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Troop surge

Obama's Iraq Fictions

President Obama is bailing out from Iraq. Now that he's withdrawn 100,000 combat troops from Iraq, the country may lapse back into civil war or, by some miracle, create a stable government. America may be turning a page on the war, but it's unclear whether or not Iraq will follow suit. But as Obama indicated last night in his sober and lackluster speech from the Oval Office, Iraq is free to choose its own future.

Obama himself has little choice but to exit. George W. Bush, whose insistence on promoting a freedom crusade in the Middle East created the whole mess, managed to stave off complete disaster by championing the surge, a strategy that Obama is now pursuing in Afghanistan, even as he declared that the economy will be his main focus (which doesn't quite square with his attempt to promote Middle East peace this week, but never mind). Like Obama himself, few Americans ever really cared about Iraq, which is why the GOP's efforts to depict Obama as leaving prematurely will go nowhere. As the Los Angeles Times reports, House minority leader John Boehner declared:

"The hard truth is that Iraq will continue to remain a target for those who hope to destroy freedom and democracy," Boehner said, speaking to the American Legion in Milwaukee. "The people of that nation — and this nation — deserve to know what America is prepared to do if the cause for which our troops sacrificed their lives in Iraq is threatened."

No End in Sight

President Obama’s much anticipated address to the nation tonight is being billed as the fulfillment of an election commitment. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet, at a time when the United States seems both frustrated and increasingly enervated and by our prolonged commitment in Afghanistan, tonight’s address affords the President a signal opportunity to explain his vision of success for America’s involvement in that country as well and the conditions that will eventually lead to an end of active U.S. combat operations there.

The supposed end of America’s combat mission in Iraq will certainly be heralded in far more somber and sober tones than President Bush’s meretricious “Mission Accomplished” speech and dramatic landing aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln seven years ago. Like 1970s hair, clothing and home décor, one still cringes at the fatuous media circus that was orchestrated to frame that event——exactly at the moment when Iraq was descending into unmitigated chaos and renewed bloodshed.

“You won’t hear those words [e.g., “mission accomplished”] coming from us,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs promises, but what will Americans hear that might assuage their concerns not only about our protracted involvement in corruption-tainted Afghanistan, but about our legacy in Iraq?

The danger is that, in our desire to sequentially rid ourselves of the messy wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that have dominated American national security in the 21st Century, the same wishful thinking that attended the hoopla of President Bush’s descent onto the Lincoln’s flight deck again will surface tonight.

From the Guys Who Brought You the War in Iraq

From Politico's "Morning Defense" newsletter comes this troubling tidbit:

PUTTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER - It's Iraq all over again. Petraeus is surrounding himself with some of the same civilian and military advisors upon whom he relied when he was in Iraq: Kim and Fred Kagan have been on an extended stay in Kabul, returning Friday, and Jack Keane is on his way at the end of the month. Stan McChrystal invited the Kagans, along with Max Boot and Stephen Biddle, to assess the effort and provide him feedback; Morning Defense is told that Petraeus renewed the invitation when he took over. “They're essentially looking at all aspects of the current campaign and offering advice to Petraeus on areas to tweak and/or change,” a senior official tells us. P4 also keeps Tal Afar master H.R. McMaster close by.

This news might warm the hearts of some in the Beltway establishment, but it should send a shiver up the spine of anyone who recalls the position taken by a number of these people concerning the war in Iraq, or really of anyone who can work Google to search before 2007, i.e. before the "success" of the surge turned them all into brilliant strategists, and rendered moot their views on the war going back to 2002 and 2003.

What Conditions, Exactly?

In his interview on Meet the Press, General David Petraeus displayed the form we have come to expect from this most politically astute and admired of American military leaders.  He comfortably voiced rationales for the war in Afghanistan, going beyond his area of responsibility as field commander but without stepping on any policymakers' toes.  He talked down expectations about what can be achieved in Afghanistan while talking up progress he says is being achieved.  He simultaneously exuded both understanding of the doubts back home concerning the war and a sense of confidence in his own mission.

Regarding the scheduled beginning in eleven months of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Petraeus mentioned the same formula that administration policymakers have mentioned countless other times: that decisions about the pace of withdrawal would be determined by "conditions" on the ground in Afghanistan.  Interviewer David Gregory did not ask a badly needed follow-up: What exactly does that mean?  What sort of conditions would lead to a faster withdrawal, and what sort to a slower one?

Bankrupt Empire

The United States government is effectively bankrupt. Washington no longer can afford to micromanage the world. International social engineering is a dubious venture under the best of circumstances. It is folly to attempt while drowning in red ink.

Traditional military threats against America have largely disappeared. There's no more Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, Maoist China is distant history and Washington is allied with virtually every industrialized state. As Colin Powell famously put it while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: "I'm running out of enemies. . . . I'm down to Kim Il-Sung and Castro." However, the United States continues to act as the globe's 911 number.

Unfortunately, a hyperactive foreign policy requires a big military. America accounts for roughly half of global military outlays. In real terms Washington spends more on "defense" today than it during the Cold War, Korean War and Vietnam War.

U.S. military expenditures are extraordinary by any measure. My Cato Institute colleagues Chris Preble and Charles Zakaib recently compared American and European military outlays. U.S. expenditures have been trending upward and now approach five percent of GDP. In contrast, European outlays have consistently fallen as a percentage of GDP, to an average of less than two percent.

The difference is even starker when comparing per capita GDP military expenditures. The U.S. is around $2,200. Most European states fall well below $1,000. Adding in non-Pentagon defense spending-Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Department of Energy (nuclear weapons)-yields American military outlays of $835.1 billion in 2008, which represented 5.9 percent of GDP and $2,700 per capita.

