The Skeptics

Spinning Us to Death

The Skeptics

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that progress in the Afghan war has "exceeded" his expectations. I'm prepared to believe that Gates's expectations were probably far too high to begin with, but they are extraordinarily so considering the pessimistic expectations of Afghans recently surveyed by a joint Washington Post, ABC, and BBC News . It found that Afghans interviewed are less confident in the ability of the United States and its allies to provide security. Nationwide, more than half said that U.S. and NATO forces should begin to leave the country by mid-2011 or earlier.

Ahead of a major White House review of its Afghan strategy, the most recent incidents of violence against American soliders certainly don't help the administration's latest effort to galvanize public support for the war.

As an aside, my friend Gilles Dorronsoro signed a letter to President Obama urging him to change the American strategy in Afghanistan:

Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population. Foreign forces have by now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Red Army.


The 2014 deadline to put the Afghan National Army in command of security is not realistic. Considering the quick disappearance of the state structure at a district level, it is difficult to envision a strong army standing alone without any other state institutions around. Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think -- a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with Al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more -- are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.

Check out the full text of the letter, and the list of signatories, here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

The First Amendment and Julian Assange

The Skeptics

If you needed evidence that there isn’t much of a constituency for the First Amendment these days, the hysterical bipartisan reaction to WikiLeaks’ latest document release should do the trick. Senators Joe Lieberman and Diane Feinstein view constitutional protection of speech as a mere speed bump on the road to prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for espionage. The Obama administration, now promising his prosecution, does not dissent. The Republicans calling Assange a terrorist (presumably based on a novel definition of terrorism as “things that harm the US government”) avoid even such minor gestures toward constitutional restraint. Acceptance of their previous claims that the government can kill whomever it designates a terrorist would moot debates about the speech rights of those so labeled.

Happily, the predictability of unpopular speech is why it enjoys constitutional protection. Which is another way of saying that the First Amendment is for a-holes.* Julian Assange qualifies—in the sense that he is both engaged in an activity deserving First Amendment protection and annoying enough to need it.

To start with the second point, Assange and WikiLeaks are easy to dislike. That is due not only to Assange’s grandiosity and penchant for comparing imperfect governments like ours with police states, but also WikiLeaks’s opaque privacy standards, which makes it hard to differentiate from an organization that would keep no secrets. (I say that even though they seem to be proceeding more carefully in this round of releases than in previous ones). Like flag burners, WikiLeaks has a rare ability to unite Americans behind laws that would suppress speech. If a bill came up in Congress today plainly criminalizing WikiLeaks’s conduct or even allowing the US government to use force against it, I imagine a large majority of Congress would vote yes.

That law would be dangerous because what WikiLeaks does—revealing information to citizens about what their government is doing—is what the First Amendment exists to defend. I say that without having a firm opinion on the balance of costs and benefits from WikiLeaks’ disclosures. What’s more relevant is that the possible paths to prosecuting Assange are all liable to offer precedents allowing the prosecution of traditional journalists. I understand that people like Senator Lieberman see that as a bonus. But secrecy already impoverishes current debates about defense policy. It deprives us of information about the dumb, expensive, criminal, and potentially reversible things our government does, and lets them continue. Secrecy also causes security reporters to be overly reliant on official sources, allowing them to skew debate.

To simplify, the publication of more information, even classified information, about our security policies generally improves them. Information suppression harms them. One need not endorse Assange’s methods to agree that prosecuting him would exacerbate that problem.

By the way, my lay understanding is that the First Amendment does apply to foreign publishers, including WikiLeaks—at least if you follow one ruling arguing that “the essence of the First Amendment right to freedom of the press is not so much the right to print as it is the right to read.”

*I take that line from a story—maybe apocryphal—where Barney Frank used it to explain to a veterans group why he wouldn’t follow their wishes and vote to outlaw flag burning.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionPoliticsSecuritySociety RegionsUnited States

Is Everything Good for the U.S. Good for Georgia, and Vice Versa?

