The Skeptics

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

Mexico Bleeds over the Border

The Skeptics

 Although most journalists and pundits admit that the drug violence afflicting Mexico has become very bad indeed, many of them also argue that there is no evidence of a spillover into the United States. Gabriel Arana, writing in the Nation, typifies that view, contending that if dire reports “are to be believed, an Armageddon-like rash of drug-related violence” has “crossed from Mexico into the United States.” He responds that “the numbers tell a different story.” And until recently, Arana and other analysts had a point, since violent crime rates in El Paso and other southwestern U.S. cities remained relatively low, and the trend did not differ from cities in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, there are growing indications that the spillover effect is not a myth.

There have been ominous signs for some time. Mexican drug organizations had established close connections with domestic gangs in some two hundred fifty U.S. cities—and all fifty largest cities—by mid-2008. The increasing Mexican domination of all phases of the drug trade in the United States carries with it the obvious risk that the turf battles in Mexico between rival cartels could become proxy wars in U.S. communities. There is evidence that such struggles are already underway. In at least three cases, members of La Familia kidnapped competing drug dealers in Houston and held them for ransom. Similar events have occurred in Phoenix, Las Vegas and other U.S. cities.

Cartel hit men have not only killed victims–including Americans–in Mexico, but they have apparently struck at individuals inside the United States. During 2008 and 2009, seven individuals were killed execution style in Laredo, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo—a major arena in the turf wars between the drug gangs. Authorities arrested and convicted two Gulf cartel enforcers for the string of executions. In October 2008, a Las Vegas child was kidnapped because a relative owed money to one of Mexican drug gangs.

In September 2009, three armed men dragged Sergio Saucedo, a resident of Horizon City, Texas, out of his home and shoved him into an SUV. Saucedo’s wife, as well as school children in a packed bus, witnessed the abduction. His body was found several days later in Ciudad Juárez, with its arms chopped off and placed on the chest. U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested four men, including two who were U.S. citizens, the following February in connection with the crime.

The drug lords are now bold enough to put Americans living in the United States, including law enforcement personnel, on target lists for execution. Police in Nogales, Arizona went on heightened alert in June 2010 after receiving a threat, relayed through an informant, that officers would be targeted if they continued to carry out off-duty drug busts. Apparently traffickers considered it within the rules of the game for police to engage in such raids as part of their job when they were on duty, but that it was a gratuitous affront to do so on other occasions. When off duty, the cartel warned, police were to look the other way and ignore any drug shipments that came across the border, if they valued their lives. The warning occurred just days after two off-duty police officers seized four hundred pounds of marijuana while horseback riding outside the city. What was especially chilling about the cartel warning is that it specifically named the officers who were off-duty in the area of the drug bust that day. The Nogales police chief instructed his officers to keep weapons with them at all times and to frequently communicate their whereabouts to the department. He also encouraged them to wear body armor even when they were off duty.

Perhaps the most jarring incident occurred in early August 2010, when reports surfaced that a Mexican cartel had put a $1 million bounty on the life of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the chief lawman in Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix and many of its suburbs). The threat originated in Mexico and was conveyed via a disposable cell phone–standard operating procedure for all of the drug gangs. There is no doubt that the Mexican drug cartels loathe the man, since his department is one of the most active in the southwestern states in intercepting drug shipments. Consequently, state and federal law enforcement agencies took the threat against Arpaio’s life quite seriously. They did so perhaps even more than usual in the summer of 2010, because just weeks earlier, the DEA had warned that the cartels were about to take their war from Mexico north of the border and attack U.S. law enforcement personnel.

Sometimes, the spillover of Mexico’s violence is graphic and direct. Officials and residents in El Paso were badly shaken in late June when seven bullets struck the upper floors of city hall. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured, but if the incident had occurred earlier in the day when more people were in the building conducting business, the outcome might have been different. Apparently, the shots came from an altercation across the border in Juárez, and the incident was a graphic reminder that Mexico’s violence was not necessarily confined to Mexican territory.

