The Skeptics

Resets and Spheres of Influence

The Skeptics

The Obama administration has explicitly sought to “reset” the relationship with Russia, which had become quite dysfunctional during the final years of the Bush administration. Although Washington has not used the reset terminology with respect to the troubled U.S. relationship with China, the substantive goal appears to be similar. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ effort to restore the dialogue between the militaries of the two countries is one indication of that intent.

Both goals, however, are encountering headwinds for a key reason. Policy makers seem unwilling to accept the reality that any great power in the international system expects, and will seek to enforce, a sphere of influence in its immediate region. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously (or infamously) insisted that the concept of a sphere of influence was both obsolete and pernicious. But that viewpoint is dangerously erroneous. The tensions between the United States and Russia and those between the United States and China confirm that point.

The latest, clumsy provocation is Moscow’s agreement to help Venezuela build a nuclear-power plant. Predictably, that move has caused hawks in the United States to thunder about perfidious Russian contempt for the Monroe Doctrine. There is more than a little hypocrisy in that outrage, since many of those same hawks successfully lobbied for adding the Baltic republics to NATO and now advocate deploying ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe and offering NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia—as though Russia has no justifiable reason to object to such moves in its geopolitical back yard.

Like the proverbial broken clock that is right twice a day, however, the hawks are correct with respect to the Russian-Venezuelan nuclear deal. The United States has an important interest at stake in making sure that Latin America, currently a nuclear-weapons-free zone, stays free of nuclear weapons. Moscow’s willingness to help Hugo Chavez, the Crazy Eddie of the Western Hemisphere, acquire nuclear capabilities—even if they are ostensibly for peaceful power-generation purposes—is an unfriendly act in our geopolitical back yard.

Both sides need to back off. Russia needs to find a graceful way out of its increasingly cozy relationship with Chavez, and the United States needs to stop talking about deploying missile defenses or expanding NATO eastward. Washington and Moscow must acknowledge that the concept of spheres of influence is alive and well, and that gratuitous violations of that concept will negate any prospect for a reset in relations.

U.S. leaders must also comprehend that cordial relations with China require a willingness to accept that East Asia’s rapidly rising great power will seek to establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and the recent spat with Japan over disputed islets in another body of water are signs of that process. China’s growing power and assertiveness means that the United States will need to tread softly regarding such territorial disputes, as well as the even more sensitive Taiwan issue, if Washington wants to avoid nasty confrontations with Beijing.

Condoleezza Rice could not have been more wrong. Whether we like it or not, spheres of influence will be a crucial feature of international politics—and especially of great power relations—in the twenty-first century. It is imperative that U.S. policy makers understand and adjust to that reality.

TopicsNATOGreat PowersRising PowersSecurity RegionsNortheast AsiaRussiaSoutheast AsiaEurope

Whose Common Defence?

The Skeptics

 Late last week, the Heritage Foundation's Jim Carafano posted an essay at the Daily Caller, that took issue with the characterization of recent efforts by Heritage, AEI, and the Foreign Policy Initiative to sell the American people on the idea that we don't spend too much on the military. He seemed particularly incensed by the suggestion that this was a GOP-sponsored effort to speak to the Tea Party movement. On the contrary, protests Carafano, the message that the Pentagon's budget should be off-limits to any deficit reduction effort is aimed at the "ruling elites" and comes from three think tanks with no formal partisan affiliations.

It is these ruling elites who seem determined, in Carafano's telling, to gut the military. He predicts that Tea Partiers, already warm to a message of "peace through strength," will oppose any attempts to cut military spending, and will soundly reject measures to merely shift resources from defense to dubious domestic programs and bailout schemes for the well-heeled.

I'll respond to each of those points in turn, but must first correct the record. Carafano claims that Barack Obama aims to slash Pentagon spending. That isn't true. I wish it were. Each of the first two DoD budgets submitted to Congress by the Obama administration have been larger than those inherited from George Bush, and the Pentagon projects real spending increases over the coming years. Recall also that these increases have been piled on top of the enormous growth of the past decade, and it is patently false to claim that Obama is slashing military spending or starving the troops of resources. In real, inflation-adjusted terms military spending has grown by 86 percent since 1998, and the Pentagon's base budget (excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) has grown by more than 50 percent since 2001.

With respect to Carafano's assessment of the Tea Partiers's views on foreign policy and military spending, most of what he puts forward is pure speculation. Little is actually known about the foreign policy views of a movement that is organized primarily around the idea of getting the government off the people's backs. It seems unlikely, however, that a majority within the movement like the idea of our government building other people's countries, and our troops fighting other people's wars.

Equally dubious is Carafano's claim that the Tea Party ranks include "many libertarians who don't think much of the Reagan mantra 'peace through strength'" but an equal or larger number who are enamored of the idea that the military should get as much money as it wants, and then some. Carafano avoids a discussion of what this military has actually been asked to do, much less what it should do. By default, he endorses the tired status quo, which holds that the purpose of the U.S. military is to defend other countries so that their governments can spend money on social welfare programs and six-week vacations.