The Skeptics

One of the tropes of the Washington foreign-policy commentariat that I, and I imagine other realists, find most vexing is the tendency to assume that All Good Things Go Together. What is good for Washington is also good, by definition, for all of Washington’s allies, for the spread of freedom, economic growth, and democracy throughout the world, and for a variety of other purposes.

Invading Iraq, we were told, was not just smart for our national-security interests, but it would also be good for Iraqis because it would replace Saddam Hussein with a liberal democracy. This, in turn, would be good for the region because of the salutary effect such an example would have for other people living under other despotic regimes there, which would then have positive effects for the world at large, because, as we all are supposed to understand, the spread of democracy is by definition coextensive with the spread of peace.

Of course, it has not worked out that way. But one sees the same sort of thinking on display almost daily in Washington’s foreign policy debates.

Take, for example, the discussion in this article by Josh Rogin about the WikiLeaked documents involving Georgia, Russia, and the “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations. The central point of the article is this statement by U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle in June 2009:

A decision to move towards a more robust military relationship with Georgia will imperil our efforts to re-start relations with Russia. Our assessment is that if we say “yes” to a significant military relationship with Tbilisi, Russia will say “no” to any medium-term diminution in tensions, and feel less constrained absent reverting to more active opposition to critical U.S. strategic interests.

Beyrle acknowledges that the Georgian government likely would prefer to be sold arms from the United States, but argues that such a preference is actually in opposition to Georgia’s true interests, because arms sales would make Georgia less safe from Russia, not more:

From our vantage point, a burgeoning military supply relationship with Georgia is more of a liability for Georgia than a benefit. We recognize that our suggested approach would be deeply dissatisfying to Saakashvili, but we see ... no way to neutralize the advantages of geography, size, and capabilities enjoyed by Russia.

The implicit idea here is that Saakashvili is reckless and that arms sales would raise the likelihood of reckless behavior on his part, which would be bad for him, bad for Georgia, and bad for us. In the same article, Samuel Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center of for American Progress, agrees and expands on the logic, making two separate (or separable) points:

Instead of the argument of whether we can fulfill this desire of the Georgian government, we have to step back and say “what is the U.S. interest here?” There's no such thing as a military balance or a military deterrent in this case.

And then, more broadly:

The reset protects Georgia because Russia now has a whole lot more to lose. Before, nobody in Moscow was going to think “what will they think in Washington?” because they didn't care. Now they care.

The first point is a breath of fresh air: The question is not whether we can do what a client state wants us to do, but what we should want to do. Amen. But on the second point, if a client state wants us to do something that we’ve decided isn’t in our best interests, then maybe we have conflicting interests and should reassess the relationship, right?

No. Instead we assert that the client state is misperceiving its interests and instead will benefit from our unapologetically pursuing our own interests.

U.S. policymakers in the Obama administration appear to have decided—correctly, in my view—that the marginal benefits to us of somewhat warmer relations with Russia outweigh the potential benefits of policies designed to bring Georgia under the American security umbrella. That is the sort of calculation that they ought to be making, and there is no need to apologize for thinking in those terms.

But neither is there any need to gussy up our perception of our interests as being somehow identical to Georgia’s interests. Were I a Georgian foreign policy adviser, I would be pushing as hard as I could for the U.S. to sell arms, send military advisers, and beef up its diplomatic presence, as well as for NATO to grant a Membership Action Plan for ultimate accession to the Alliance, and every other benefit I could get.

In my view, that’s what the Georgians should be doing, whereas Washington should be opposing all of those policies. We have different interests. In a better world, instead of arguing that America’s interests are the world’s interests, we would simply acknowledge that our interests are not always in the interests of others whom we may wish well. We have every right to our interests, and they have every right to theirs. But the two are not necessarily coextensive.


(Photo by Vladimer Shioshvili)

TopicsNATOGrand StrategySecurity RegionsRussiaGeorgiaUnited States

Zhongnanhai and the Dear Leader

The Skeptics

No one doubts that there is a significant “North Korea problem.” Few doubt that the answer is “China.” Unfortunately, the few are those who rule China.

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is creating global unease with its nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans are thought to have enough nuclear materials for ten to twelve bombs, though their actual capabilities are unknown.