Fear and anger is spreading well beyond the southwestern states. A scathing editorial in the influential conservative newspaper Investor’s Business Daily scorned President Obama’s assurance that our southern border is more secure today than at any time in the past twenty years. If that’s true, IBD’s editors asked, “why is El Paso’s City Hall taking fire from Mexico?”

The editorial went on to argue that events along the border “suggest bottoms dropping out, with horrors unimaginable in the past becoming the new norm.” It then listed a series of alarming developments.

! The U.S. has lost control of actual U.S. territory to drug and migrant smugglers as much as eighty miles inland in Arizona. Any American who enters this area risks getting shot dead.

! The Falcon Dam on Texas’ lower Rio Grande was targeted for destruction by a Mexican cartel to destroy a rival’s drug smuggling route. Had the foiled plot succeeded, 4 million people could have ended up downriver with mass casualties and deaths.

! Arizona now has the second-highest kidnapping rate in the world, behind only Mexico City, with all of it due to drug and migrant smugglers and their quests for cash and territory.

! Mass graves have been discovered in New Mexico, believed by lawmen to be the work of cartels.

The editorial closed by accusing the Obama administration of exhibiting no sense of urgency about the danger and, in fact, showing a “can’t-do attitude.”

Jitters mounted in early October when an American, David Hartley, was killed while jet skiing on Falcon Lake, which straddles the border between Texas and Mexico. Hartley’s horrified wife, Tiffany, watched the incident unfold. The perpetrators were apparently members of the Zetas, perhaps the most violent of the Mexican trafficking organizations. That thesis gained further strength a few days later when the lead Mexican police investigator in the case was found decapitated—a trademark of drug gang executions.

The alarm that Investor’s Business Daily expresses may be excessive–and some of it may even reflect a cynical strategy of taking political potshots at a liberal Democratic president. Most of the evidence suggests that the spillage of violence over the border is not yet at a crisis point. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view it as a minor problem, much less as a myth.

Some chilling indicators of the extent of the danger emerged in August 2010, when the federal government began posting signs along a sixty-mile stretch of Interstate 8 between Casa Grande and Gila Bend, Arizona, more than one hundred miles north of the border with Mexico. The signs warn motorists that they are entering an “active drug and human smuggling area” where they may encounter “armed criminals and smuggling vehicles traveling at high rates of speed.” Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu, whose jurisdiction is in the heart of that smuggling route, goes even a bit further than the federal warning signs, contending that he and his deputies are totally outnumbered and outgunned. “Mexican drug cartels literally do control parts of Arizona,” Babeu stated.

Such developments are a worrisome harbinger of the deterioration of the security situation on our southern border. It is almost inevitable that Mexico’s troubling violence will increasingly impact the United States as well. The only surprise is that it has taken this long.


(Photo by Codo)

TopicsCivil SocietyFailed States RegionsUnited StatesMexico

“Big Government,” Conservative Values, and the War on Terror

The Skeptics

Fiscal modesty, belief in the importance of strong families, and any number of other conservative values have been sacrificed at the altar of the War on Terror. Might having government agents reach into women's underpants be the straw that breaks the conservative camel's back?

The beleaguered head of the Transportation Security Administration said today that at least one airport passenger screening went too far when an officer reached inside a traveler's underwear, and the agency is open to rethinking its current protocols.

An ABC News employee said she was subject to a "demeaning" search at Newark Liberty International Airport Sunday morning.

"The woman who checked me reached her hands inside my underwear and felt her way around," she said. "It was basically worse than going to the gynecologist. It was embarrassing. It was demeaning. It was inappropriate."


In recent days, several passengers have come forward to tell shocking stories about their experiences with TSA officers.

Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor, said he was humiliated after a pat down broke his urostomy bag, leaving the 61-year-old covered in his own urine. Sawyer said he warned the TSA officials twice the pat down could break the seal.

"I was so embarrassed and so petrified of going out into the airport and people would see me and quote unquote smell me," Sawyer said. "My underwear had dropped to the floor and I'm standing there in front of them with my underwear and had to ask to pull it up."