A War We Can't Afford

The U.S. government is broke. Nevertheless, Washington is currently fighting two wars: one is ebbing while the other is expanding. How to pay for the Afghan build up? Democrats say raise taxes. Republicans say no worries. The best policy would be to scale back America's international commitments.

The United States will spend more than $700 billion on the military in 2010. The administration's initial defense-budget proposal, minus the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, was $534 billion, almost as much as total military spending by the rest of the world. Even though the Iraq war is winding down, its costs will persist for years as the government cares for thousands of seriously injured veterans.

Afghanistan cost about $51 billion in 2009 and had been expected to run $65 billion in 2010. However, the president's build up is estimated to add another $30 billion annually. And if this "surge" doesn't work-U.S. troop levels still lag well behind the minimum number indicated by Pentagon anti-insurgency doctrine-the administration will feel pressure to further increase force levels. Every extra thousand personnel deployed to Afghanistan costs about $1 billion.

Although the president reportedly plans to emphasize deficit reduction in his upcoming budget, he continues to propose new programs even with $10 trillion in red ink predicted over the next decade. The cost of the Afghan war will be yet another debit added to the national debt.

Some Democrats are demanding measures to pay for the war. For instance, Appropriations Committee Chairman Representative David Obey is advocating a special war tax to "share the burden." He, along with Rep. John P. Murtha and Rep. John B. Larson, have introduced the Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010. They complain that "the only people who've paid any price for our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are our military families."

Derailing Lisbon

So close yet so far. For five years Europe's elite has been attempting to consolidate the European Union's power in the face of popular opposition. Every EU member government has ratified the so-called Lisbon Treaty, yet the agreement remains in limbo, awaiting the signature of Czech President Vaclav Klaus.

The European Union began as a free-trade zone. The economic benefits were obvious while the threats to national sovereignty were few. Over time the EU gained political authority, but national governments remained supreme. However, in 2004 leading European federalists, or Eurocrats, sought to change that by drafting a constitution, later turned into the Lisbon Treaty-thereby avoiding popular referenda on ratification-turning the EU into something closer to a nation state.

It took two tries to get the treaty past the Irish, whose constitution mandated a popular vote. But the Eurocrats' apparent triumph still has fallen short: the Czech constitution requires President Klaus' signature for ratification, which he so far has withheld. Treaty backers fear that delay could prove fatal: if the treaty goes unratified until the next British election, required mid-2010, the anti-Lisbon Conservatives, widely expected to win, could rescind Britain's ratification. Then the entire project would collapse.

What are Lisbon's benefits? The public obviously has its doubts: a majority of citizens in all twenty-seven member countries wanted to vote on the treaty and in half of the states likely would have voted no.

If the treaty spurs Brussels to become anything like Washington's bloated Leviathan the European people will be clear losers. For instance, Stephen Booth, author of a new report for the think tank Open Europe on civil liberties, worries: "How can citizens expect their fundamental rights to liberty and independence from the state to be protected by unaccountable institutions which have a vested interest in creating new laws?"

Bush's Third Term

President Obama took the oath of office six months ago. He did so after a long campaign in which he continuously promised "change" and to "restore America's standing in the world." Thus far, however, optics are all that keeps his administration's foreign policy from being a continuation of George W. Bush's.

In fairness, six months is not much time. Then again, it represents one eighth of the term. Further, as Obama himself has acknowledged vis-à-vis health care reform and other issues on the domestic agenda, we're not far from the point where Congress' attention turns to the 2010 election cycle and major change gets much harder. Soon thereafter, the race for 2012 gets underway and Washington becomes incredibly risk averse.

Further, there are strong signals that a real break will come on some secondary issues. Obama is much less enthusiastic about missile defense, more likely to show tough love to Israel and less apt to fervently pursue our half-century-old idiocy in Cuba. But on all the major issues, the movement has been cosmetic.

Iraq: Obama's signature foreign-affairs item, going back to his 2004 Senate campaign, was his steadfast opposition to the war in Iraq. That he, alone among the serious contenders for the Democratic nomination, opposed the war from the outset allowed him to claim that, despite no relevant experience, he had better judgment on national-security issues than the old Washington hands.

A funny thing happened on the way to the White House, however. The "surge," which he opposed, seemed to work. Or, at least, things got radically better at a time that was convenient for surge proponents. Further, the Bush administration negotiated a status off forces agreement that has the United States on a path to a relatively quick, dignified exit of combat forces from Iraq.

The Art of Petraeus

From the issue

IN A lively, ongoing debate, some authors have credited General Petraeus with transforming the United States military and wonder if his success will have long-term impacts. The most visible part of the debate over this legacy concerns whether the future of the United States Army lies in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations or a return to conventional combat. Initially an internal debate, it has become wide-ranging and moved from internal Department of Defense (DOD) journals like Military Review to industry publications like Armed Forces Journal to general press such as the Atlantic.

The fiery back-and-forth has focused on answering three pressing questions: whether or not a "surge" will work in Afghanistan; what types of wars we will fight in the future; and how the United States government should invest and train for what is to come. But the entire discussion rests on a false premise. The debate has identified the General's legacy as that of counterinsurgency strategy or, even further from the mark, as the success of the surge. But in fact, what the General has succeeded in doing is far more complex, far more important and potentially far more universally applicable than the simplistic notion of debating the value of preparation for counterinsurgency or conventional warfare-or worse, a simple "surge."

Petraeus's real legacy is that of a general who understood and then adapted to fight the war he was in. It seems obvious, and is even one of Clausewitz's most widely quoted passages, but the fact remains our system has not been particularly good at that "first, most far-reaching act of judgment . . . to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking. . . . "

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April 20, 2014