Moreover, the North has been escalating its attacks on the Republic of Korea. A DPRK submarine is thought to have sunk a South Korean warship in March. Two weeks ago Pyongyang responded to ROK military exercises by bombarding a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea.

Still, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il’s regime offers a certain ugly stability. The man is known to enjoy his virgins in this life rather than the next, and therefore is unlikely to intentionally start the Second Korean War.

But he suffered a stroke two years ago and is advancing his youngest son, just twenty-eight or twenty-nine, as his heir apparent. The latter’s ascension is by no means certain. Other relatives could play a role in the coming transition. Moreover, a gaggle of Communist officials, military brass, security operatives and nameless bureaucrats have been waiting years for their chance to rule.

A power struggle could go violent as everyone looked to their favorite general. Perhaps the only thing worse than an opaque brutal dictatorship with nuclear weapons is an imploding opaque brutal dictatorship with nuclear weapons.

There is no obvious solution. Washington has made more than its share of mistakes in dealing with the DPRK, but the Kim regime never has demonstrated any enthusiasm for abandoning its nuclear program. It is even harder to believe that Pyongyang will ever voluntarily yield up whatever materials and bombs it currently possesses. As the regime enters a potentially extended time of political uncertainty, no one likely will challenge the military.

So now what?

Military action could lead to the destruction of Seoul, the heart of the South’s population, economy and politics. The North already suffers under severe sanctions, which have limited effect without Chinese support. Advocates of regime change lack practical weapons to advance their objective. Proposals for more talks reflect the triumph of hope over experience. Which has led people from across the political spectrum to look to the People’s Republic of China to sort out the Korean conundrum. That appears to be the Obama administration’s latest strategy.

Unfortunately, the PRC will not pressure North Korea because Washington asks it to do so. Nor will Beijing confront North Korea because the United States tells it to do so.

Washington could put the entire bilateral relationship on the line, but would have to follow through on its threat if China said no, as the latter almost certainly would. (And as the United States likely would do in a similar situation.) Giving in to Uncle Sam would not be a good strategy for rising within the Chinese political hierarchy.

Reluctant compliance could be almost as bad, permanently damaging a relationship upon which global prosperity and peace likely will hinge later this century. Washington would face a far more antagonistic PRC, forever muttering “never again” and determined to win the next bilateral showdown. China will act only if it believes doing so is in its interest.

By all accounts the PRC today believes the status quo is better than the alternative. Singapore’s former–Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew explained: “Beijing sees a North Korea with nuclear weapons as less bad for China than a North Korea that has collapsed.”

Pyongyang and Beijing may no longer be “as close as lips and teeth,” but the historic ties are real. Earlier this year Kim Jong Il and his son, plus a number of other officials, paid homage at the grave of Mao Anying, Mao Zedong’s son who died during the Korean War.

Moreover, the North’s threats give China significant international leverage. The United States and South Korea, in particular, constantly ask Beijing to use its influence. No doubt this feeds the egos of the residents of Zhongnanhai (the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership compound in Beijing). It also provides the PRC with an issue to use when Washington makes demands in other areas.

Chinese officials fear a North Korean implosion. Hundreds of thousands or millions of refugees could head across the Yalu. The potential for social dislocation in border provinces with many ethnic Koreans may matter more than the cost.

A collapse of the DPRK also could be violent. Policy makers in Beijing would not welcome chaos on their doorstep. Look at the U.S. border state reaction to burgeoning drug violence in Mexico.

Finally, Chinese officials do not want a unified Korea, at least one allied with the United States and host to American military forces. Said Cai Jian, a professor of Korean Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University: a North Korean collapse “will put an American military alliance on the doorstep of China.”

There is evidence, some captured in the WikiLeaks cables, of an emerging debate in China in media, academic, think tank and foreign ministry circles. Many Chinese are frustrated with the North’s persistent irresponsibility. Beijing already unofficially hosts tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. A U.S. Army division next to the PRC is militarily irrelevant when U.S. planes, ships and missiles can operate from bases well away from China. Former–Assistant Secretary of State Michael Green claimed: “You talk to any Chinese official, and they’re furious with the North Koreans.”