Cathy Bossi, a long-time flight attendant and breast cancer survivor said the TSA made her take off her prosthetic breast.

"She put her full hand on my breast and said 'What is this?' I said 'It's a prosthesis because I've had a breast cancer,'" Bossi said. "And she said, 'You'll need to show me that.'"

A video of a father taking his young son's shirt off so he can be searched has gone viral online with nearly half a million views in just three days.

I suspect there's so little left to Beltway Conservatism beyond contempt for Democrats and an unslakable thirst for war that its avatars will shrug this sort of thing off as a matter of course. Having a TSA employee perform a gynecological exam, having one's urostomy bag broken and being soaked in one's own urine, and having one's prosthetic breast removed and examined will be deemed measures necessary to our War to Protect Civilization.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsTerrorismPoliticsSecuritySociety

It All Comes Back to Hegemony

The Skeptics

On Thursday, President Barack Obama took to the pages of the New York Times to remind Americans of NATO's continued relevance:

"For more than six decades, Europeans and Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder because our work together advances our interests and protects the freedoms we cherish as democratic societies."

After the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO's purpose dissolved. Nevertheless, America’s embrace of "collective security" has since morphed into a rationale for subsuming Europe’s military autonomy within a U.S.-dominated security framework. Take, for example, the Clinton administration's promotion of the European Union’s move toward military self-reliance, through the European Security and Defense Policy. That support, however, was conditioned by what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the "three D's": no decoupling of U.S. and European decision making, no discriminating against non-EU NATO members, and no duplicating NATO's operational planning system or command structure.

President George W. Bush also signaled Washington's support for improvements to Europe's military capabilities, so long as it took place under NATO's purview. In fact, when the largest European states—Germany and France—opposed America's intervention in Iraq, they proposed the establishment of an independent military headquarters, with an independent planning capacity. In reponse, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns described the effort as "the greatest threat to the future" of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Interestingly, many U.S. leaders bemoan the relatively paltry sums their Western allies spend on defense. Compared to the United States, which this year spent roughly five percent of its $15 trillion dollar GDP on military-related expenditures, Britain, France, and Germany spent as little as 2.6 percent, 2.1 percent, and 1.15 percent of their GDP on defense, respectively. But these deficiencies should be expected: multi-national alliances like NATO encourage large member states to bear a disproportionate share of the common defense. Since smaller states know that larger states will provide the collective good of military protection, smaller states devote a smaller portion of their resources toward defense and still feel safe.

That compelling assessment of the behavior of small states still falls short of explaining why larger states choose to bear a disproportionate share of the common defense. Luckily, one school of thought within International Relations—hegemonic stability theory—may provide an answer. It posits that a stable international system is most likely to transpire when a single dominant state acquires a preponderance of global power. Therefore, today, in the absence of a preeminent Soviet rival lurking over the European landmass, a weakened NATO, in the estimation of U.S. leaders, may ostensibly secure America's hegemonic interests by derailing potential challenges to U.S. primacy.

Hegemony, however, comes at a high cost. Attempts to retain it can even hasten hegemonic decline. Given the immediate threat facing NATO's prestige in Afghanistan, as well as America's soaring budget deficits at home, the current state of the trans-Atlantic alliance should throw into question the wisdom of assuming inordinate economic and military burdens to subsidize the protection of European welfare states.

TopicsNATOGlobal CommonsDefenseInternational InstitutionsGrand StrategySecurity RegionsUnited StatesEurope

He's Baaack: George W. Bush as Freddy Krueger

The Skeptics

[amazon 0806513683 full]Like the star of a third-rate horror film, George W. Bush is back, scaring the public. The former president has a memoir to sell, and he’s busy defending his militaristic and profligate presidency, highlighted by his attempt to turn America’s chief executive into an elective despot. It’s a record Americans should reject today as firmly as they did when he left office nearly two years ago.


