. That last part might prove the most difficult, in a country that has no democratic tradition. Some worry that the leading opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, will emerge as the dominant power in the country (despite it playing a small role in the protests, and despite its profession of support for the secular leader of the opposition Mohamed ElBaradei).

The Obama administration is stuck with a policy not entirely of its own making – decades of U.S. taxpayer support for the Mubarak regime – but it also seems trapped by the dominant worldview in Washington that is preoccupied with finding a solution to every problem in the world. This global view flows from deeply flawed assumptions about the likelihood of a worst-case scenario transpiring in every case, and then exaggerating the impact of that worst-case on U.S. security. In many instances, the impact is presumed to be nearly catastrophic. In actuality, they almost never are.

Might Egypt be an exception? It is an important country in its own right, traditionally a center of the Arab world. Its population of 80 million people is larger than that of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon combined. Egypt is the second leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind only Israel, and it straddles one of the most important choke points in the world, the Suez Canal. Given its size, influence and location, there is the possibility that this spreads elsewhere. Protests have also broken out in Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan. The Saudis and Jordanians are nervous.

So how should the U.S. respond? In the short-term, the U.S. government needs to strike a balance, and not be seen as pushing too hard for Mubarak’s ouster; but Washington should not anoint a would-be successor, either. The message should be: this is for the Egyptian people to decide.

Because Washington has been such a long-time supporter of Mubarak's regime, it is likely that many in the pro-democracy movement harbor anti-American sentiments. This was certainly the case in Iran following the overthrow of the Shah. But again, that is a worse-case scenario. If Mubarak is removed from power, it could pose problems for core U.S. objectives in the region. But we shouldn’t assume that what comes after will be much worse.

As a general rule, U.S. policy should not support undemocratic regimes on the erroneous assumption that we need them more than they need us. Washington should stop behaving as though the nation's survival depends upon a particular regime holding power in Egypt or Yemen or Pakistan, or anywhere else, for that matter. If our negotiations with various governments started from that very different presumption, I think we would be in a lot better shape today.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

Phantom Forces II

The Skeptics

On Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters he endorses a proposal to expand the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) beyond their standing targets, 134,000 officers and 171,000 soldiers respectively. But apparently someone forgot that with increased end-strength comes the need to build more countrywide logistical infrastructure.

The NATO-led training mission (NTM-A/CSTC-A)* will devote $11.4 billion through FY 2012 for the construction of nearly 900 Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) facilities, including training centers, air corps installations, supply depots, et cetera. Presumably, to ensure the most efficient use of funding, CSTC-A would want to formulate a plan detailing what facilities are needed, how resources are prioritized, and where potential waste can be minimized. But, lo and behold, no such plan exists.

A recent audit by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that without a construction and maintenance plan, CSTC-A risks building ANSF facilities that are “inadequate or do not meet ANSF strategic and operational needs.” Of course, “inadequate” and “do not meet…needs” are euphemisms for the fraud and waste endemic to foreign-led stabilization and reconstruction. But none of this is new. In fact, previous audits of construction contracting have shown that “CSTC-A was not able to document the U.S. plans and justification for the number and types of ANA facilities, including documents delineating the size, location, or use of the garrisons.” [Emphasis added.]

Several problems are worth mentioning.

The first is that much of the conflict is in reaction to the very Afghan government that the United States seeks to expand. For example, in Helmand province, President Hamid Karzai has rewarded sub-tribes within his dominant Durrani Pashtun confederation (including Alokozai, Popalzai, and Barakzai) with district governor positions, police chief posts, appointments in the intelligence service, and other critical government departments. Meanwhile, in neighboring Kandahar, many fighters also come from communities and tribes systematically excluded from the Karzai-appointed local government. In this respect, increasing Afghan recruitment numbers will do nothing to address the problem of group disempowerment—much less tackle the complex blend of other intangible motives that spur many people to fight.

A second and closely related problem is that too few Afghans trust law enforcement, especially in rural subsistence areas. When Afghans want to resolve an inter-communal dispute, many of them turn not to corrupt government courts, which demand exorbitant bribes, but instead they go to a local mullah, who may or may not moonlight for the Taliban, but who nevertheless delivers swift justice. Despite what U.S. officials would have us believe, Afghan security forces will be useless without effective rule of law, and any strategy that ignores this is doomed to fail.

The third and perhaps most critical problem for which troop training fails to account is that the Government of Afghanistan lacks the financial capacity to pay for the massive security apparatus the coalition is foisting upon it. On average, police officers and soldiers now make $165 a month; forces serving in more dangerous areas get an additional $75. Even a low-end cost projection would bring security funding to $39.6 billion, and that’s just to pay for salaries. Keep in mind that Afghanistan’s GDP is roughly $14 billion. The Afghan government already spends almost half of its yearly $1 billion revenue on security; thus, it is conceivable that the United States will be forced to pay the lion’s share of a financial burden that may continue through 2025.