Nevertheless, nothing appears to have changed in Beijing. Cai Jian observed: “A lot of people want to change the policy, but the traditional school is winning.”

There are lots of theories as to what was behind the DPRK’s recent military provocations. Whatever the reasons, China has backed its ally. Beijing responded with platitudinous calls for restraint in a “complicated situation” and proposed emergency talks. Several top officials and delegations crossed the Yalu in both directions in 2010. Aidan Foster-Carter points out that Chinese Politburo member Zhou Yongkang attended the official unveiling of Kim’s son as dauphin in Pyongyang.

Thus, to win China’s cooperation Foggy Bottom needs to convince Zhongnanhai that, these considerations notwithstanding, the PRC is better served by working with the United States, South Korea, and Japan against North Korea.

It is important not to inflate China’s control over Pyongyang. “China does have more influence than other players but we have to remember China does not have absolute influence,” explained Wenran Jiang at the University of Alberta.

The PRC long has urged the Kim regime to follow the former’s example of economic reform. Of late Beijing even has increased its investment in the North. Yet the Kim regime has been reversing prior economic reforms. Moreover, both Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, have ignored Chinese qualms over monarchical communism. The latter took his son, Kim Jong-un, to China earlier this year.

Beijing has one sure and one possible tool of influence. The first is to end North Korean energy and food assistance, along with trade. The PRC is thought to provide the North with about 90 percent of its energy and 40 percent of its food. A cutoff would have severe effects on the DPRK.

Whether the North would comply or attempt to stumble along, and in the latter case, whether the regime would survive or face domestic chaos and conflict, is impossible to predict. But as Fareed Zakaria observed: the PRC “has the power to make the North Koreans pay a very, very high price were they not to listen to the Chinese.”

China’s second source of influence might be intelligence contacts in Pyongyang. The Kims have guarded their regime’s independence, but the country no longer is hermetically sealed. Both traders and refugees now regularly cross the Yalu.

Moreover, some members of the North Korean elite, especially if dissatisfied by the prospect of another Kim-to-Kim handoff, might have made friends within the DPRK’s big neighbor. Indeed, Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, lives in the PRC and recently criticized his father’s planned familial succession. Beijing might be able to influence policy and personnel in the North Korean capital.

Thus, Washington’s objective should be to convince China to threaten to use its economic clout—and to follow through if Pyongyang says no—to alter the North’s policy of nuclear expansion and reckless confrontation. The United States also should encourage Beijing to use any other avenues of influence to promote de facto regime change. The personalities matter less than the policies.

The only way to enlist Beijing’s help will be to address Beijing’s concerns. The Chinese government will have to believe that inaction is more costly than action.

First, Washington should work with Seoul and Tokyo to develop a comprehensive offer for the North. Provisions should include a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition, the end of sanctions, participation in international agencies and forums, foreign aid, removal of U.S. troops from the South, increased intra-Korean contacts and discussions over future reunification. In return the North would agree to supervised denuclearization and reduction of military tensions. A dialogue over human rights would follow as part of the changed relationship.

The allies then should present the proposal to the PRC, requesting its full backing in renewed six-party talks. That means successively encouraging, threatening and sanctioning Pyongyang if it does not agree to a proposal which China views as fair. No more awarding Beijing brownie points for getting the North to the table. What would count is getting—and implementing— a meaningful agreement.

Equally important, Washington, South Korea and Japan should make the case that the present situation is volatile and could lead to just the chaos and violence which Beijing currently fears. Indeed, the Kim regime has created a situation where war could easily erupt from a simple miscalculation or mistake.

The three allies also should promise to aid in the care of any refugees. (Any problem would be concentrated in China’s border provinces; the North’s entire population of 23 million comes to less than two percent of the PRC’ s 1.3 billion.) International agencies, like the United Nations, could make a similar commitment.

Moreover, the three governments should engage Russia and indicate that they are prepared to accept Chinese military action in the North should the DPRK state collapse. Interested parties should discuss possible contingencies and respective responsibilities now, to avoid potentially dangerous confrontations in the midst of chaos and conflict.

