Why Big Changes Could be Coming to the Middle East

The Buzz

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reads as a remarkable document. (Here’s a useful fact sheet.) If fully implemented, it’ll prove an historic triumph of diplomacy—one that significantly reduces the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon while helping to re-integrate Iran back into the community of nations.

The key objectives of each side are well known. The US wants to keep Iran’s nuclear latency to at least one year—that is, how long it would take for Iran to race to a bomb. The Obama administration considers this to be enough time for an Iranian nuclear breakout attempt to be detected and thwarted.

Nuclear latency is mostly guesswork, based on a combination of how much fissile material is currently stockpiled, and how rapidly any new weapons-grade material may be produced. The JCPOA assesses Iran’s current latency to be just two to three months. This reckoning is extraordinary and probably untrue, having been overstated to extract greater concessions from the Iranians to roll back its existing program.

In this endeavor the JCPOA exceeds all expectations. For at least the next 10-15 years Iran has agreed to dramatically reduce the number of spinning centrifuges, remove the reactor core from its Heavy Water facility at Arak, export the overwhelming majority of its Low Enriched Uranium stockpiles, not build any new enrichment facilities, and not reprocess any spent fuel. Critically, Iran’s also agreed to an intrusive IAEA inspection regime and accession to the IAEA Additional Protocol, meaning that any non-compliance is likely to be detected early and for the foreseeable future (well beyond the life of the agreement). In sum, Iran has agreed to adhere to its NPT obligations.

While the JCPOA is prescriptive with regard to what Iran will concede, it remains comparatively sketchy in terms of the breadth and speed of sanctions relief, and the practical implications of allowing Iran to undertake ‘limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges’.

In particular, the JCPOA advises that "US and EU nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA and Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps." This could take years, and will require Iran to take some significant and irreversible steps in the meantime. It’s unrealistic to expect Iran will do this without some concessions being made. Accordingly, UN sanctions (as opposed to US and EU sanctions) will likely have to be removed earlier and in a staged fashion. In any case, early sanctions relief is desirable as it’s crucial that the Iranian people don’t become disillusioned with the benefits of cooperating with the West. However unlike those from the US and EU, UN sanctions could prove much harder to re-impose should Iran prove non-compliant with the deal.

For American negotiators, the interim agreement involves a calculated risk. In laying bare the scope of what Iran is agreeing to it’s now very hard to argue that this is a "bad deal," even for long-running skeptics like myself. By allaying critics’ concerns, it should now be possible to build Congress support for a final deal. Yet it also means that any further concessions needed before the final agreement will likely have to come from the P5+1 group. Should the negotiations ultimately fail, the US will wear much of the blame, making international consensus for any new sanctions on Iran difficult to attain.

The main loser is Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s been doing his level best to undermine the special relationship that exists between Israel and the United States. Netanyahu’s speech in the US Congress, wherein he attacked the P5+1 negotiations against the express wishes of the White House, is unprecedented. Netanyahu’s outright rejection of a two-state solution and apartheid-esque warning that Arab-Israeli citizens might actually exercise their democratic right to vote dismayed even long-standing Israeli supporters. If the JSCPOA provisions are implemented, then Netanyahu’s claim that the deal ‘paves Iran’s way to a bomb’ will seem utterly ridiculous.

The broader strategic context can’t be ignored. American and Iranian interests in the region are rapidly converging. This is most obvious in Iraq and Syria where there’s common cause to drive back the Sunni-dominated Islamic State, and where Iranian cooperation is needed to facilitate a permanent US withdrawal. Iran most likely sees this deal as an opportunity to further wedge the United States and Israel. After all, Israel isn’t a true US ally against Islamic State. Islamic State resists Iranian influence, distracts from the Palestinian question, and has shown little interest in attacking Israel. Israel has also proven less than loyal to the US elsewhere, for instance, by refusing to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The US is still a very long way from calling Iran a ‘partner’ in the region. Yet if the P5+1 negotiations are settled and built on, and Netanyahu continues to undermine Israel’s national interest, who knows what US relations with the Middle East will look like in another five years’ time?