Tea Partiers are many things, but defenders of the status quo isn't one of them. This movement is populated by individuals who are incensed by politicians reaching into their pockets and funneling money for goo-goo projects to Washington. It beggars the imagination that they'd be anxious to send money for similar schemes to Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, and yet that is precisely what our foreign policies have done -- and will do -- so long as the United States maintains a military geared more for defending others than for defending us.

One last point: with respect to libertarians and Ronald Reagan, he was fighting a globe-straddling Soviet Union armed with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads. Carafano and I both served in that Cold War military, so we obviously agree that that was a fight worth fighting. It is pretty bizarre, however, to invoke Ronald Reagan's memory to make the case for spending more money on our military today -- when our primary adversary is a few hundred al Qaeda figures hiding in safe houses and caves -- than we spent to defeat the Soviets.

Equally bizarre is the claim that we cannot and should not cut military spending. On the contrary, if we were to refine our objectives, expect other countries to do more for their own defense, and avoid open-ended nation building missions in distant lands, we could safely cut military spending without undermining our security, and without imposing additional burdens on our troops.

Barack Obama has refused to take the necessary steps to shift the burdens off the backs of American taxpayers. Here's hoping that the American people, perhaps with the Tea Partiers in the lead, remind him -- and Jim Carafano -- that the Constitution provides for "the common defence" of ourselves and our posterity, not the common defense of the entire world.


TopicsDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionSecurity

Talks about Talks? Just Get on with It Already

The Skeptics

Earlier this week, a senior NATO official said that the coalition has facilitated contact between senior Taliban members and the Afghan government. Apparently, U.S. officials are not directly involved in these talks; they merely seek to “support” and “facilitate” talks between an ascendant, hydra-headed insurgent movement and America's weak, ineffectual client. Unsurprisingly, this strategy has failed—repeatedly.

It is impossible to declare the truth or falsity of the claim that the coalition has facilitated contact between senior Taliban members and the Afghan government. Supposedly, that has happened; however, the Taliban rejected these reports as “baseless propaganda” and a tactic of psychological warfare. Quite honestly, all this “talk about talks” reminds me of that 1993-comedy film, Groundhog Day: the protagonist wakes up reliving the exact same day over and over again.

Every time a senior U.S. or NATO official stands up and says, “very high-level Taliban members have reached out to the Afghan government,” what usually happens is that the Taliban issue a perfunctory denial and insist that they anticipate a victory.

No doubt, some militants might be interested in a negotiated settlement with the Karzai government. Some discussions have already taken place between Karzai and the Haqqanis and Karzai and Hekmatyar; these groups, of course, are quite distinct from the original Afghan Taliban, even though they associate with one another.

But still, for the sake of simplicity, there are three main problems regarding talks with the Taliban. First, to some extent, all of these groups, not just the Taliban, are decentralized, amorphous, and deeply entrenched. It is not at all clear that talking to high-level militants at the top of our organizational charts will lead to a cessation of violence in various pockets of the region.

Second, steps toward any meaningful settlement with these militant leaders must involve Pakistan—their main source of support. But as Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) wrote, despite the Pakistan military’s success rooting out militants in Bajaur, Mohmand, and Orakzai, as well as in areas around Swat (Upper and Lower Dir, Shangla, and Buner):

“[T]he Pakistan military continued to avoid military engagements that would put it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or al-Qa’ida forces in North Waziristan. This is as much a political choice as it is a reflection of an under-resourced military prioritizing its targets.”

Lastly, and this problem is more self-imposed than anything else, we seem to be aiming far too low—literally. President Obama and General Petraeus have said that the coalition is willing to accept mid- and low-level foot soldiers who renounce violence and abide by the Afghan constitution (reintegration), but they also say that the coalition must beat the insurgency on the battlefield in order to bring high-level Taliban to the negotiating table (reconciliation). This strategy assumes two things: first, that we can peel away enough low-level militants from the senior leadership; and second, that if we succeed in doing so, the senior leadership will still want to talk to us. This highlights a glaringly obvious problem with our current strategy: the White House and the Pentagon like to tell us ad nauseam that we cannot fight our way out of this war, yet they keep insisting that we must weaken the insurgency’s momentum before we engage in negotiations.

As the Obama administration prepares for its December review of the war, the primary focus will be on whether the current counterinsurgency strategy is working. Progress on that front has been slower than expected. For this and other reasons, a better gauge of progress would be measuring what types of political accommodations Karzai and the coalition can make with the Taliban.

As I mentioned several months ago:

“For the U.S. and NATO, the red line in their nation-building endeavor is the Afghan constitution. Not only is this document the foundation of Afghanistan's democratic political institutions (wobbly and imperfect as they may be), but it also enshrines the legal and political rights of the Afghan people we ostensibly seek to protect.

Unless the Taliban acquiesce to the norms introduced since the 2001 invasion, there is little to stop them from committing actions in flagrant violation of any shared agreement.

In short, no agreement, law, treaty, or contract is self-reinforcing. And unless the United States is prepared to enforce the conditions of a power-sharing agreement, it should renounce its commitment to spread the legal rights articulated in the Afghan constitution.”