Presidents often appear better when looking backward. Consider hapless and unelected Gerald Ford. When judged by the standard of his successor, Jimmy Carter, the natural reaction was: bring back Jerry. President George W. Bush is benefiting from a similar effect. As President Barack Obama nationalizes health care, increases spending, expands the Afghan war and threatens civil liberties, some people are asking: what’s not to like about the Bush presidency?

A lot, actually.

President Bush was not an evil man, in contrast to the image spun by his severest critics. However, he was temperamentally unsuited to the presidency. Not stupid, he was something worse: willfully ignorant. He did not view lack of knowledge as any reason not to bomb, invade, and occupy other nations. Indeed, he almost joyfully tried violent social engineering in lands about which he knew nothing.

George W. Bush treated appointments to government like filling fraternity offices. Knowledge naturally was irrelevant, along with competence and experience. Instead, President Bush preferred buddies, political supporters, sycophants, people to whom he took a superficial liking and above all loyalists.

Who else would have insisted that appointees to the occupation authority in Baghdad have backed his 2000 campaign and hold the “correct” view on abortion? Or would have nominated the egregiously ill-prepared Michael Brown and Harriet Miers to the Federal Emergency Management Administration and Supreme Court, respectively?

The president also judged people and information by whether they matched his ideological presuppositions. For instance, those who suggested that events in Iraq failed to match his rosy scenario earned dismissal as defeatists. George W. Bush appeared to be congenitally unable to reconsider bad decisions, even when new information contradicted what he believed was supposed to have happened.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that when “The Decider” decided the results were usually ugly.

President Bush’s philosophy was even worse than his mode of decision making. Contrary to his rhetoric, he abandoned most conservative—or at least limited government—principles once he took office. It was a presidency that only a committed statist could truly love.

First was spending. George W. Bush turned a large surplus into a huge deficit. The Congressional Budget Office reported a $13 trillion deterioration in federal finances over ten years. The single biggest factor after economic readjustments was increased outlays.

This Republican president and Congress actually increased domestic discretionary spending faster than did President Lyndon Johnson and his Democratic Congress. The GOP initiated the biggest expansion of the welfare state in four decades, the Medicare drug benefit, with an unfunded liability of $13 trillion—about the same cost as President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill. It was hard to find a program for which expenditures did not go up under President Bush.

Moreover, much of the spending blamed on President Obama began under Bush. On President Bush’s watch the federal government bailed out Bear Stearns, creating an expectation on Wall Street of further bailouts. The Bush administration terrorized a reluctant Congress into passing TARP, the most important effect of which was indirectly bailing out Goldman Sachs. Bush officials admitted that there was no “metric” to justify the $700 billion program: they just wanted a “big number.” And it was President Bush who took a plan to purchase “toxic” financial assets and turned it into bank and auto-industry bailouts.

While President Bush was not responsible for the roughly $800 billion Democratic “stimulus” legislation passed in early 2009, he pushed smaller and no less foolish initiatives during this presidency. Pork barrel spending peaked at $35 billion annually—under the Republicans. The Bush administration’s faith-based initiative turned into an expensive attempt to buy GOP political support from African-American churches.

Second, George W. Bush believed in limited government and federalism only when convenient. His “No Child Left Behind” legislation expanded national control over education. The nation’s founders would never have imagined federal funding for marriage counseling. Backed by President Bush, the U.S. Congress intervened in the tragic Terri Schiavo case, overturning multiple state-court decisions. The president believed in no limits to national political power.

Third, George W. Bush adopted promiscuous but incompetent war making as the basis of his foreign policy. After mistakenly downplaying the threat posed by al-Qaeda, the Bush administration treated terrorism as an existential threat akin to that of nuclear war. For good cause, the administration ousted the Taliban government after 9/11, but provided too few troops to capture al-Qaeda’s leaders, blithely accepted deadly Pakistani double-dealing in Afghanistan, and prematurely withdrew U.S. forces in order to attack Iraq.