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: State Department Flickr. 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Revealed: China's Strategy to Dominate the South China Sea

The Buzz

With revelations of China’s systematic and rapid reclamation or “island-building” of various features throughout the South China Sea, long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea seem closer to boiling over. 

Terriclaims, short for territorial reclamation, is a term that is useful for describing a nation’s reclamation activities when it seeks to preserve or expand territory as part of a broader geopolitical ambition. States have reclaimed land for millennia, but no nation has sought to do so as far away from its own national boundaries as China. Moreover, the clandestine manner which China is undertaking these activities in the South China Sea is cause for concern.

To understand why China’s terriclaims are unusual, it is useful to consider some other state’ building projects. China is not building a Palm or World Islands, like the Emirati city of Dubai. Dubai’s multi-billion dollar reclamation project begun in 2001 envisions multiple archipelagos that emanate from the Emirati coast into the Persian Gulf. 

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Palm Jumeirah, the most recent archipelago completed in 2006 and configured in the shape of a palm, includes luxury homes, various resorts, and a monorail spread over miles of newly reclaimed land.

Rather, it appears that China’s building projects are part of an expansive territorial grab or to make China’s disputed Nine-Dash Line claim a reality. These terriclaims seem to be China’s latest attempt at a slow and methodical encroachment tactic to assert control over the SCS, a policy pejoratively referred to as “salami-slicing.” While China’s activities in the Spratlys may have only grabbed international attention recently, its use of this tactic is hardly novel.

Reclamation in Chinese History

Terriclaims are a novel attempt by China to reset maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, but their emergence should not take observers by entirely by surprise. This is becauseterriclaims are the latest incarnation of a long history of reclamation in China, which has traditionally been resourced and supported at all levels of Chinese government.

China has a legacy of reclamation dating back to the 5th century B.C., when it used dredging and reclamation techniques to construct the Grand Canal. The ancient and Venice-like city of Suzhou was built on reclaimed land.  In modern times, China has reclaimed massive parts of Macao, Shanghai, and even use reclamation in the recent expansion of Hong Kong International Airport.

Additionally, reclamation activities have been woven into Beijing’s national governance and responsibility for reclamation activities has been diffused to all levels of government. Indeed, the Chinese bureaucracy has four major organizations that handle one or more aspects of reclamation issues: the Ministry of Land Resources, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the State Oceanic Administration.

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The political placement and maritime-focus of the State Oceanic Administration (guójiāhǎiyángjú 国家海洋局), under Minister Liu Cigu, make it unique out of these four. The SOA held the leadership role in reorganizing most of China’s maritime civilian and paramilitary organizations in 2013.

This coincides with the creation in 2012 of a new, high-level advisory group for maritime security issues by the Politburo Standing Committee, whose first leader was Xi Jinping. The evidence suggests that the SOA is leading the terriclaim efforts under direction from the highest levels in Beijing.

China is also not the first state to use reclamation to the South China Sea. In 1999, Malaysia constructed a two-story concrete building on Investigator Shoal (midway between the Philippines and Malaysia) along with a helipad, radar station, and pier. Taiwan carried out major reclamation projects on Pratas Island in 2007. China terraformed Woody Island in the Paracel Islands to include a 7,900-foot runway, three ports, and PLA Navy and Air force assets.

However, China not only appears to be protecting its claims but expanding upon them with these new massive terriclaim projects that have a uniquely military bent. The progression of these terriclaims’ point to the construction of airstrips, hardened facilities, storage centers, staging areas, and deep-draft channels for shipping. Enhanced civilian communication infrastructure, scientific research stations, or fishing support facilities would require neither such a large footprint nor the sense of urgency and secrecy in their construction. China watchers, such as Japan’s Yoji Koda, contend that potential reclamation (terriclaim) efforts on Scarborough Shoal alone could potentially create an island that contains multiple square miles of new land.

