The Skeptics

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

Does Washington Need to Fear South Korea More than North Korea?

The Skeptics

Since North Korea’s artillery barrage targeting a South Korean island last week, concerns have mounted that the incident could escalate into a full-blown military crisis on the Peninsula. The scenario that most experts fear is that North Korea, facing an uncertain leadership succession as dictator Kim Jong-il grows increasingly frail, may be choosing a saber-rattling strategy to gain both attention and concessions from the international community. That thesis was also prominent following the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan last spring. Such a strategy, the reasoning goes, although intended to be mere posturing, could lead to miscalculation and tragedy.

U.S. officials understandably focus on the dangers that could arise from North Korea’s actions. But there is a less obvious risk that merits more attention than it has received: that South Korea has had enough of its neighbor’s aggression and may decide to respond in a manner that triggers a crisis. Events over the past week suggest that South Korea’s military and political leadership might be going down that path.

One has come to expect the North Korean propaganda apparatus to spout apocalyptic warnings on a regular basis. Korea watchers have probably lost count of the number of times Pyongyang has threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire” over the years. And predictably, following the latest incident, North Korean media warned that the region teetered on the brink of war, and that both South Korean and U.S. forces would experience dire punishment if such a conflict erupted. There was nothing new in any of this.

What is new—and more than a little ominous—is the tone coming out of South Korea. President Lee Myung-bak thundered that there would be “enormous retaliation” should the North launch another attack like the shelling incident. Presumably, he has something more substantial in mind than the limited economic sanctions that his government imposed following the sinking of the Cheonan. Speaking at the funeral of two South Korean marines killed in the shelling, the commander of those forces vowed “a thousand-fold revenge” for their deaths. Other prominent figures have adopted a similar strident rhetoric.

Of course, this all may be little more than patriotic bluster for domestic consumption. But having staked-out a strong position against Pyongyang’s latest outrage, political and military leaders risk looking weak—indeed, buffoonish—if the actual response is just more ineffectual symbolism. Equally important, the South Korean public seems to be more supportive of serious retaliatory measures than in the past.

During previous crises, many South Koreans worried that Washington’s response to a Pyongyang provocation might plunge the Peninsula into war against the wishes of the South Korean people and government. They had reasons for such fears. In the months leading up to the 1994 Agreed Framework freezing Pyongyang’s plutonium program, the Clinton administration seriously considered air strikes against North Korean targets. South Koreans also remember how Senator John McCain advocated a similar strategy in 2003, and was openly dismissive of possible South Korean objections. Seoul would not have had a veto over U.S. actions in either case, despite the obvious negative consequences.

But now the opposite risk has emerged—that South Korea could drag the United States into an unwanted war. Washington is counseling restraint, and the Obama administration has publicly praised the South Korean government for its patience and prudence to this point. It is more likely than not that U.S. pressure will prevail and cause tempers in Seoul to cool. Yet even if that happens in this case, U.S. policymakers and the American people should soberly assess the grave risks that our country is incurring by maintaining the defense alliance with South Korea and, even more so, by keeping a tripwire military force on the Peninsula.

If Pyongyang continues to prod and provoke its neighbor, at some point South Korean leaders will likely conclude that they must respond militarily. Like the mild- mannered student who is continuously harassed by the playground bully, there often comes a breaking point and that victim takes a stand. In some cases, the bully then backs down and the overall situation improves significantly. But in other cases, a major fight erupts with highly unpredictable results.

If that happens on the Korean Peninsula, Americans will rue the day that their leaders foolishly maintained a military presence in such a dangerous neighborhood.

TopicsDefenseGrand StrategyMilitary StrategyRogue StatesSecurity RegionsUnited StatesNorth KoreaSouth Korea

Déjà Vu on the Korean Peninsula

The Skeptics

With North Korea shelling a South Korean island, and Seoul responding in kind, fears of a second Korean War are wafting through Washington. Thankfully, even Pyongyang doesn’t want to revive that conflict, but the possibility of mistake and accident remain.

Naturally, the United States reiterated its usual security guarantees. The White House said America was “firmly committed” to the South’s defense. But why is Washington mixed up in potential hostilities on the Korean Peninsula?

The U.S. commitment grew out of World War II. Washington divided occupation duties on the peninsula, a colony of defeated Japan, with the Soviet Union. Two separate countries emerged, followed by a three-year conflict, in which America intervened. In 1953 the warring sides agreed to an armistice. The United States gave South Korea a defense treaty and military garrison to keep the peace.

Since then the world has changed. The Republic of Korea has rushed past its northern antagonist economically. With the thirteenth-largest economy in the world, the ROK now has about forty times the GDP of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. South Korea also has twice the DPRK’s population, as well as a vast technological edge.

Moreover, Seoul has detached North Korea’s traditional allies. The Soviet Union went AWOL under Mikhail Gorbachev. Although Vladimir Putin’s Moscow has somewhat repaired its relationship with Pyongyang, Russia still has a far more important economic relationship with the ROK. So does China, which trades fifty times as much with the South as with the North.