I endorse diplomatic engagement with most of America’s enemies, including the Taliban. But I am also willing to admit that talks are not the panacea that they are made out be, and may even open a Pandora's Box. The agreement could fall apart after we leave, and if it did, that in and of itself would not pose a threat to the United States.

Still, I wish we could be debating the success or failure of talks, but there doesn’t seem to be any talks taking place. Indeed, after nearly a decade at war, discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government—America not included, mind you—“are in the very preliminary stages of discussions,” according to the NATO official cited above.

What seems absurd is that the Taliban want the withdrawal of foreign forces, and most Americans want the same. Yet U.S. officials are still dragging their feet and putting the burden of war on our men and women on the ground. They should accept that substantive peace talks take time; and the time to engage the Taliban is now.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyPoliticsSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

Conservatives for Empire

The Skeptics

The U.S. government is effectively bankrupt. Angry citizens in the Tea Party movement are bypassing traditional politicians. Republican Party apparatchiks are scrambling to turn popular frustration to their advantage.

The conservative movement also is in flux. Some pundits identified with the Right, such as David Frum and Ross Douthat, have advocated that conservatives become “liberals lite,” abandoning their commitment to limited government and learning to live with the expensive, expansive and intrusive welfare state.

Most traditional conservative leaders have rejected this advice, choosing instead to support the conservative verities of fiscal responsibility and individual liberty. But many of the same people have joined Frum in advocating continuation of America’s essentially imperial foreign policy. They would replace traditional conservative views of foreign policy and executive power with Wilsonian warmongering.

The most recent example of conservatives promoting an essentially liberal foreign policy is the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, and Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Feulner. They wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.”

There is no more basic responsibility for the national government than defense. But when it speaks of “the common defense,” the Constitution means America. The nation’s founders never imagined their country as an international governess, subsidizing wealthy allies, hectoring presumed friends, bombing unfriendly critics, remaking failed societies and creating endless enemies.

Indeed, today the military does almost everything except defend the United States. On September 11, 2001, America’s Department of “Defense” proved unable to safeguard Americans. As a result, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security.

There should be no doubt as to the cost of America’s expansive foreign policy. First is the Pentagon budget—in essence, military spending is the price of our foreign policy. Kristol, Brooks and Feulner play a shell game by focusing on GDP percentages rather than actual outlays. In real terms, the GDP today is more than twelve times as large as in 1940 and seven times as large as in 1950. Thus, spending 1 percent of GDP on the military today means providing twelve times as much money as spending 1 percent in 1940, and seven times as much money as spending 1 percent in 1950. Military outlays should reflect the threats facing America, not America’s economic wealth.

In fiscal year 2011 the U.S. will spend about $740 billion on the military, more than $550 billion on “normal” military expenditures. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates is looking for economies in defense outlays, he still expects total military spending to rise in real terms. In constant dollars, military outlays have more than doubled over the last decade. Strip out war expenses, and real expenditures are still up 1.8 times. Yet the Weekly Standard complains that we are “skimping on our defense budgets” and signaling “weakness to friends and enemies alike.”

Even more astonishing, current outlays are greater than Washington spent at any point during the Cold, Korean and Vietnam Wars. We are supposed to believe that America is at greater risk today than when aggressive, totalitarian communist dictatorships ruled the Soviet Union and China, America’s allies were still recovering from devastating conflicts and proxy wars raged in the Third World.

Today, hegemonic communism has disappeared. Even supposedly resurgent Russia is a shadow of the former Soviet Union. Moscow’s old allies have joined the European Union and NATO. The European Union spends upwards of five times as much as Russia on the military, and has a more-than-ten-fold economic and three-fold population advantage.

Maoism has disappeared from China, which has much at stake in a stable economic order. Japan’s economy is as large as that of China, and Tokyo, despite decades of anemic defense spending, nevertheless has created a potent, if limited, military. South Korea enjoys an economic advantage over the North as large as forty to one. Most of the other East Asian nations are growing and wary of Beijing’s ambitions.

The United States is allied with every major industrialized power, save China and Russia. The U.S. Navy is as large as the next thirteen navies combined, eleven of which are from allied states. America retains its geographic advantage of peaceful neighbors to the north and south, and oceans to the east and west. In contrast, the People’s Republic of China, Russia and India all face far harsher security environments.

In this world against what must the United States defend itself?

Moscow can beat up on a small neighboring nation like Georgia, but has no capacity to threaten America or conquer Europe. China might become the next peer competitor to America, but that is long in the future. This supposedly dangerous competitor possesses a small intercontinental-ballistic-missile force and no aircraft carriers. Its military spending is a fraction of America’s.

India is another potential great power, but has little cause to be hostile to the United States. And Delhi shares an interest with Washington in constraining Beijing.

In its desperate search for possible enemies, the Heritage Foundation warns that “the EU could emerge as the dominant power in a Europe that is hostile to the United States.” So Washington must build up its military and occupy its European allies so they don’t attack America?

Terrorism remains the most obvious threat to America, but it is no substitute for the Soviet Union. The reason groups like al-Qaeda attack civilians is because they lack serious weapons. Terrorists threaten to kill hundreds or thousands, not destroy nations.