As a result, we are foolishly engaged in bloody but ineffective nation building nine years later. In Iraq the president treated the most serious decision which a president can make as a casual choice, akin to deciding eligibility for federal grants. He and his top aides simply assumed success, ignoring facts on the ground, failing to plan for obvious contingencies, disdaining outside advice, providing too few military personnel, and attempting to rule Iraq from Washington. While extravagantly praising U.S. troops, the Bush administration failed to properly equip those sent into combat. American personnel suffered many unnecessary casualties before they had sufficient body armor and up-armored Humvees.

Iran and North Korea were treated with similar frivolity. The president disdained not just negotiation, but even contact with these troublesome regimes, foreclosing any possibility of peaceful accommodation. Had not the president’s Iraq adventure turned out so badly, the administration might have initiated one or more additional wars.

And turn out badly Iraq did. There were no weapons of mass destruction to find or terrorists to root out. Yet nearly five thousand American and other allied military personnel have died. Tens of thousands have been wounded, many of them permanently maimed. The best estimates of the number of dead Iraqis start at around 200,000 and climb upwards to a million. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced; the indigenous Christian community has been largely destroyed. Violence remains high and Iraq’s future remains unclear at best.

At the same time, Iran has been significantly strengthened and anti-American terrorists have gained another grievance with which to recruit acolytes. Other policies, such as support for Israel’s apartheid-like rule in the occupied territories and opposition to Mideast democracy when the wrong people win, as in Gaza, added to Muslim hostility. In Iraq, the United States so far has squandered $750 billion, with at least another trillion dollars or more to be spent caring for the American wounded in coming years. U.S. military forces have been weakened. President Bush unintentionally showed the world the limits of Washington’s influence: the unipower can’t even resolve an electoral crisis in its new client state.

Finally, the Bush administration demonstrated the truth of Randolph Bourne’ s admonition that war is the health of the state. In the name of promoting public safety, President Bush acted to destroy republican government. The hallmark of his administration was the claim that in wartime the president is the equivalent of a monarch or even dictator.

According to the president, he could declare an endless war in which the United States was the battlefield. He could initiate wide-ranging surveillance activities, searches and seizures, and arrests with no oversight or accountability of any sort, either from Congress or the courts. The president could order the arrest of an American citizen on American soil and hold him incommunicado—for as long as the president thought appropriate. The president could order the assassination of another American citizen without being second-guessed by anyone. The president could send American military and intelligence forces to promiscuously grab, capture and kidnap potential adversaries overseas, many for a bounty, and hold them without a hearing indefinitely, even if that meant forever. And if the president so desired, he could order that they be tortured.

The U.S. prosecuted Japanese military officers who employed waterboarding against American prisoners during World War II. But the president could direct its use against America’s adversaries—or people accused by someone somewhere of being America’s adversaries—irrespective of U.S. or international law.

Perhaps most striking was President Bush’s assertion that these powers were both unreviewable and perpetual. So long as he, or any other president, decided that the “war on terrorism” continued, America’s chief executive was an elective dictator in all but name. It was an extraordinary claim to make for someone elected in a republic to be chief executive of a government supposedly of limited and enumerated powers.

“Miss me yet?” ask the billboards of George W. Bush. Not just no, but hell no. His is not a legacy which can be remade. Not after the passage of two years. Not after the passage of twenty years. Or more.

President Bush should go back into retirement in Texas. He can live out his life, unlike those who have died in his wars. George W. Bush might not be the worst president in U.S. history—there are many impressive contenders for that title. But he surely is one of the worst. If the GOP hopes to regain its role as America’s governing party, it should look at the Bush administration to learn what not to do.

TopicsCivil SocietyCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsGrand StrategyPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPolitical EconomyMilitary StrategyRogue StatesState of the MilitaryTerrorismTortureWMD RegionsAfghanistanIraqUnited States

If Senator Lieberman Wants a War with Iran, He Should Try to Declare One

The Skeptics

In a recent event at the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, Senator Joe Lieberman had this exchange with Bill Kristol:

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: …nobody wants to use military force against Iran, but there is a base, a broad, bipartisan base of support if the Commander in Chief comes to a point where he thinks that's necessary.

