Archive for January, 2011

Devil’s Choices in Egypt

Posted in Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , on January 30, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As unrest spreads in major Egyptian urban areas, the question of what this means for the United States arises, since Egypt has been as reliable a partner as the United States (and Israel) have had in the Middle East for the last 30 years or more during which Hosni Mubarak has been the “duly elected” President of Egypt. Widely publicized demonstrations are now in their fourth day, the police have proven inadequate to do much about them and have apparently largely quit trying, and quelling–or at least managing–the chaos has fallen on the Egyptian Army, in which the United States has a huge financial investment.

So far, the Army has acted with considerable restraint, but one is not quite sure why. They have tried to break up demonstrations, but not with great force or violence, and there are increasing reports of collaboration between demonstrators and soldiers. If the Mubarak government has been ordering the military to clamp down (and there is no conclusive publicly available evidence one way or the other on this subject), they have apparently ignored or resisted it. If they have been ordered to show restraint, they have largely succeeded. Since much of Mubarak’s claim to power has rested on his symbiotic relationship with the military, what we are now seeing may be an expression of the Army’s flagging loyalty to the 82-year-old leader. Certainly, it is known that the Army is unenthusiastic about Mubarak’s dream of passing along power to his son Gamal, whom the military apparently disrespects. It also seems plausible that they oppose another six-year term for Mubarak following elections later this year (Mubarak has been in power since 1981, and there are no terms limits on the President of Egypt).

Meanwhile, the protests continue to grow, fueled by the social media–Twitter, Facebook, etc.–that the government appears to be trying to silence, but with less than total success. The scenes being beamed more or less constantly on CNN look a lot like Tehran a years or so ago and certainly like Tunisia last week, and one cannot help but speculate where all this may be headed.

No one seems to know with any certainty. Although all analogies are imperfect, one cannot avoid being drawn to comparisons between what is happening in Egypt and the changes in Eastern Europe that began in 1989. In both cases, the public turned on long-serving authoritarian governments that had heretofore hidden their peoples’ displeasure with them behind a veil of repression, and once that veil was lifted, the antipathy, disregard, even disdain the people held could not be contained. One can only conjure memories of the looks on the faces of fallen communist leaders as they lost power across Eastern Europe: utter disbelief that their former subjects hated them as much as they obviously did. Is some of that what we are seeing in Egypt today? If it succeeds, will it spread, as it did in formerly communist Europe?

The experts are divided, as they were in 1989. Processes of change can, after all, have three long-term outcomes, depending on one’s perspective: things can get better, they can get worse, or they can remain the same. For the latter to be the case, the uprisings would have to fail, leaving Mubarak in power (although possibly convinced not to run again later this year and having abandoned his dreams of nepotism); that victory for the status quo) is certainly what happened in Iran. Since Mubarak has been a long and loyal partner in the region, that would seem a reasonable hope for the United States, but it is really only an interim solution that simply puts off the question of “what after Mubarak?” the demonstrators are raising. It also leaves the other prospects: things could get better, and things could get worse.

Here is where the United States has a devil’s choice before it. Does the United States, more fearful than hopeful of the outcomes of change, come down for “law and order” and back those who want to avoid or minimize change? Or does it embrace the process of change and try to ride its crest, hoping the result will be a new government in Egypt that appreciates the Americans having chosen their side of future Egyptian history?

There is, of course, a clearly preferential outcome here, which is that a more democratic, progressive, but non-Islamist and thus pro-American government will emerge from this process, and one that appreciates what the United States has done to help the transition from Mubarak-era repression and economic deprivation (per capita GDP in Egypt is 137th in the world, according to CIA figures for 2010). Sounds and would be great, but is that the outcome that change will produce?

No one, of course, seems to know, and there is a flip side to optimism: in this case, Mubarak falling and being replaced by a radical, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated, Islamist theocracy on the Iranian model. Egypt, of course, is not Iran (its Muslim population is virtually all Sunni rather than Shiite, for instance), and it has a large, westernized middle class and elite. But strange things can happen when you roll the dice, which supporting the ongoing process effectively entails. As one rock-an-roll song aptly puts it, “You may be wrong, but you may be right!” with any prediction you make.

So what’s the United States to do? The choices are all potentially bad: devil’s choices. If we back our long-time ally, we send a positive message to other global friends that we are steadfast. Some of those friends, however, may not deserve our fidelity, and we also send a message to those who seek change: don’t count on Uncle Sam. The risk of backing Mubarak is ending up on the wrong side of Egyptian history, and the Egyptians will remember. On the other hand, embracing change has perils: if Mubarak goes, who will follow? Other than his son, Mubarak has left no obvious replacements being groomed, the state has suppressed many of those who might be leaders, and Mubarak has not allowed political alternatives to whom one might turn. Uncertainty is thus maximized, and we roll the dice about the outcome if we embrace the current popular mood. Will the roll produce a “lucky seven” or “snake eyes”? The only way to know is roll them and hope for the best. Governments typically want something more concrete than that.