Moreover, every intervention risks creating more enemies and promoting more terrorism. The issue obviously is complex, but history demonstrates that terrorism is a common political tactic. Until recently the most prolific suicide bombers were the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Had Ronald Reagan not inserted U.S. forces into the middle of the Lebanese civil war, made up of twenty-five warring factions, neither the U.S. embassy nor the Marine Corps barracks would have been attacked. Washington has learned that there is a price to be paid for bombing, invading, and occupying other nations.

The United States does spend a lot of time protecting its allies, but that primarily serves their interests. After all, the Europeans, Japanese and South Koreans are all well able to defend themselves. Why should it be counted as an advantage for U.S. taxpayers to underwrite European welfare states?

Indeed, creating defense dependents makes America less secure. Is the United States better off if its friends are all weak, insecure and helpless without American support? Or is America safer if its friends possess potent militaries, cooperate with each other and are determined to safeguard their own interests? The question answers itself.

Much is made of protecting economic prosperity and international trade. Who, however, is threatening the global economy? The most likely future challenger to American dominance, the PRC, is even more dependent on international commerce than is the United States. In contrast, the world’s most malign actors, who might want to disrupt their neighbors’ economies—North Korea, Burma, Iran, Venezuela, Al-Qaeda—are among the most isolated states and groups. Most possess limited ability to interfere with much of anything.

Anyway, the time is long past when everyone everywhere should sit back expecting Americans to take care of every global security problem. International cooperation has helped confront Somali pirates. The European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and even China all have much at stake in today’s global trading system.

Some neoconservatives chatter about “the defense of freedom,” and therefore propose to employ eighteen-year-old Americans in an attempt to liberate the globe. As Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, however, it is far easier to establish governments which hold elections than to create genuinely liberal societies. Moreover, Americans killed in such foreign adventures are not able to enjoy U.S. democracy.

More basic humanitarianism remains a tempting justification for military intervention, but it isn’t a matter of defense. Successfully creating an honest, effective central government in Kabul, even if possible, doesn’t matter much to the United States. It might be convenient to have a compliant government in power, but Central Asia never has been much of a security concern for the United States. Weakening or eliminating al-Qaeda is a central objective, but terrorists have proved able to operate from most every nation, including advanced industrial states. Al-Qaeda’s future will not be determined by who rules Kabul.

As for saving lives, Iraq demonstrates just how hard it is to use war for humanitarian purposes. The estimated number of dead Iraqis starts at one hundred thousand and climbs to an incredible one million. Non-fatal casualties are higher. Some 4 million people are thought to have been forced from their homes.

In any case, the highest responsibility of the U.S. government is to its own people, including those in uniform. Their lives should not be risked without something substantial at stake for their own society. It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain limited, constitutional government at home while conducting an imperial foreign policy abroad. “War is the health of the state,” observed Randolph Bourne.

Ironically, despite the attempt of neoconservatives to appropriate his legacy, Ronald Reagan led the way toward a responsible conservative foreign policy. He used the military only three times—to retaliate against Libya for its terrorist attack in Berlin, remove the communist government from power in Grenada and intervene in Lebanon. After the attacks on the American embassy and the Marines he recognized the last to have been a terrible mistake, withdrawing rather than launching an attempt at nation building—causing some conservative critics to accuse him of encouraging terrorism.

Even worse was the neoconservative reaction to his commitment to end the Cold War. Many neocons saw him as a dupe. Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz compared Reagan to Jimmy Carter and even Great Britain’s Neville Chamberlain. Podhoretz charged that “appeasement by any other name smells as rank, and the stench of it now pervades the American political atmosphere.” While it’s presumptuous to predict what Ronald Reagan would say about foreign policy today, it is hard to believe that he would be on the side of “conservatives” who advocate endless war.

Today the United States maintains around one thousand military installations of various forms overseas. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are stationed on foreign soil. Most of the U.S. military is configured for offensive action abroad. America may not be a traditional empire, annexing foreign territories and exploiting foreign peoples. But Washington is following an imperial policy. Ultimately, conservatives must choose what matters more: preserving liberties at home or conducting social engineering abroad.

It is no response to argue that domestic entitlements pose the biggest financial threat to America. With a $1.3 trillion deficit, $13.5 trillion national debt, and more than $100 trillion in unfunded Medicare and Social Security liabilities, the United States can’t afford to waste money on anything, especially the defense of populous and prosperous allies.

Moreover, war also creates unfunded liabilities. Today the “defense” budget accounts for roughly one-quarter of U.S. outlays. But that is just current expenditures. Counting expenses for past military operations, such as veterans’ benefits and interest on borrowing for military expenditures, the Friends Committee on National Legislation figures that the military accounts for about 44 percent of current outlays.

One can quibble about specifics, but consider the case of Iraq. That conflict has cost about $740 billion so far. However, total costs are conservatively expected to hit $2 trillion as the government cares for veterans who have lost limbs and suffered serious head injuries. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes believe the ultimate price of the Bush administration’s folly may end up even higher.

Tea Party activists face an important crossroads. They can adopt the failed Republican model of combining budget-cutting rhetoric with foreign warmongering. Or the movement can maintain a consistent commitment to promote limited government and individual liberty. An imperial foreign policy impoverishes rather than enriches America. Our overriding objective should be to preserve America as a free and prosperous republic.