Only in military strength does the DPRK retain a numerical edge over Seoul. North Korea has 1.1 million men under arms, an impressive number, but individual conscripts tend to be malnourished and of uncertain quality. Their weapons are antiquated. A prime fighting force the North Korean military is not. The South only has about seven hundred thousand men under arms, but they are better trained and deploy better weapons.

In any case, Seoul has the resources to provide whatever it believes necessary for its own defense. There is no special gravitational field on the peninsula that keeps the ROK military numerically inferior. South Korea simply prefers to spend its money on economic development.

It was one thing for the United States to subsidize the South’s defense when that nation was vulnerable to an attack by the DPRK backed by China and the Soviet Union. That’s no longer the case. America’s military commitment also didn’t seem to matter much when no one imagined another war was really possible. When the North’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il was holding summits with South Korea’s presidents, conflict seemed far away.

But last March the DPRK apparently sank a South Korean warship. Seoul did little, other than demand an apology—a demand which the government of President Lee Myung-bak recently retracted. Now the North has staged another violent incident. Even though Pyongyang almost certainly does not want war, its provocative behavior risks triggering one, a conflict in which the U.S. would immediately become involved.

In fact, there have been proposals for retaliation against the North backed by Washington. Such a step could start a war directly.

There’s no justification for keeping the United States in between the two Koreas. It is long past time for Seoul to develop whatever size military it believes to be necessary and whatever policy towards the North it believes to be appropriate—and to accept the consequences accordingly. The ROK is strong enough to do what important countries traditionally have done throughout history, defend itself.

Washington’s one area of genuine interest, nonproliferation, is not advanced by a troop presence in the South. In fact, those are the only Americans within the North’s reach. They are, in effect, nuclear hostages if Pyongyang develops nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

The latest intra-Korean skirmish should serve as that proverbial fire bell in the night. Alliances can deter. They also can entangle. In the case of South Korea the security relationship risks drawing the United States into war with no countervailing benefits for Americans. After all, the ROK no longer is central to a larger international struggle, as it was during the Cold War. And the South is capable of deterring the DPRK and winning any conflict that might erupt.

Pyongyang’s ongoing antics left the Obama administration with nothing useful to say. After the revelation of the uranium-enrichment facility, State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley announced: “We will not be drawn into rewarding North Korea for bad behavior.”

Then came some really bad behavior. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declared: “The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the armistice agreement.” No doubt, the DPRK will be quick to comply.

There are still some who hope that negotiations can resolve the confrontation on the peninsula. Indeed, the North’s provocations most likely are intended to stoke up tensions in hopes of winning allied concessions through new talks. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, argued: “The North reacts with sea clashes whenever it feels slighted or threatened.” However, Washington and Seoul have played this game before. The outcome is never peace, but rather a new round of provocations.

Moreover, there could be more at stake. “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il might be attempting to generate a crisis atmosphere domestically to enhance the prospects of his youngest son succeeding him. Or the military might be flexing its muscles, with the politicians fearful of limiting its activities with a power struggle impending.

As is its wont, Beijing assessed no blame, blandly expressing “concern over the situation” and hope that “the relevant parties will do more to contribute to peace and security on the peninsula.” However, there is no reason to resume the six-party talks or any other forum unless the People’s Republic of China commits to doing more than offering platitudes from the sidelines. The PRC keeps the Kim regime afloat with bountiful shipments of energy and food. That should change.

If Beijing wants to take on a leadership position in Northeast Asia, it should start with North Korea. That means joining with the U.S., South Korea, and Japan in developing a benefit package which would reward the North for denuclearization, backed by the threat of real sanctions, meaning a cut-off of all subsidies, investment, and trade.

In return, the allies would promise not to take geopolitical advantage if the Kim dynasty collapsed. The democratic powers would give the PRC a free hand militarily if there was disorder along China’s border, provide aid if regime collapse led to mass refugee flows across the Yalu River, and withdraw all U.S. troops from the peninsula if reunification became a reality.

But if the Chinese government continued to subsidize North Korea—the former actually has increased economic investment in recent months—then Beijing would bear the consequences of any collapse and conflict. The current situation is highly unstable and Washington should state its intention to turn over policy to Seoul, which is most vitally affected by the DPRK’s behavior. Moreover, Washington should indicate that it would not be inclined to remain involved and block Seoul and Tokyo from responding in kind if the North continued to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea is a potential nightmare for China no less than for the United States.

It’s déjà vu all over again, opined Yogi Berra, and so it is in Korea. The most important lesson for Washington is that it’s time for the United States disengage militarily, leaving South Korea’s defense up to South Korea. James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation says the North is a “clear and present danger.” It is—to the ROK. But Americans are at risk only if the U.S. government puts them in harm’s way by guaranteeing the South’s security and garrisoning the peninsula.