The United States and the ROK should pledge not to take geopolitical advantage of China. In the event of reunification the “mutual-defense treaty” would be terminated and American troops would go home. The alliance would not be used to contain Beijing.

Washington should encourage China’s other neighbors to lobby Beijing to act as the responsible power which it says it intends to become. Working to defuse the North Korean bomb, both literal and figurative, would ease regional concern over the PRC’s increased assertiveness.

Finally, the United States should privately indicate that it has no intention of remaining forever at nuclear risk in Northeast Asia. The prospect of the North continuing to expand its atomic arsenal would force Washington to reconsider its opposition to South Korea’s and Japan’s acquisition of countervailing weapons. China then would have to deal with the consequences.

Beijing could still say no to Washington. But the effort must be made. The road to Pyongyang runs imperfectly through Beijing. Enlisting the PRC’ s aid in confronting the North will not be easy, but this strategy still offers a better chance of success than any other policy. And the price of failure would be high. The Korean peninsula has reemerged as the most likely fuse for the next big war.

TopicsDefenseGrand StrategyGreat PowersPolitical EconomyMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationTradeRising PowersRogue States RegionsChinaJapanUnited StatesNorth KoreaSouth Korea

Washington’s Culpability for Turkey’s Misconduct in Cyprus

The Skeptics

Seeing Cyprus again after an absence of more than a decade causes a renewed sense of sadness. Although most Americans are unaware of the situation, an ugly, militarized dividing line still runs down the center of that unfortunate country more than 36 years after Turkey’s invasion. The desolate, UN-patrolled “buffer zone” in the heart of the capital, Nicosia, resembles a Mediterranean version of the Cold War’s Berlin Wall.

An even more appalling sight exists in the port city of Famagusta, once the leading resort destination in Cyprus—and, indeed, in the entire eastern Mediterranean. Since 1974, the Turkish army of occupation has fenced-off a portion of the city, including the principal tourist hotels along the beach, and refused to allow the Greek Cypriot owners to return. Strangely, though, the Turks never took over operation of that area themselves. Instead, they have preserved it as a “ghost city.” Looking at blocks and blocks of empty high rises (most now with their windows broken out) is a truly spooky experience.

Turkey’s appalling behavior in occupied Cyprus (which is 37 percent of the island) raises the inevitable question of the extent (if any) of America’s culpability. After all, Turkey is a fellow NATO member, and U.S. leaders have always asserted that NATO stands for the preservation of peace and the rule of law. Yet at a minimum, Washington looked the other way in 1974 while its ally invaded and occupied a neighboring country. And in the decades since then, U.S. criticism of Turkey’s behavior (which includes the systematic desecration of Christian churches in the occupied territory) has been, at best, perfunctory.

Privately, policymakers in both Republican and Democratic administrations argue that the United States has little alternative, since Turkey is a pivotal power in its region and a crucial U.S. security partner. That attitude illustrates the dilemma that Cato foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent and I are exploring in a book that we’re writing, Dubious Partners: Washington’s Authoritarian Allies and American Values. It focuses on the willingness of the world’s leading capitalist democracy to make common cause with regimes that are neither capitalist nor democratic. That situation was most evident during the Cold War when the U.S. supported such corrupt autocrats as the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, and Mobutu Sese Seko, but it is also a characteristic of U.S. policy in the so-called war on terror.

Turkey does not entirely fit the profile, since it is at least a quasi democracy. But Ankara’s conduct, especially in Cyprus, is distressingly similar to that of more clearly odious allies. The underlying question is: To what extent should U.S. leaders compromise important American values in the name of protecting national security—or advancing Washington’s foreign policy objectives? Our preliminary conclusion in Dubious Partners is that U.S. officials over the decades have been far too willing to compromise—or even outright violate—those values. They have done so on numerous occasions when the stakes did not come close to justifying such a sacrifice.

Washington’s failure to speak out against Turkey’s egregious behavior in Cyprus is one example (albeit, perhaps not the worst) of such moral cowardice. No one is suggesting that the United States bomb Turkey or send in the Marines to expel the invaders—although it should be noted that Washington did lead a massive military effort to punish Saddam Hussein for a similar land grab in Kuwait. One does have a right to expect that the United States will take an ethical stance in the conduct of its diplomacy. Washington has failed that basic test with respect to its policy toward Turkey on the Cyprus issue.