Global Repercussions

China’s terriclaims may have significant second and third order effects. Terriclaims, if sanctioned by the other SCS claimants, ASEAN, or the broader international community, could result in significant maritime territorial loss if a terriclaim is legitimized. This could also lead to conflict. The South China Sea has seen conflict over territory in the past, but China’s capabilities and global clout have grown substantially. At the same time, this tactic need not be limited to the South China Sea, and may be used in other vulnerable littoral areas. There are more than 150 littoral countries that claim over 36 percent of the world’s maritime domain. The low-lying, littoral nations in the Caribbean Sea, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, Oceania, and Arctic are all susceptible to terriclaiming. The low-water depths and close proximity of other littoral nations in these contiguous resource-rich coastal zones make terriclaiming possible and, perhaps, desirable. Additionally, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), has no provisions to account for terriclaims. The provisions that could be interpreted to challenge or support terriclaims within UNCLOS are ambiguous at best.[1]

Regardless of UNCLOS’s relative silence on these issues, terriclaims need to be addressed. If China’s terriclaims are legitimized by the international community’s inaction, this would not only reward Beijing’s behavior, but also give the Chinese carte blanche to continueterriclaiming in other areas. More importantly, sanctioning terriclaims would encourage other states to follow China’s lead. If a solution is not found, terriclaims will wreak havoc on the maritime environment and its frameworks. At the very least, the perceived military bent of China’s terriclaims will continue to unnerve other claimants.

Terriclaims in the Future

Unless the legal ambiguity is removed or China’s terriclaims are directly challenged, aterriclaims-race could ensue between China and the other claimants. There are two possible responses the international community should consider.  First, signatory states could revise UNCLOS to account for terriclaims or attach an addendum agreement similar to the 1995 Fish and Stock Agreement. Yet, a far-reaching revision or addendum of UNCLOS is unlikely. In order for a revision to occur, Beijing’s support would undoubtedly be required as a member of the Security Council and the regional leader. Second, interested states could quash terriclaimsthrough arbitration in either International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) or the International Court of Justice or through a broader framework or agreement. Conversely, litigation and arbitration may not necessarily be a feasible solution either considering the current lengthy and drawn-out legal battle between the Philippines and China. Depending how the litigation proceeds, it may be more likely that the parties will fall back on some form of bilateral or multilateral agreement, similar but more robust than the 2002 Declaration on Conduct, that seeks rapprochement over the terriclaims between ASEAN or ASEAN-member claimants and China.[2]

China’s terriclaims manifest the great lengths to which China is willing to go to dominate the South China Sea. And despite its seeming novelty, the fact that this tactic has such a longstanding role in Chinese history means that we should not expect to see it disappear from Beijing’s toolkit any time soon.

[1] See Articles 7(2) (on sedimentation and deltas), 76 (fixing boundaries in lieu of continental shelf claims), 60 (artificial islands, installations, and structures), and 121 (differentiation between island and rock claims).

[2] “Declaration on the Code of Conduct between Parties in the South China Sea,” ASEAN.

Wilson VornDick is a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy and is assigned to the Pentagon and previously to the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He explores the geopolitical interplay of both terriclaims and other topics in the South China Sea in his Harvard graduate thesis to be published this May. These are his personal views and are not associated with a U.S. Government or U.S. Navy policy.

This piece first appeared in the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website here

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Saberwyn/CC by-sa 3.0.

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

America's New Maritime Strategy: How Will China Respond?

The Buzz

The military services responsible for American seapower (Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard) recently released their new maritime strategy, entitled “Forward, Engaged, Ready: A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.”  The reviews thus far have been positive, with most analysts praising the specificity of the document, as compared to its 2007 predecessor, as well as its harder, more combat-oriented edge.  One set of reviewers have yet to be heard from, however, and that is the large and garrulous community of Chinese military analysts.  This analysis attempts to anticipate what that reaction will be.

One of indication of how the Chinese military community will react is its past history.  The 2007 strategy did not name China as a challenge or threat, nor did it particularly focus on Chinese strategies already being discussed in navalist circles for denying U.S. freedom of action.  As the Team Lead for the production of that document, I was privy to high level conversations about the degree to which the document should “name names.”  One discussion in particular occurred late in the development of the strategy, in which the then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen reacted to the insistence of another Navy four-star admiral that China should be explicitly identified in that document.  Mullen’s reaction was that he believed they (the Chinese) would “read themselves into the document.”