In Washington, war proponents insist that the international community can and should train Afghans to protect their own country, but rarely do these proponents recognize the role of prolonged foreign patronage in undermining that outcome.

* NTM-A/CSTC-A = NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan/Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan

TopicsCounterinsurgencyMilitary StrategySecurity RegionsAfghanistan

More on Gap-Bridging

The Skeptics

Michael Mosser, the author of the lead article in the Perspectives on Politics symposium on a scholar-practitioner gap that I highlighted last month, writes in to say he thinks I partly mischaracterized his argument:

One major point I wanted to get out that I think was missed in your excerpting of the article and the responses was that it's an alleged disconnect, and that universities who fail to reward practitioners with academic perks (like tenure, or even professorships) are doing themselves a disservice. I'm totally on board with the idea that the policy elite in Washington are narcissistic and self-serving. In fact, my former students at SAMS would say you and I are in 'violent agreement' about that.

But I think the academic world is no less narcissistic and arguably just as self-serving. So for academics to dismiss out of hand people with policy experience because they are somehow 'tainted' by Washington is ultimately a self-defeating strategy. That, by the way, was the whole point of the Minerva section of the essay, and actually was Ron Krebs' biggest problem with my essay, not so much the part you quoted in the blog.

In the end, though, it was a good experience and a generally fair take on the symposium, and I appreciate the bump.

To my eye, this raises two questions: First, does/should policy work carry with it the taint in the academy that Mosser suggests? Second, is the gap real or alleged?

On the first question, Mosser mentions his work at Fort Leavenworth’s School of Advanced Military Studies and he “distinctly remember[s] attempting to connect with traditional academics around the country who felt that because I was being paid by the US Government (and worse, the DoD), that the work I was doing was tainted.” Mosser suggests that he was advised that his work at SAMS could damage his professional aspirations.

It is probably true that academics are very wary of scholars paid by the government to help them implement policies, particularly wars with which most academics disagree. But it doesn’t strike me that this concern is entirely misplaced. Rare indeed is the money that doesn’t affect one’s thinking at all. Being paid by and working with people socializes a person, and socialization powerfully influences people. Probably the academy is more wary of people who get paid by DOD than it is of people who get paid by and socialized into the usual suspects of foundations, RAND, et cetera. But to my mind there’s good reason to believe that funding and socialization can orient a scholar’s thinking in a particular direction—no matter where it comes from. I think that’s what academics are concerned about, although I’m happy to be proven wrong on that.

On the question of whether the gap is real or alleged, as I tried to suggest in the previous blog post, academics and Beltway policy mavens generally have enduring, deep, and very real disagreements about policy. I highlighted one such incident last year, when, in a post on academics and policy people on Dan Drezner’s blog, Steven Metz of the US Army War College wrote in the comments section that:

I really believe the key is for academics to learn how to express themselves in a policy relevant way rather than expecting policymakers to work through academic style analysis and writing. Heck, I remember participating in a workshop early in the Bush administration that brought together the elite of security studies professors. The stated purpose was to develop policy relevant analysis. But all I heard over two days was that the Bush administration needed to jettison its worldview and adopt the one advocated by the speaker. (emphasis mine)

Thus, when government employees call on academics to contribute in “policy-relevant” ways, they often mean that they want the academics to help them to implement policies they’ve already decided to undertake. (This is the role that think tanks mostly play today. In 1985, Mac Destler, Leslie Gelb and Anthony Lake wrote that the AEI was founded on the knowledge that “Washingtonians were not great readers,” but simply “wanted facts and arguments to buttress their political predilections.”) I am reminded also of Rory Stewart’s characterization of his interactions with policymakers:

It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says...’

By contrast, when academics are asked to be “policy-relevant,” they often want to explain how they think policy can be improved—up to and including change. And hey—that’s relevant! As Ron Krebs mentioned in the symposium, “the comparative advantage of the scholar lies at the level of strategy, in bringing historical or theoretical perspective to bear, in reflection rather than action, at the level of the forest and not the trees.” Most academics just aren’t willing to serve in the “you might as well wear a seatbelt” role that policy folks want them to.

So I think Mosser raises important questions about the politics of the academy, but I think that the gap is all too real. And for my part, I mostly side with the academy.