MR. KRISTOL: And so Congress could –

SENATOR LIEBERMAN: Could express that in some way, but I think that's not tomorrow, but it may be down the road depending on -- I mean, when you think about it, by January it will have been six months since the sanctions began to be applied to Iran, and it's fair to say that there's been no voluntary limitation of their nuclear weapons program. There's been some involuntary limitation as a result of some problems they've had with it. So we haven't seen really any positive action in response yet to what we've done.

I disagree with Senator Lieberman about the utility and desirability of a war with Iran, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Joe Lieberman is a sitting Senator in the United States Senate. He does not need to wait for the “commander in chief’s” say-so if he thinks a war with Iran is or becomes necessary. Let’s repair to Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power…To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water…

That’s right, if Joe Lieberman decides the United States should attack Iran, he doesn’t have to wait for Barack Obama to decide. He can rally his forces on Capitol Hill and actually make it happen.

It speaks volumes about how far the balance of power among the branches has shifted that a sitting Senator would act as if he has to wait on the President to declare a war. This sort of thing could make one wish that Senator Byrd were still with us.

TopicsCongressPoliticsSecurity RegionsIranUnited States

McCain Plays the Isolationist Card

The Skeptics

Predictably, John McCain claims that Republicans such as Senator-elect Rand Paul represent a wing of the party associated with protectionism and isolationism.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is having none of it. Good on him. McCain was castigating Paul, and by extension Coburn, for suggesting that military spending needs to be included in any deficit reduction plan. But McCain has it wrong. It is simply absurd to argue that military spending, which has grown by more than 86 percent in real terms since 1998, can and should be immune from scrutiny in an era of austerity. The name-calling might succeed in intimidating the less thoughtful or merely timid, but a few minutes with the actual numbers puts to bed the notion that military spending can and should be held sacrosanct.

But while all Members of Congress, egged on by the public, should be willing to shine the light on the Pentagon's procurement practices, and to ask hard questions about what is genuinely needed as opposed to merely desired, deeper cuts in military spending should be tied to a strategic outlook very different from that which has guided Washington for many years. My colleague Justin Logan has elsewhere documented the too-loose invocation of the loaded term "isolationism" to describe a general approach to foreign policy that looks to most Americans like common sense. That alternative approach holds that countries are chiefly responsible for their own defense, that American taxpayers should not be expected to indefinitely shoulder the burdens of defending the entire world from all manner of threats, and that a smaller, more focused U.S. military would still provide Americans with a level of security that our ancestors would envy.

As Ben Friedman and I have argued elsewhere, a grand strategy of restraint would allow for a smaller Army and Marine Corps as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close (as they should be), deep cuts in the Pentagon's civilian work force, which has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, and sensible reductions in the nuclear arsenal. More modest cuts are warranted in intelligence and R&D. Finally, significant changes in a number of costly and unnecessary weapons and platforms, including terminating the V-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and greater scrutiny of the F-35 program, for example, must also be in the mix. This Friday, Cato will host a discussion of these issues at a public forum featuring Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) as well as the Lexington Institute's Loren Thompson.

But our proposal is hardly the only one in the mix. Last week, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the president's debt reduction commission, recommended cutting big-ticket procurement items, and backed some politically risky reforms in military compensation. All told, it was a noble effort. Still, the Bowles/Simpson proposals are too cautious and overly dependent upon unrealistic expectations that Sec. Gates's proposed reforms will actually generate significant efficiency gains. Although they incorporated some of proposals of the Sustainable Defense Task Force (or which I was a member), they failed to follow its lead in basing their cuts in a strategic rationale that allows cuts of force structure. Bowles-Simpson makes only glancing reference to strategic change and attempts to have the same military at less cost.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has published a report by a task force chaired by former budget director Alice Rivlin and former Senator Pete Domenici. Its defense savings, as discussed here by the analysts at the Stimson Center that helped prepare it, are in the ballpark of Simpson-Bowles. Rivlin-Domenici, however, does much better in associating cuts with missions we can shed. Their recommendation to reduce military end-strength by 272,000 for example, is based first on the idea that strong allies and limited threats allow us to draw down in Europe and Asia, and second, on the judgment that recent experience makes it unlikely that we will soon undertake another open-ended counterinsurgency campaign.