Within weeks of the October 2007 release of the strategy, Dr. Andrew Erickson of the China Maritime Studies Institute based at the U.S. Naval War College began to survey Chinese open source discussions, and his work largely confirmed Admiral Mullen’s prediction.  The strategy advanced an argument about the defense of the global system and this was clearly understood by Chinese analysts as meaning that the United States would defend the system it had designed and led.  Additionally, they understood that the strategy intended to help the United States retain its global leadership position.  None of these points were particularly appealing to Chinese analysts, even if the message itself was rather nuanced.

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The new maritime strategy dispenses with subtlety.  No longer espousing the defense of the global system as its strategic kernel, the new strategy moves down the strategic continuum from its predecessor’s more “grand” aspirations, to strategy more focused on the operational benefits of American seapower, chief among them, the ability to gain and maintain access to enable joint operations.  This focus on access is a direct result of China’s counter-intervention strategy known largely in the United States as “anti-access and area denial” (A2/AD). To a lesser extent, Iran is also pursuing similar capabilities and concepts.  The naval services rightly understand that the United States’ competitive advantage is its ability to project power thousands of miles from its own shores, In order to mitigate that advantage,  China recognizes that it must deny it the free use of the seas.  Unlike its predecessor, this document names names.

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The new strategy also underscores another great strength of the U.S. strategic approach in the Indo-Asia Pacific: its network of friends and allies. The document states: “[b]ased on shared strategic interests, the United States seeks to strengthen cooperation with long-standing allies in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand—and continues to cultivate partnerships with states such as Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Micronesia, Pakistan, Singapore, and Vietnam.”  Where Washington speaks of strengthening partnerships, the Chinese are sure to see encirclement, and they will not be bashful about saying so.  Some analysts saw the far less China-focused 2007 document as a modern statement of containment; this version is likely to evoke even more hyperbolic responses.

Beijing’s perception of encirclement will be evoked as a justification for both the build-up and modernization of naval forces and the continuing importance of the Chinese counter-intervention strategy.  Additionally, there may be attempts to justify extending the Chinese network of bases and places to locations much closer to the United States than ongoing efforts in West Asia and Africa, including initiatives in South America and the Caribbean.

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China’s centrality in this document is, however, also likely to have the perverse effect of stroking the collective ego of analysts with the “Century of Humiliation” chip on their shoulders.  At least some Chinese military analysts and opinion writers are sure to see this new strategy as reinforcing their own growing sense of major power self-esteem.

Finally, though it is unlikely we will see much public discussion along these lines, it should be obvious to the Chinese that the United States does not wish to quietly fade into the night, and that there is plenty of thought and resources being applied to ensuring naval dominance in the Indo-Asia Pacific region for decades to come.  China may have previously been able to quietly “fly under the radar,” but that time is past.  A competition is on, and both sides are now acknowledging it. There is far less room for nuance now.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and is the Asssitant Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. 

This piece first appeared in the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website here

Image: US Navy Flickr. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia-Pacific

Why the Welfare State is Good for National Defense

The Buzz

Should Social Security and Medicare be cut, to provide more money to the Pentagon?  The idea that entitlements like Social Security and Medicare should be slashed, in order to free more resources for the Pentagon and other national security agencies, is sometimes found on the center-right.  Entitlements for the middle class and defense spending are the two biggest components of the federal budget, and it might seem logical that cutting the former could free resources for the latter.  But those who hold this view fail to understand the economics and politics of modern industrial society.

We are still living in the industrial era, even though only a shrinking minority of workers worldwide still works in factories, thanks to automation.  Since the industrial revolution began, no country has been able to be a great power without having its own major domestic manufacturing base.  And since the early twentieth century, every great power has had, not merely a means-tested safety net for the destitute (which is often termed “welfare” in the US), but also expensive welfare-state policies for middle-income citizens, to provide for their income security in old age and illness.  Most welfare state spending, like Social Security and Medicare in the U.S., goes to the middle classes, not the poor.  When this welfare spending on the middle class is added to other government spending, it boosts the typical government share of modern developed nations to more than 40 percent of GDP.