TopicsEuropean UnionDemocracyDomestic PoliticsDefenseHistoryGrand StrategyGreat PowersHumanitarian InterventionPolitical EconomyMilitary StrategyTradeRising PowersRogue StatesTerrorism RegionsChinaAfghanistanRussiaIranJapanIndiaIraqLebanonGeorgiaUnited StatesNorth KoreaSouth KoreaEurope

Mexico Drug War Takes Toll on the Press

The Skeptics

Against the backdrop of ever-increasing drug violence in Mexico, I have an op-ed at USA Today Online titled “U.S. in slumber as Mexico drug war rages.” The piece examines the impact the drug war is having on Mexico’s press in terms of the murderous violence toward journalists and their ability to report on the drug cartels. From the article:

It takes a brave person to be a reporter in Mexico these days if the intent is to cover the drug cartels. More than 30 journalists have been killed since 2006, making Mexico perhaps the most dangerous place in the world for members of that profession. The country is at least on a par with such countries as Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan. It has become so bad that several Mexican journalists have sought asylum in the United States, and at least one has been granted that status.

The ability of the drug traffickers to cow the Mexican press is yet another indication that the country is in deep trouble. There is a long litany of other depressing pieces of evidence. More than 28,000 people have perished in the fighting since Calderon launched his military-led offensive against the cartels in December 2006, and 2010 will set a new annual record. Once peaceful Monterrey, Mexico's economic heart, has become so dangerous that the U.S. State Department recently ordered diplomatic personnel at the consulate there to send their dependents home. American business executives, and even some Mexican ones, are sending their families to safe havens in the United States. Major shootouts and kidnappings have come to some of the most prominent resort areas, including Acapulco and Cancun.

At the end of the article I provide a concise policy prescription to address the problem. For this and the entire op-ed, click here.

TopicsFailed StatesMediaSecurity RegionsMexico

Do Terrorism Warnings Work?

The Skeptics

 Are we safer at Code Orange than Code Yellow or because subway announcements tell us to say something if we see something suspicious? Did the State Department do travelers headed to Europe a favor last week by telling them that they should watch out for terrorist attacks? Does exhorting the public to be vigilant add a layer of defense against terrorism that justifies the anxiety and false leads it causes?

I went on Voice of America's Encounter program last Thursday to argue that the answer to all these questions is no. I said that vigilance is overrated and that if authorities are going to warn us about terrorism, they should be far more specific. The other guest, Frank Cilluffo, a homeland security expert at George Washington University, articulately disagreed with me on that and some of the other skeptical views I expressed about U.S. counterterrorism policy. It was an unusually substantive radio discussion that broadcast only overseas. So I'm posting it here:

One point Cillufo made that I failed to respond to on the air is that terrorism alerts disrupt attacks by causing terrorists to alter their plans. That is to me the best argument for alerts. But I would like to see the claim substantiated. I don't see why a general alert in Europe would cause terrorists to slow or cancel plans to attack there, but maybe terrorists see things differently. Police actions or security at airports or train stations seem more likely to disrupt to attackers. Those measures don't require everyone to worry.

I'm glad to see Paul Pillar agrees.

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited StatesEurope

Taiwan's Weapons, America's Defense

The Skeptics

Washington’s relations with the People’s Republic of China continue along their rocky path. Thankfully, war remains a far distant possibility. However, the United States needs to find the best strategy to constrain Beijing without threatening military intervention. That means relying on America’s friends to defend themselves.

Nowhere is this policy more important than Taiwan.

The most dangerous area of potential conflict between the United States and China is Taiwan. Although the latter has been free of mainland control for more than a century, other than a brief period following World War II, Beijing still sees the island as an errant province destined to return to Chinese control. The PRC’s threats of war, though muted in recent years, are deadly serious.

Yet Taipei warrants Washington’s support. The 23 million islanders have built a prosperous democracy that provided the model to which Deng Xiaoping looked when he initiated economic reforms on the mainland. Whatever the technicalities of China’s authority, the people of Taiwan are entitled to choose their political future.

However, the island’s freedom is not worth war between America and China. Beijing views the issue as being vitally important for a mix of strategic and nationalistic reasons. U.S. intervention in a crisis in the Taiwan Strait would result in a potentially catastrophic game of chicken between nuclear-armed powers. War with the PRC would be far different than war with Serbia or Iraq.

Indeed, the cost of any conflict with China would be felt for the rest of the century. Even a small war would poison relations between the current superpower and the likely next superpower for years if not decades, and make further conflict likely. Neither nation, nor other nations in East Asia, can afford such an outcome.

The way out of this conundrum is to sell Taipei the weapons necessary for its own defense. Of course, Beijing bridles at the mere mention of arms sales to Taiwan. In August, the Chinese government denounced U.S. plans to provide radar equipment: “China resolutely opposes the United States selling weapons and relevant technical assistance to Taiwan.” Halting sales, added the Foreign Ministry, would “avoid causing new harm to Sino-U.S. relations.” The previous August an unnamed Chinese diplomat declared, “Selling the F-16s to Taiwan would be a big, big problem for us. Cooperation on other things would naturally be affected.”