Last but not least, the Project on Defense Alternatives and the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy will release a joint letter signed by 46 (as of Wednesday morning) scholars and policy experts making the case that the Pentagon’s budget can be cut without undermining U.S. security.

As it considers this swirl of proposals, Congress should keep in mind that serious cuts to military spending -- in other words, far deeper cuts than those proposed by Messrs. Bowles and Simpson last week, and Rivlin-Domenici today -- must be part of a broader strategic reset that ends the free-riding of wealthy and stable allies around the world, and that takes a more balanced and objective view of our relative strategic advantages and our enviable security.

Sen. McCain might call that isolationism. I'll call spending $700 billion on the military so that our European allies can fund generous social welfare programs foreign aid.

TopicsDefenseGrand StrategyPolitics RegionsUnited States

Fear and Loathing over Kabul

The Skeptics

On Sunday, Peter Baker of The New York Times reported that the Obama administration envisions ending America’s combat mission in Afghanistan by 2014. The assumption is that by that date the coalition will have built an Afghan Army and police force that can defend their country. Upon closer inspection, however, the 2014 statement reflects a deeper incoherence in U.S. policy.

Even though I advocate a narrower, more focused mission, I am under no illusion that the attachment of an end date has made many Afghans reluctant to stick their neck out and cooperate with coalition forces for fear of militant reprisal. Amid an inevitable U.S. drawdown, the end date has also intensified the scramble for regional influence among surrounding states. The question is: Why attach an end date at all if the goal is to cultivate trust and forge cooperation with and among local actors?

This basic dysfunction was reflected in a statement made by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen. During the presidential transition period, Mullen reportedly told President Obama that in truth there was no strategy for the Afghanistan war; regardless, Mullen said that with the proper resources America could succeed.

Succeed at what exactly? In our efforts to keep grasping for this nebulous notion of “success” we have allowed tactics to define and drive strategy. This is consistent with what Bob Woodward quotes Army Gen. David Petraeus as saying:

You have to recognize also that I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."

It is endless war for the sake of endless war: COIN-dinistas request more troops, more money, and more patience for the achievement of short-term goals that would not substantially improve our ability counter real threats to our vital interests.

A closely related problem is the mismatch between the coalition’s overarching goal (the promotion of “a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan”) with the underlying acceptance that we lack the political tools necessary to achieve that goal. This disparity was revealed earlier this week when Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in an interview with the Washington Post, called for a reduction in the U.S. military presence and an end to night raids.

"The time has come to reduce military operations," Karzai told the Post. "The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life."

I, for one, am shocked—shocked!—that Afghans are upset with civilian casualties, and that the man running the Afghan government has the nerve to voice those frustrations publicly. Of course, Karzai has been saying this for years, so it’s no wonder that he seems to be growing more desperate and frantic in his attacks.

As expected, Gen. Petraeus reportedly expressed "astonishment and disappointment" at Karzai's remarks, and said that the president's attitude could make his position "untenable."

This latest imbroglio presents the perfect opportunity to step back and think about the extent to which U.S. and NATO leaders claim to want a strong local partner in Kabul, yet swat down Karzai whenever he asserts himself. I have little sympathy for Karzai himself, but this incoherence is glaring and deserves criticism.

More importantly, the coalition appears to be conflating strong governance with good governance in that many COIN/nation-building proponents insist that their strategy requires a legitimate host nation government. And yet, despite knowing full well that no such government exists, they remain firm on expanding the reach and scope of the current government in the face of reports that it is corrupt, abusive, and wholly inept.

As U.S. officials prepare for the NATO summit in Lisbon at the end of this week, they should think very hard about the strategic purgatory we are presently stuck in: the coalition’s goals cannot be achieved with the resources currently applied, while the costs and risks needed to fully resource the mission outweigh the interests involved.

TopicsCounterinsurgencySecurity RegionsAfghanistan