TopicsNATOSecurity RegionsSouthern EuropeTurkey

Does the Arab World Really Regard Iran as THE "biggest threat"?

The Skeptics

Commentators are buzzing over Wikileaks cables revealing that some Arab leaders regard Iran as the "biggest threat" to the region and want America to bomb it. However, extensive polls describing what the Arab public thinks about Iran paints a strikingly different picture.

According to the Brookings Institution’s 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, 77 percent regard Israel as the biggest threat, 80 percent regard the United States as the biggest threat, and only 10 percent regard Iran as the biggest threat. Fifty-seven percent think the region will be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons. Despite those remarkably high numbers, it is the opinion of brutal Arab dictators who want America to bomb Iran that has dominated news stories. Meanwhile, the opinions of other Arab leaders in Oman, Qatar, Syria, Kuwait, and Jordan,who have expressed concern about the repercussions of an attack on Iran, have all but been ignored. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that the same news organizations overselling U.S.-Arab solidarity against Iran were the same ones that overhyped Iranian involvement during the Iraq War.

TopicsDefensePublic OpinionMilitary StrategyRogue StatesWMDSecurity RegionsIsraelIranJordanIraqKuwaitSyriaQatarMiddle East

Cuts, Draconian Cuts, and Indiscriminate Slashing

The Skeptics

Although the President's deficit reduction commission failed to assemble the 14 votes necessary to compel a vote by Congress, the debate over spending, and especially over military spending, will surely continue. “One of the few areas of agreement between deficit hawks and progressives,” crowed The Huffington Post, “is that the once inviolable defense budget must take a massive hit.”

The Heritage Foundation's Kim Holmes is gloomier. He asserts that the commissioners plan to cut military spending by $100 billion by 2015. “That represents over one-seventh of the defense budget.” These are cuts, Holmes claims, that our security can’t afford.

Curiously, Holmes argues that “The force structure outlined by the Pentagon in its recent Quadrennial Defense Review as the minimum capabilities necessary could not be sustained this these (sic) cuts.” But he does not link to the QDR; instead, he directs readers to a critique of various deficit reduction plans compiled by Defending Defense, a coalition of Washington insiders who are desperate to shield defense contractors from budget scrutiny. That technique is akin to the Progressive Policy Institute claiming that the Social Security Administration’s actuaries have declared ever-rising benefits to retirees paid for by a shrinking pool of workers to be sustainable indefinitely, and then linking to a report by PPI and the AFL/CIO.

Assuming that Holmes is right, and that the commission’s cuts total $100 billion in 2015 (and it is not clear that they do), is it even accurate to claim that military spending will be cut? When the deficit reduction commission report calls for cuts in security spending over the next 10 years, will the Pentagon’s budget in real, inflation-adjusted terms, actually fall? Will we spend less on all of the things that qualify as “security” in 2020 than we did/do in 2010?

No. Even if the commissioners had their way, their cuts/savings are projected against planned spending, as stipulated by the Obama administration and adapted by the Congressional Budget Office. This is Washington’s classic formulation of savings, or cuts, or draconian cuts, depending upon your point of view. Whenever anyone proposes to tame the deficit by freezing budgets at current levels the media, trade associations, lobbyists, and other interest groups decry “cuts” to their pet programs. (See my Cato colleague Dan Mitchell for much more on this.) Slowing the rate of growth is tantamount to a cut only if one assumes that government is entitled to an ever-rising share of the economic pie.

But it is no longer tenable for the Defending Defense crowd to declare 23 percent of federal spending--the portion that goes to the Pentagon--exempt from scrutiny. Indeed, Defending Defense appears to represent a small and shrinking constituency on the right. Last week, a number of prominent conservatives including Grover Norquist, Richard Viguerie, and David Keene sent a letter to incoming House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell advising both men that the Department of Defense should not get a pass in the search for savings. Eric Cantor, slated to be House Majority Leader come January, is apparently already on board.