However, while U.S.-PRC relations might suffer, arms sales would not put the two countries on a possible path to war. Indeed, it might be the best strategy for avoiding a future conflict. Two years ago, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte explained that selling weapons “supports our belief that a Taiwan confident and capable of protecting itself will offer the best prospects for a peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences.”

Earlier this year the Obama administration announced a $6.4 billion arms package—long frozen by the Bush administration—for Taipei, but left out the sixty-six requested F-16 C/D aircraft, worth more than $3 billion. Now the administration has begun an assessment of Taiwanese defense needs over the next five to ten years to determine what weapons Washington should offer in the future.

The China-Taiwan relationship is better than in past years. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office in 2008, is less confrontational than his predecessor and Beijing has finally learned that military threats only inflame island sentiments for independence. The two states recently negotiated the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement to enhance commercial ties and held the first joint search-and-rescue exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently indicated that his country “might one day” remove its more than 1400 missiles targeting Taiwan.

The improvement in ties is good, but not nearly enough. Even President Ma states that “the threat to Taiwan’s security still exists.” Taiwan has broached the idea of mutual confidence-building steps, but if Beijing wants to minimize the U.S. assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs, the PRC should make a firm declaration that it does not intend to use military force to resolve cross-strait disputes. The regime also should remove army units deployed across from Taiwan and destroy all missile facilities after the missiles themselves are removed.

Until China adopts such a policy, Taipei needs a military sufficient to deter Beijing from attempting military action. While the PRC’s rapid economic growth has been a boon for the impoverished Chinese people, it has enabled the increasingly wealthy Chinese government to strengthen its military. As a consequence, observed analysts with the Washington-based Taiwan Policy Working Group, Taiwan “has experienced a relative decline in military power.”

The Pentagon report on Chinese military spending released earlier this year warned that “China’s military buildup along its East Coast continued unabated.” Thus, added the Department of Defense: “The balance of forces continues, however, to shift in the mainland’s favor.” That doesn’t mean the PRC would necessarily win a conflict, at least at reasonable cost. Still, the Rand Corporation recently warned: “China’s ability to suppress Taiwan and local U.S. air bases with ballistic and cruise missiles seriously threatens the defense’s ability to maintain control of the air over the strait.”

Policy makers in Beijing long have seemed cautious and willing to wait for peaceful reunification. Nevertheless, there are indications that the PRC’s patience is not infinite. The shifting balance of power might tempt Chinese officials to use force if Taiwan continues to resist Beijing’s embrace. The international cost of war would be high. Even if Washington did not intervene and Beijing won quickly, the result would be an international crisis which would roil financial markets, disrupt commercial relations, raise political tensions and spur military buildups throughout East Asia.

To prevent such a catastrophe, Taiwan need not “try to match the PRC ship for ship, plane for plane, or missile for missile,” as the Taiwan Policy Working Group put it. Rather, Taipei needs sufficient power for deterrence. Probably most important is air power. In early October Taiwan’s Deputy Defense Minister for Policy, Andrew Yang, came to Washington to lobby for F-16 C/Ds, upgrade equipment for F-16 A/Bs, and F-35s in the future. He explained: “We have about 90 F-5s as part of our air defense aircraft, and obviously it is urgently in need of replacement.” Last year President Ma pointed to the newer aircraft as necessary “to maintain the military balance” with the PRC.

Also on Taiwan’s wish list are diesel submarines. The PRC is expanding its navy while Taiwan’s Hai Lung–class subs are aging. Taiwan is seeking to acquire foreign replacements, as well as develop its own vessels as part of the so-called Project Diving Dragon.

However, Washington’s role in improving Taiwan’s military, while important, remains secondary. Prashanth Parameswaran of the Project 2049 Institute pointed out last year:

Taiwan must also start shouldering more of the burden for its own defense. Releasing its first-ever Quadrennial Defense Review this year—which called for the establishment of a volunteer force and placed an annual minimum on defense spending of 3 percent of GDP—was a good first step. But Taipei must also develop a full spectrum of asymmetric capabilities and prepare itself for a variety of possible threats from the mainland. This means hardening key civil and military facilities to reduce the impact of a future attack, investing in mobile missile systems to complicate targeting, and stockpiling critical energy, food and medical supplies in case of a potential blockade. Taipei should also use its reputation as a high-tech economy to expand its defense industry and develop weapons and technologies domestically, instead of relying on foreign suppliers.

There is an alternative to further Taiwanese military expansion: a political accommodation between the PRC and Taiwan. For obvious reasons, most Taiwanese have no interest in being ruled from Beijing. In practice, China appears to have eschewed military coercion as long as Taiwan avoids declaring independence, but the former may be growing more impatient with this informal deal.

A more enduring agreement would result in greater stability. Bruce Gilley of Portland State University suggests “Finlandization” as a modus vivendi: “Under such a scenario, Taiwan would reposition itself as a neutral power, rather than a U.S. strategic ally, in order to mollify Beijing’s fears about the island’s becoming an obstacle to China’s military and commercial ambitions in the region.” In return, the PRC would accept Taiwan’s independent existence.