TopicsPolitical TheoryPoliticsSecuritySociety RegionsUnited States

The Basic Predicament for the U.S. in China's Rise

The Skeptics

A few weeks ago on The Skeptics, Justin Logan authored a post that highlighted a major dilemma in the U.S.-China relationship: how can America contain China’s rise as a military power, particularly in East Asia, if it simultaneously provides the largest market for Chinese exports? China’s rise as a military power is only possible because of its economic growth and the U.S. is in inextricably linked to this. U.S.-China trade is absolutely vital to both countries economies, but it is also what will allow China allocate more wealth toward their military.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Washington and Secretary of Defense Gates’s visit to China the prior week, highlights this dilemma well. While Secretary Gates had mixed results attempting to forge stronger ties with China's militarily, President Obama proudly announced new economic deals with China. Secretary Gates’s trip was mired by the apparently out-of-left-field flight test of a Chinese stealth fighter. And this of course riled up anti-China hawks who feel this is enough evidence for the Pentagon to continue weapons procurement aimed at preparing for conflict with Beijing.

In a recent article for Aspenia, I examined this dilemma in more depth:

Americans and others seemed to believe that China would forever be content to focus on its internal economic progress and be satisfied to play a subordinate role in international economic and security affairs. As the incumbent global hegemon, the United States obviously would find such an outcome highly desirable, but rising great powers do not tailor their policies to suit incumbent hegemons. We should not expect China to break that historical pattern.

The likelihood that Beijing will become steadily more assertive in the international arena, however, creates a dilemma for the United States. A majority of Americans regard the extensive US-Chinese economic relationship as beneficial and desirable. But as Cato Institute foreign policy scholar Justin Logan points out, that relationship greatly strengthens China's economy and, indirectly, Beijing's ability to develop political and military power.

Given that reality, one would expect that there would be growing wariness in the United States — especially among hawkish types — about maintaining, much less expanding, bilateral economic ties. Yet even most outspoken critics of China's regional and global behavior rarely advocate drastically curtailing the economic relationship. That produces the odd spectacle of many anti-China hawks simultaneously warning that China poses a growing threat to America's interests, and even the republic's security, while endorsing wide-ranging trade and investment links that contribute to Beijing's rising power.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

TopicsRising Powers RegionsChina

Base Building in Afghanistan?

The Skeptics

When President Barack Obama addresses the nation tonight, the expansion of America’s Afghan military bases will be notably absent from his remarks. Given the administration’s commitment to job creation and economic recovery, it may want to disclose that much of those activities over the next several years will be taking place in Central Asia, rather than America.

Nick Turse, associate editor of and author of the The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan, has done a fantastic job collating which of America’s forward operating bases (FOBs) are being expanded, improved, and hardened:

  • FOB Shindand in western Afghanistan will receive “new security fencing, new guard towers, and new underground electrical lines.”
  • FOB Salerno near the city of Khost will be undergoing expansion of its fuel facilities. “Estimated to cost $10 million to $25 million, these upgrades will increase fuel storage capacity to one million gallons to enhance land and air operations, and may not be completed for a year and a half; that is, until well into 2012.”
  • FOB Shank in Logar Province has a new $12 million, 1.4-mile-long airstrip that can accommodate Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft. According to Turse, government documents released in August show that in addition, FOB Shank “will be adding a new two-story barracks, constructed of containerized housing units known as ‘relocatable buildings’ or RLBs, to accommodate 1,100 more troops. Support facilities, access roads, parking areas, new utilities, and other infrastructure required to sustain the housing complex will also be installed for an estimated $5 million to $10 million….New aircraft maintenance facilities and 80,000 square feet more of taxiways will also be built at the cost of another $10 million to $25 million.”
  • FOBs Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan Province, Dwyer in Helmand Province, and Sharana in Paktika Province will undergo “major expansions of infrastructure to support helicopter operations, including increased apron space, taxiways, and tarmac for parking, servicing, loading, and unloading are planned for facilities.”
  • The mega-base at Bagram will get a “24,000 square-foot, $10-million command-and-control facility as well as a ‘Joint Defense Operations Center’ with supporting amenities—from water storage tanks to outdoor landscaping.”
  • The mega-base in Kandahar will undergo numerous upgrades, including “a $28.5 million deal for the construction of an outdoor shelter for fighter aircraft, as well as new operations and maintenance facilities and more apron space, among a host of other improvements.”


At the Special Operations headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif, according to Noah Shachtman of’s Danger Room, the Army’s plans to build a “communications building, Tactical Operations Center, training facility, medical aid station, Vehicle Maintenance Facility... dining facility, laundry facility, and a kennel to support working dogs” worth $30 million.

 I assume that some of these bases might in the future allow the United States to keep a watchful eye on developments in Iran and Pakistan, have transit control over air and ground space in the “cockpit” of Asia, and retain a permanent outpost in the backyard of Russia and China. But as a critic of primacy, it seems like I’m fighting a losing battle. After all, despite an increasing perception that the war is being lost—and Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011—the majority of Americans could care little about the conflict, and probably much less about the expansion, improvement, and hardening of America’s Afghanistan bases.

TopicsGrand StrategyMilitary StrategyPost-ConflictSecurity RegionsAfghanistan