It is no coincidence that all modern great powers have large welfare states of some kind.  Nor is it a coincidence that welfare state policies were promoted by Bismarck in the nineteenth century and by Churchill and the Roosevelts in the twentieth.  The modern welfare state, in its various national varieties, promotes national security in three ways.  The middle-class welfare state promotes national manufacturing by lowering domestic labor costs and boosting domestic consumption, and it secures public support for defense spending.

If the modern welfare state were abolished, and every worker had to pre-fund personal savings accounts for all of these purposes, either middle- income citizens would have to accept greatly reduced living standards during their working years, or employers would have to pay far higher wages to enable their workers to save more to enjoy a middle-class retirement.  The socialization of part or all of the costs of unemployment, retirement, and health care for middle-income workers reduces labor costs for all employers, including those in the manufacturing sector.

In addition to lowering labor costs, the middle-class welfare state helps the national manufacturing base by enlarging the domestic mass market.  The welfare state does so by maintaining a level of consumption on the part of the retired, the disabled and the temporarily unemployed that is much higher than would be the case in its absence.  

Manufacturing industries, including defense manufacturing, tend to be characterized by increasing returns to scale—that is, the longer the production run, the lower the cost of each additional unit.  The bigger the consumer base within the nation’s borders, the more efficient the national industry can be.

While government can provide a single consumer with deep pockets for specialized military manufacturing, the most successful great powers of the modern era like the U.S. have had large dual-use manufacturing sectors made efficient by mass production for civilian use as well as for defense (national automobile and aerospace industries, for example).  In wartime, a flourishing civilian industrial base can be converted for defense production.  Furthermore, product and process innovations can flow back and forth by means of military-to-civilian “spin-offs” and civilian-to-military “spin-ons.”

Mass civilian industrial production requires a mass market of middle-class consumers with adequate personal purchasing power.  That is why the transnational firms that dominate many global industries tend to be based in the three most populous middle-class nations—the U.S., Japan and Germany.  Contrary to popular mythology about globalization, the most successful transnational manufacturing firms tend to have 40-50 percent of their consumers in their home countries, which provide spring-boards for foreign expansion, chiefly into neighboring countries in the same region.

The modern welfare state supports mass industrial production by supporting domestic mass consumption, in part by minimum wages imposed by government or negotiated by employers with unions, and in part by means of the redistribution of purchasing power from the rich minority to the majority through welfare state programs.  In every modern welfare state, horizontal redistribution of income within the middle class, from working age citizens to retired, unemployed, or disabled citizens, is complemented by a degree of vertical redistribution from the rich to the middle class and the poor.   If there were no redistributive element to the welfare state at all, if middle-class workers took out only what they put in, then domestic mass consumption would suffer, and with it national manufacturing capacity, to the detriment of national military power.

In practice, if not in rhetoric, most conservative politicians in the U.S. support a substantial degree of after-tax redistribution.  They propose to use taxation to redistribute purchasing power by means of vouchers or tax credits for retirement savings, health care and child care, rather than by means of social insurance or in-kind public services.  Today’s American right may call its favored approach to redistribution “privatization” or “competition” or “market-based policy” but in the early twentieth century this method was accurately described as  “voucher socialism.”  As far as defense-critical manufacturing is concerned, it doesn’t really matter how the welfare state maintains mass consumption by an artificially-expanded middle class through the redistribution of purchasing power, as long as this is done by one method or another.

Highly unequal societies with small middle classes have not been great military powers in the industrial era, and are unlikely to be great powers in the future.  Their middle classes lack the purchasing power to support large-scale, efficient mass production for domestic mass markets.  Specialized, small-batch or customized craft production for rich oligarchs—a domestic luxury yacht industry, say, as opposed to a commercial shipping, automobile or aerospace industry—cannot be converted easily to defense production.  Outside of the gated communities of the rich, the local majority in an oligarchic economy can only afford local goods or cheap imports that are inferior by world standards.

In theory the oligarchs in a highly unequal society can be taxed to support a separate, inefficient defense-only industry.  In practice the political power of the oligarchs is likely to limit spending on defense, as well as welfare.  Inadequate domestic mass consumption, by crippling domestic manufacturing, has ensured that highly unequal Latin American societies like Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina punch far below their weights in both manufacturing and military power.