Gilley would halt arms sales to encourage this approach. But China has less reason to negotiate if Taipei loses the effective ability to defend itself.

Ultimately, Taiwan’s strategy—whether tough defense, political accommodation or some combination of the two—is up to the Taiwanese people. Washington can help by making available the weapons which they need to protect themselves. U.S. arms sales are no panacea to tensions in the Taiwan Strait. But arming Taipei may be the best practical strategy to maintain peace in the region.

TopicsDefenseGrand StrategyGreat PowersMilitary Strategy RegionsChinaUnited StatesTaiwan

U.S. Can’t Stop Afghanistan’s Opium Economy

The Skeptics

The 2010 Afghanistan Opium Survey, which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently released, is a classic case of bad news and illusory good news. The principal piece of faux good news was that the production of opium (the raw ingredient for heroin) had declined a whopping 48 percent over the past year. However, that decline was not because of any decision by Afghan farmers to abandon the cultivation of opium poppy crops or because the Afghan government’s drug eradication efforts were more successful. The amount of acreage devoted to opium poppies was unchanged from 2009, and the Karzai regime’s eradication campaign (largely a response to Washington’s prodding) remained as desultory as ever. The report concedes that the production decline was entirely the result of a fungal blight that dramatically reduced crop yields. Needless to say, drug warriors can’t count on that factor every year.

The blight actually appears to have been a financial blessing for poppy farmers, since it diminished the supply glut that had developed over the previous two years. With the onset of a modest shortage, prices are soaring. The income to drug crop farmers this year was $604 million—up from $438 million in 2009. In essence, the blight had the same economic effect as U.S. Agricultural Department price support programs that bribe American farmers to take acreage out of production.

The drop in supply has also restored the gap between what Afghan farmers can earn growing opium poppies and growing competing crops. Because of the glut in 2008 and 2009, the price advantage of opium over wheat—the main competitor—had shrunk to 3 to 1. It’s now back up to 6 to 1. Although that is still a long way from the heady initial years of the U.S.-led occupation when the ratio reached as much as 12 to 1, it is still clear that Afghan farmers can make far more money growing poppies than any alternative.

And therein lies the principal problem for those in the Obama administration and Congress who press U.S. military commanders to make anti-drug efforts a high priority in the overall mission in Afghanistan. The brutal reality is that opium is a huge part of the country’s economy. Most estimates place the commerce in illegal drugs at between one-quarter and one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. UN surveys over the years have concluded that nearly half a million Afghan farmers are directly involved in the drug trade. Given the role of extended families and clans in that society, about 30 percent of the population has some stake in the trade.

Such economic realities mean that calls to make anti-drug efforts a higher priority jeopardize the more important anti-terrorism mission. Proponents of a crackdown argue that a vigorous eradication effort is needed to dry up the funds flowing to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Those groups do benefit financially from drug trafficking, but they are hardly the only ones. NATO forces rely on opium poppy farmers to provide information on the movement of enemy forces, especially in southern Afghanistan. Escalating the counter-narcotics effort would risk alienating those vital sources of intelligence.

Equally important, many of President Hamid Karzai’s key political allies also profit from drug trafficking. Indeed, cynical Afghans refer to the elegant homes of those power brokers in Kabul and other cities as “poppy palaces.” Karzai’s allies include regional warlords who backed the Taliban when that faction was in power, switching sides only when it was clear that the U.S.-led military offensive in late 2001 was going to succeed. Targeting such traffickers creates a powerful incentive for them to switch sides yet again.

Although it might gall a good many U.S. officials, the best course of action is to avert one’s eyes to the pervasive commerce in illegal drugs. Our primary objective must remain the weakening of al Qaeda and a prompt exit of American forces from Afghanistan. The last thing we need to do is become bogged down in a futile crusade against opium poppies.

(Photo by Todd Huffman)

TopicsSecurity RegionsAfghanistan

What Lies beyond the War on Terrorism?

The Skeptics

 Next week the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism (CPOST) and the New America Foundation are co-hosting a day-long conference that promises to attract some attention, both because of the speakers assembled, and for the ideas discussed.

Aside from mentioning that the conference coincides with the release of Robert Pape's latest, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism & How to Stop It, co-authored with James K. Feldman (I've blogged elsewhere today about that), I wanted to preview my remarks at the conference, namely the implications of resource constraints and long-term fiscal imbalance on U.S. foreign policy, writ large.

Hope as I might, it would be premature to predict that we have already entered a post-GWOT era, or even that some form of strategic retrenchment is inevitable, with the United States shedding some of its global commitments, and eventually drawing down some of its military power. I'm inclined to believe Steve Walt's pessimistic take from a few days ago, that the interests who stand to lose from such a shift will fight it hammer and tong, and that, if past history is any guide, they are likely to win.

That said, there are clear rumblings that the ill-advised foreign policy consensus that has held for at least two decades is vulnerable to attack. How else to explain the flurry of op-eds and articles by a few folks who seem desperate to fend off cuts in military spending and the strategic shift that goes with it?

The most recent entry, an op-ed in Monday's Wall Street Journal, has elicited a number of insightful rejoinders, including here at TNI.