If fiscal conservatives prevail, and military spending actually declines, we shouldn’t be surprised. Unlike domestic spending, it does not exhibit an inexorable upward trajectory. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the United States spent $478 billion in 1946, but only $82 billion in 1948. After the Korean War ended, real spending came down again (from $432 billion in 1953 to $368 billion in 1959), though not to the pre-war levels, and remained very high in historical terms through the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, spending declined again, from $535 billion in 1989 to $359 billion in 1998 (all figures are from the FY 2011 Budget, Historical Tables, and adjusted to 2010 dollars).

In each case, the reason for the decline was obvious: threats diminished. Policy makers realized that resources devoted to warfare could be better employed elsewhere, especially the private sector.

I predict a similar scenario playing out in the next decade. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close (and that should move more swiftly than currently planned), recent increases in the ground forces could be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. Additional savings can be realized if the United States were to terminate its outdated deployments in Europe. We could also revisit the role played by U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan. The Pentagon’s civilian workforce could be cut, chiefly through attrition, and save tens of billions of dollars. Finally, tighter scrutiny over the Pentagon’s spending, beginning with an audit, would allow taxpayers to realize additional savings, while ensuring that our men and women in uniform are provided with the highest quality equipment at the lowest possible price.

Americans today spend more on national defense than at any time since World War II. The budget has grown, in real terms, by 94 percent since 1998. Cutting the DoD budget back to levels from three or four years ago can hardly be called draconian, and is justifiable if policy makers take account of the proper lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoid open-ended nation-building missions in distant lands.

TopicsDefensePoliticsSecurity RegionsUnited States

What Produced U.S. Analysis of the Georgia-Russia War in 2008?

The Skeptics

According to C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, during the war the U.S. embassy in Georgia relayed “official Georgian versions of events…to Washington largely unchallenged.”

Chivers was one of the first to call into question the U.S./Saakashvili version of events, while allowing that “both [the Russian and Georgian] sides…have a record of misstatement and exaggeration.”

In Thursday’s article, Chivers leafs through WikiLeaked documents that indicate, as he puts it,

By 2008, as the region slipped toward war, sources outside the Georgian government were played down or not included in important [U.S.] cables. Official Georgian versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.

A couple of points present themselves. The first is that in the future, U.S. embassies—and all government officials and even private commentators tasked with producing analysis that could inform policy judgments—should be more modest in the analysis they produce on the basis of information provided by heavily interested parties to a dispute. The experience with Ahmed Chalabi and his “heroes in error,” who combined to produce the Iraq War, is another example of insufficient scrutiny of information provided by parties who have a lot at stake.

There was reporting in the American press at the time of the Georgia-Russia war about close—perhaps too close—ties between high-ranking American officials and the Saakashvili government, but these details were frequently left out of policy debates about what to do and whether we had a full picture of events. In the aftermath of the war, David Ignatius labeled Saakashvili “emotional” and even “mercurial,” but those judgments would have been better included in the analysis of the conflict as it was ongoing or, preferably, before it began.

Finally, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon noted just weeks ago that “the open-door policy is something that all allies continue to agree on. We in the United States certainly do, but I think there’s a consensus in the alliance that the open door is the right policy, that enlargement has benefited NATO, it has benefited aspirant countries, and it should continue… [I]n the question of Georgia, we continue to support Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO.” Anders Fogh Rasmussen and NATO continue to insist that “the NATO position [on Georgia] remains the same,” having previously and repeatedly endorsed a Membership Action Plan for that country.

Isn’t it time to stop playing this game? Everyone, including Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, know that the European powers do “not have a great appetite” for bringing Ukraine into the alliance and worry that “extending the Alliance to Georgia would weaken Article 5.” What purpose is served by continuing to pretend that we are going to pull in Georgia and/or Ukraine?

TopicsNATOIntelligenceSecurity RegionsRussiaIraqGeorgiaUkraine

Steal My Ideas, Not My Line

The Skeptics

In February 2008 Cato published “Learning the Right Lessons from Iraq,” a paper I wrote with Harvey Sapolsky and Chris Preble. The paper aimed to refute the idea that the occupation of Iraq could have gone well given better plans, wiser leaders, or proper counterinsurgency doctrine. Our point was that Americans lack the power and wisdom to forcibly organize the politics of states like Iraq, at least at a reasonable cost. So we should leave Iraq and avoid repeating the error by doubling down on troop levels and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan.