The welfare state thus helps the dual-use domestic manufacturing base on which military power depends in two ways:  directly by lowering the labor costs of manufacturers, and indirectly by expanding domestic mass markets for the products of industry through the redistribution of purchasing power, not only from workers to those unable to work but also from the rich to the rest.  In addition to these indirect subsidies for manufacturing, the modern welfare state also helps national security in a third way, by assuring political support for defense spending.

In the age of industrialized world wars and cold wars, it has not been enough for governments to promise rewards only for soldiers, like land grants or military pensions.  In a modern economy all citizens contribute to national defense, if only by working on the home front or paying taxes.  For this reason, all modern developed nations have won support for wars and peacetime military spending by promising generous welfare state benefits for all citizens, not merely soldiers.

Libertarians have long derided the “warfare-welfare state.”  But all modern great powers including the U.S. are warfare-welfare states, by this definition. The leaders of China realize that their newly-industrialized country needs to develop a modern system of tax-based social welfare, to replace the security once provided by collective farms.  China also needs to redistribute purchasing power and raise the wages of Chinese workers, in order to shift from excessive dependence on foreign markets to greater domestic mass consumption for its industrial production.

From all of this it follows that those who call for cuts in American welfare spending to pay for increases in defense spending are not only economically illiterate but also politically naïve.  There might be a few hawkish donors who support less welfare spending and more military spending.  But among American voters there is no significant constituency that favors slashing Social Security and Medicare for the middle class in order to send more money to soldiers and defense contractors.  In an aging population, if voters are given a choice between middle-class entitlements and the Pentagon, the Pentagon will lose.

To be sure, substantial welfare state savings are possible in the U.S.   But they need not come at the expense of the American middle class.  Without harming middle- and low-income Americans, significant money can be saved by means of medical price regulation and the abolition of too-generous tax breaks for the rich.

The U.S. could reduce both public and private health care costs if it emulated all other developed nations, including free-market, small-government Switzerland with its private health care system, and used government-imposed fee schedules to regulate the prices charged by monopolistic and oligopolistic drug companies and  hospitals and the physician cartel.  By means of “all payer regulation,” which treats the medical industry as a price-regulated public utility, other developed countries avert American-style medical profiteering and provide comparable levels of health care to larger percentages of their populations at much lower cost, without sacrificing quality.

With respect to retirement, the focus of intelligent fiscal reform should be not on cutting Social Security benefits, on which most Americans depend in old age, but on cutting tax-favored private retirement accounts, like 401k’s and IRA’s, most of the benefits of which go to the upper middle class and the rich.  Rather than support reductions in the already meager average Social Security benefit ($1294 a month or a near-poverty income of about $15,000 a year in 2014), those who are sincerely and not just rhetorically concerned about the federal budget should demand an end to the use of the tax code to subsidize the retirement lifestyles of well-to-do investors, managers and professionals.

Cutting wasteful retirement subsidies for America’s economic elite could be achieved by, among other reforms, lowering the absurdly-high annual contribution limits to tax-deferred 401k’s.  In 2015, for a worker over 50, the annual contribution limit from all sources (employer and employee) is $59,000.  This, in a nation in which the median weekly earnings total in the fourth quarter of 2014 was $796 or around $41,000 a year, meaning half of Americans make less.  Ending favorable tax treatment for the private retirement savings hoards of the fortunate few would increase federal tax revenues which could be used for national defense, among other purposes.

Those who want more guns and less butter are confused.  The only coherent positions are held by libertarians—fewer guns and less butter, at the cost of America’s status as a great power—and by progressives and big-government conservatives—both guns and butter as the basis of America’s status as a great power.  President Ronald Reagan, who temporarily boosted defense spending to win the Cold War, even as he refused to cut Social Security and Medicare and called for the complete federalization of Medicaid, understood this reality, even if some of his putative disciples do not.