Today, Cato President Ed Crane and I respond in a letter to the editor of the Journal, pointing out, among other things, that conservatives shouldn't shed their skepticism of government activism and their respect for the Constitution just because a few people claim, without evidence, that U.S. military power is the only thing that stands between the world and total, bloody chaos. Such assertions are ironic given that the authors were among the loudest cheerleaders for the war in Iraq, an operation which has unleashed plenty of chaos, and nearly wrecked our outstanding military, all in the service of the dubious proposition that we can and must implant democracy in distant lands.

Equally questionable is the assertion that U.S. military dominance preserves global peace and commerce. (Ben Friedman's latest observations here at TNI and elsewhere expose
the many flaws in this argument in exquisite detail. I recommend them
highly. And if you want more, check out our latest paper on the subject.)

Of course, no one country, nor any conceivable combination of countries, stands ready to replace the globe-straddling U.S. military. Plus, as Ben shows, the international system isn't as fragile as the primacists claim; it could be that we have convinced ourselves that the burdens are necessary and huge, when they might actually be superfluous
and modest.

But it is incorrect to argue that the only alternative to American global hegemony is [insert scary country name here] global hegemony. On the contrary, because other countries have an interest in a relatively peaceful and stable international trading system, it is not unreasonable to assume that they should and would share the burdens of keeping this system open and free. As it is today, Americans bear the disproportionate share of the costs. (And if [insert scary country name here] were really as scary as the hawks say, wouldn't it be nice to have allies with some capabilities to balance against them?)

Messrs. Brooks, Feulner and Kristol, it appears, would allow the free ride for others to continue indefinitely, while American troops and taxpayers fight the wars and pay the bills. They seem to believe that the American people either a) won't notice that the true purpose of U.S. military power is to defend other countries so that they won't have to defend themselves; or b) won't much care if they figure that out. I question whether either presumption holds. At a minimum, I am willing to wager with some confidence that several likely soon-to-be members of Congress agree more with Ed Crane and me than they do with the AEI/Heritage/PNACFPI triumverate.


TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsSecurity

Washington’s Bosnia Fiasco

The Skeptics

This week’s elections again confirmed that Bosnia is a “pretend country”—a wholly artificial creation of meddlesome Western nation builders. Most media accounts in the United States highlighted the victory of the supposed moderate candidate, Bakir Izetbegovic, for the Muslim seat on the country’s collective presidency. But that focus was misleading for two reasons.

First, it is easy to overstate Izetbegovic’s alleged moderation. He does seem less extreme than some other Muslim political figures in the Muslim-Croat subnational entity that makes up one half of Bosnia’s convoluted political structure. However, he is the son of Aliya Izetbegovic, the country’s first president after the secession from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The elder Izetbegovic was a Muslim hardliner who bore more than a little share of the blame for the subsequent civil war in Bosnia. It remains unclear just how much different the son is from the father.

Second, election results in the Serbian subnational entity, the Republika Srpska, and for the Serb seat on the collective presidency emphasized that ethnic nationalists remain in control. The re-election of Milorad Dodik as president of the Republika Srpska is especially significant, since Dodik has stated repeatedly that the Serb entity ought to be able to secede from Bosnia and form an independent state. So, even if Muslims and Croats might be in the mood for compromise, there is little indication that the Serbs share that attitude.

The bottom line is that Bosnia seems no closer politically to being a viable country now than it was fifteen years ago when the U.S.-brokered (and largely U.S.-imposed) Dayton accords ended the bloody civil war. If allowed to do so, the overwhelming majority of Serbs would vote to secede. Most Croats also would likely prefer to end their status as Bosnia’s smallest and least influential ethnic bloc and choose to merge their territory with neighboring Croatia. In other words, Bosnia is a country in which a majority of the population does not want the country to exist. That is a good operational definition of an unviable state.

The country’s economic prospects are no more encouraging. Bosnia’s unemployment rate is an astonishing 43 percent, and much of the economy consists of inputs from the international community—both in the form of direct foreign aid and the money that the swarms of international bureaucrats in the country spend while performing their duties. Absent those expenditures, Bosnia’s economy would be in even worse shape.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Milorad Dodik described the creation of Bosnia as “a mistake.” He’s right. It was certainly a mistake for the United States and its NATO allies to insist that three mutually antagonistic ethnic groups stay together in a state that only one faction, the Muslims, regarded as legitimate—and did so only because, as the largest group, they believed they would control the government. The Western powers would have been wiser to have facilitated a partition of Bosnia when the civil war first broke out.

That mistake needs to be repaired, or Bosnia will be a perpetual international political and economic ward. Worse, it could be a political time bomb that might detonate at some point and cause another crisis in the Balkans. Western policy makers simply ignore reality when they stubbornly insist that Bosnia continue to exist in its current incarnation. Washington should explicitly withdraw its objection to a partition of the country. If voters in the Republika Srpska choose to establish an independent state, the U.S. and the other NATO members ought to respect that decision. Keeping a vegetative Bosnia on international life support does not serve any legitimate American interest.

TopicsHumanitarian InterventionPeacekeepingPost-Conflict RegionsBosnia and Herzegovina