Doing so was necessary in 1953. But not today.

The Korean peninsula remains one of the most dangerous international tinderboxes. The South Koreans should take over as geopolitical firemen in their own neighborhood. Washington should refocus its attention elsewhere.

TopicsDefenseGrand StrategyGreat PowersMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsChinaJapanUnited StatesNorth KoreaSouth Korea

A Still Leaner Pentagon

The Skeptics

This blog gets results. Skeptics fans will recall that I recently wrote two posts offering Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggestions on how to cut the Pentagon’s administrative costs. I said, however, that the savings should go the taxpayer or the deficit, not force structure, as the Secretary wants. And then: Boom! Boom! Two blue ribbon deficit reduction plans said the same.

Erksine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the chairmen of the President’s deficit reduction committee, released a report saying that taxpayers should get the efficiency dividend. And they go even further. By my count, almost half of the “illustrative savings” they give for 2015 are administrative or overhead savings. Likewise, the report released by Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici’s task force says that Gates’ $100 billion over ten years in efficiencies savings should lead to $100 billion less in Pentagon spending.

Those goals show excessive faith in efficiency. Gates has not identified anything close to $100 billion in savings, and I doubt he will get there. The trouble is not that there is not plentiful waste and redundancy in the military (we have two air forces and two and a half armies, after all), but that touching it is politically dicey. One man’s inefficiency is another man’s essential security program.

As I explained at the defense budget forum we held Friday at Cato (with Barney’s Frank enthusiastic agreement), efficiency, like children and holidays, is something we all support in theory. The inefficiency lobby is weak. But when the rubber meets the road, and efficiency reforms are proposed, there are losers. The organizations labeled as wasteful tend to disagree, joining with those that profit from their spending to resist its reduction.. That goes even for low hanging fruit like Joint Forces Command. Its inclusion on Gates’ cut list has the Virginia congressional delegation and what’s left of the House Armed Service Committee up in arms.

Real efficiency takes painful political fights. And if the Pentagon is going to save the sort of overhead Secretary Gates claims is possible, lots more savings have to be identified. All the more reason for part of three of my series on efficiency! This one concerns intelligence and military education.

Send fewer officers to school and consolidate DoD graduate schools and staff colleges:

The ongoing education of U.S. military officers enhances the force’s ability and should continue. However, the amount of time officers now spend in educational rotations is excessive, as is the number graduate institutions we operate with defense funds.

The services require officers at the 05 or 06 levels to fulfill a one year Senior Service College requirement at War Colleges, select private institutions, and think tanks. Most study social science but do not receive degrees.

As a graduate student in Cambridge, I met many officers fulfilling their requirement at MIT and Harvard. Most contributed to the educational environment by happily attending classes and seminars and mixing it up with students and faculty. Some took the opportunity to undertake serious research. Many officers, however, cruised through their year on campus without doing much. A few obviously did not want to be there and rarely showed up. In several cases, officers were reaching the end of their military career and the year in academia was essentially a retirement bonus.

Whether or not the taxpayer gets a net benefit out of these programs is unclear. There is a value in most cases for both the officers and the schools they visit, but there is also a cost in terms of having to fill and pay for more billets and preventing people from serving another function—including leading troops in war—that might be more valuable. The services should consider eliminating these programs or least modifying them so that they are options rather than requirements for promotion. The latter option might include forcing officers in these programs to earn a degree, which would weed out people that are not really interested in learning. These reforms would allow the services to carry less manpower, cutting costs.

At a minimum, the services should stop allowing officers to fulfill educational requirements at think tanks. The scholarly standards are lower there than in academia, making time spent there more likely to be wasteful from an education perspective. Also, think tanks, whatever their claims to independence, tend to be buffeted by politics that officers should avoid.

Reducing the number of officers in education programs would reduce the costs associated with DoD education facilities. These institutions could then be consolidated—and could probably use consolidation in any case. DoD could employ less labor doing think tank-like studies, shrinking the National Defense University, for example. Fewer retired colonels would get to double-dip, and teaching standards might improve.

Cut Intelligence Spending:

Publicly released estimates indicate that intelligence spending now exceeds $80 billion annually (including both national and military programs). It was $26.7 billion in 1998. And even in the late 1990s, intelligence spending made up a far higher percentage of total spending than it did during the Cold War. That rapid growth is excessive given the historically mild threats we face, and much of it seems the result of a panicked response to 9/11.

Redundancy in intelligence analysis can be useful in producing competing perspectives and thoroughness, but the explosion in intelligence spending is excessive to that end, especially given that a large chunk of the recent increase goes to contractors producing thickets of reports of dubious value. The Office of Director of National Intelligence has too little power over the agencies it is supposed to control and seems to be trying to remedy the problem by accumulating staff. Substantial reductions in intelligence spending seem unlikely to substantially harm the quality of intelligence analysis. I recommend at least a 15 percent cut.

TopicsBureaucracyDefensePolitical Economy RegionsUnited States

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