Michael Lind is a contributing editor of The National Interest and an ASU New America Future of War fellow.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

Why Rand Paul Should Worry about 'America in Retreat'

The Buzz

Kentucky’s junior Senator, Rand Paul, announced his candidacy for President of the United States on Tuesday.  Senator Paul is young, energetic and one of the genuinely nice guys in American politics.  His positions on cutting the staggering federal debt by taming “Big Government” and curbing the NSA’s surveillance of law abiding Americans are attractive to Republicans, Independents and even many Democrats.

Four years ago, Senator Paul's personality and platform may be earned him the GOP nomination.  His announcement comes, however, at a time when Speaker John Boehner, summed up the concerns of many in a Politico interview: “it’s just that the world is on fire. And I don’t think enough Americans or enough people in the administration understand how serious the problems that we’re facing in the world are.”

Russia’s 1930s-style invasion and occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the rise of a cruel ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s new archipelago of influence stretching from Beirut on the Mediterranean to Yemen on the Arabian Sea, China’s virtual annexation of the South and East China Seas through man-made islands and Air Defense Identification Zones, not to mention North Korea’s continued development of both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, all portend a far more dangerous world than Americans are accustomed to living in.

Senator Paul’s isolationist tendencies have lead to out-of-the-mainstream statements on the Middle East such as: “we should realize that the interventionists are calling for Islamic rebels to win in Syria and for the same Islamic rebels to lose in Iraq.” His perceived softness on Russian expansionism may arise from his remark that “[s]ome on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”  He added that, “I think we need to have a respectful–sometimes adversarial–but a respectful relationship with Russia.”  Unlike the other GOP candidates, who have harshly condemned President Obama's nuclear framework with Iran's Supreme Leader, Senator Paul said yesterday that he is keeping an "open mind" on the deal.  Such comments have been easy targets for conservative foreign policy commentators such as Christian Whiton, who put Senator Paul squarely in the “blame America first” crowd in a September 2014 Breitbart opinion piece.

A more serious concern for Senator Paul is Pulitzer prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’ recent book, “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder (Sentinel 2014).”  Stephen’s book has become mandatory reading for national security experts advising GOP candidates.  With a respectful dissertation on the roots and appeal of American isolationism, Stephens places both President Barrack Obama and Senator Paul in that tradition.

Stephens writes: “[a]s for Paul, he espouses a form of Realism that amounts to a prescription for downsizing U.S. commitments abroad as part of a broader package of downsizing Big Government at home.  As he told a roomful of college students when he was gearing up for a run for the Senate in 2009, ‘you have to decide if we have an expansionist foreign policy that believes that we have to have 750 military bases in 130 countries, or whether our foreign policy should be a little more directed toward what the founding fathers talked about and that is more defense of our country and less offensive type of foreign policy.’” (97-98.)

Stephens’ thesis, however, is that this new isolationism espoused by President Obama, on the progressive left, and Senator Paul, on the libertarian right, opens the door for dictators, tyrants and terrorists to fill the vacuum left by a retreating and disengaged America. Speaker Boehner’s characterization of a “world on fire” and headlines reporting the latests attacks by Islamic extremists and daily advances of Russian separatists appear to vindicate Stephens’ argument.  Senator Paul is, thus, placed in an extraordinarily difficult position, especially with GOP primary voters. 

Stephens ends his book by arguing that America remains fundamentally strong and that “retreat”, unlike “decline”, is a policy choice.  He posits that liberty at home and abroad rests on “American power with the reach and credibility to keep our enemies in check and far away; power that fosters global conditions of predictability, prosperity, decency and freedom.” (230.)  “When the thugs and scofflaws show up in your neighborhood, as they sometimes do,” says Stephens, “you’ll be grateful to know that cop (America) is still walking his old beat, a reassuring presence in a still-dangerous world.”  (231.)

In a Republican primary where the leading candidates – Governor Scott Walker, former Governor Jeb Bush, and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are all echoing Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” maxim, Stephens’ book, with its focus on and dissection of the Obama/Paul foreign policy, has made it almost impossible for Senator Paul to make a similar claim on Reagan’s legacy. 

Robert C. O'Brien is the California managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations and was a Senior Advisor to Governor Mitt Romney. His writings on foreign policy and national security are available at He can be followed on Twitter: @robertcobrien.

Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon

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