One line in the paper summed up our view this way:

“The military gives us the power to conquer foreign countries, but not the power to run them.”

I remember thinking that was a good line when I wrote it. So, evidently, did Richard Hanna, a Republican who just got elected to Congress representing New York’s 24th District. In the speech he gave announcing his unsuccessful candidacy for the same seat in 2008, he said:

“The military gives us the power to conquer countries but not the power to run them.”

He then wrote the same thing a couple of times when explaining his position on Iraq to a local paper. He did not use our line in his 2010 campaign, it appears. Actually, from what I can tell, he got through the campaign without expressing a clear opinion on either war, which tells you a lot about the election.

I found out about this because I had our intrepid interns assemble a database on all Congressional Republicans’ positions on the war in Afghanistan and defense spending. And there was my quote, under someone else’s name.

I do applaud Mr. Hanna's, or his aide’s, editing. They cut the word “foreign,” which was not needed before “countries.” But the formation is otherwise identical. Especially given the timing, the similarity makes me confident that either our paper or one of the op-eds that we spun off from it was the unacknowledged source. That’s plagiarism.

Because it’s just one sentence, I probably would have been inclined to let this slide were it not for the fact that, on all three occasions, Hanna used my words right before other sentences that contradicted the ideas they carried. Each time he went on to say that we have to stick around Iraq and try to sort out the factional fighting. Once, he knocked his opponent for wanting to “retreat.” Another time, he said we should send more troops to Afghanistan, the exact kind of thing our paper meant to discourage!

In other words, while I dislike having my words stolen, I especially dislike having them stolen to support policy positions that they attacked.

TopicsPost-ConflictPolitics RegionsAfghanistanIraq

The Desperate Search for a Rationale in Afghanistan

The Skeptics

A new report by The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), an international policy think-tank, shows the overwhelming majority of Afghan men surveyed in two crucial southern provinces are unaware of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and what precipitated America’s invasion.

These views may not reflect the opinions of Afghans as a whole, but this survey raises many questions. Serious discussions about the war tend to obsess over “What happens when we leave?” and rarely address the more immediate question of “Does the invasion’s original rationale justify our subsequent actions?”

Afghan citizens who are punished mercilessly for living their lives will tell anyone who will listen that their governing elites violate laws they are entrusted to uphold. A lack of confidence in both public institutions and the international community causes many Afghans to look for alternative providers of security and welfare, including the insurgents the United States and NATO target and kill. But the most perplexing question is why those who advocate a long-term, open-ended nation-building engagement are seldom bothered by the moral question of whether we should be expanding the reach and scope of an abusive and despotic regime?

Some stay the course advocates--after reflexively invoking the much disputed “origins of 9/11” argument--pivot to the more limited argument of why we should continue to expand the size of Afghanistan's army and police. That's a bit more reasonable, but it overlooks the reality that from illiteracy and corruption to poor vetting and low pay, the current training effort has yielded a force of compromised caliber. Even the ICOS report shows that Afghan security forces would not be able to provide adequate security when foreign forces withdraw, that 56 percent of Afghan police are helping the Taliban, and that there is clear “potential for the Afghan security forces to switch sides” after being trained by NATO forces.

On top of all this, not even the U.S. public can justify continuing the war. A new poll by Quinnipiac University found that more Americans now oppose the war in Afghanistan than support it.

To review: we have trouble disaggregating U.S. war funding from Afghan government corruption, the "9/11-safe haven" argument does not hold water, the security forces we train are defecting to the enemy, and there is waning public backing for the mission. Yet, despite all of this, President Barack Obama says that the U.S. footprint will last long beyond 2014. Most observers assert that the president must convince NATO allies to continue their support, and that we must explain to the Afghan people why we are there. This is a mission in desperate search of a rationale. What more is there left to say?

TopicsCounterinsurgencyNATOMilitary StrategySecurity RegionsAfghanistanUnited States