So here we stand on what may be a cusp of history. The Egyptian people are clearly saying that they do not like the status quo and that as its symbol, Mubarak needs to go. Probably the worst outcome would be for all this to appear to blow over, leaving Mubarak to run for and win another “free” election (he got 88.6 percent of the vote in 2005) with American support, since that would place us on the side of reaction, and after Mubarak finally parts the scene, the Egyptians will remember. Or we can roll the dice and hope for the best from a change process we do  not yet understand (if anyone does). The result could be very good, or it could be very bad. But then, the nature 0f devil’s choices is that they afre, or can be, between unpleasant alternatives.


The Tea Party: Deficits and Defense

Posted in U.S. defense budget, US Domestic Politics with tags , , on January 23, 2011 by whatafteriraq

New Congressional members of the Tea Party think they have have the answer to the country’s ills: less overall federal spending and a strong commitment to defense.These are, of course, among the core values of the conservative and libertarian wings of the Republican Party and have been for a long time. That wing, dating in the modern (i.e. post-World War II) environment to and originally associated with Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) was dominant immediately after the war but was eclipsed when Dwight D. (“Ike”) Eisenhower won the GOP nomination from Taft in 1948, sending this wing into minority status with the GOP until the Reagan years.

The refrain of those whom the Tea Party seek to represent is straightforward: their mantra is minimal government, which translates into a minimum involvement of the government (especially the federal governmen) in the lives of citizens, which in turn means a government that is comparatively cheap to operate and thus does not require large taxes. So far so good, and while one can agree of disagree with this philosophical position and its operational consequences (e.g. minimal government services for various, mostly disadvantaged, citizens), it is at least internally coherent.

The philosophical problem is the other part of the rightist agenda, a commitment to a robust defense. Admittedly, what is robust to one person may seem either paltry or bellicose to another, but a strong defense means, operationally, a commitment to a large federal monetary commitment to national defense in its various aspects and guises. Once again, one can argue with the wisdom of this formulation, but it is at least coherent. Essentially, the Tea Party and its friends are arguing that defense spending is one of the relatively few worthwhile things the government does for the citizenry.

In the current atmosphere, the two operational consequences of this position fly in one another’s face. The generally dim libertarian view of government generally leads Tea Party activists in the 112th Congress to argue for cuts in the federal budget; their pro-defense position equally argues that defense cuts should be spared from the budgeter’s axe. In specific terms, they call for a $100 billion reduction in overall government spending this year, from which they would exempt the defense budget. Were Ike to return for a day, he would have a puzzled, possibly bemused look on his face. Most likely, he would agree that government does and spends too much; he would equally likely not let defense off the hook for bearing its part of whatever spending cuts are imposed.

The Tea Party’s position may be coherent, even philosophically attractive, in the abstract, but it does not hold up very well in the real world. It begins from at least an implicit premise that there is a lot of “waste, fraud, and abuse” (to borrow the 1980s phrase) in the non-defense budget but, implicitly once again, that there are not parallel examples of wasteful spending in the defense sector. That is probably a false premise. There may be (almost certainly is) some waste in non-defense spending like some of the more egregious earmarked projects, but previous assaults have removed most of this “fat,” leaving mostly muscle to trim; at the same time, there is without question wasteful spending in the defense area: the plush settings of many American military bases and the expense of a large number of marginally justifiable overseas basescomes to mind immediately. Spending hundreds of billions on two entirely stupid, unproductive, unwinnable, and unnecessary wars comes even more to mind.

The Tea Partiers are, of course, free to believe and advocate whatever they want–it is still a free country. Their contribution to a meaningful national dialogue, however, could stand a bit of a reality check. It is well and fine to advocate what I would argue is a hopelessly bloated defense budget on the ground that keeping us safe is the government’s primary obligation. It is naive, and probably hypocritical, to argue that filling the defense budget trough to the rim can be paid for by cutting “non-essential” spending elsewhere. To repeat an item in the last entry, over half the discretionary budget is in defense, and it follows that defense should belly up to the bar (it does have a considerable belly, after all) and do its part.

The Tea Party says its goal is to balance the federal budget, but that it wants to do so without raising taxes (thereby increasing government). Yeah, right! This is the Jack Spratt approach: Jack Spratt (the non-defense budget) will eat no fat, and his wife (the defense budget) will eat no lean. The result: skinny Jack, fat spouse. But it is still a lovely couple wallowing in debt, because, at the risk of seeming a nag on the subject: THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT BUDGET CANNOT BE BALANCED WITHOUT LARGE CUTS IN DEFENSE SPENDING.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is a way to balance the budget without cutting defense spending: HIGHER TAXES. To argue you can do one of these things (cut government and balance the budget) without the other (cutting the defense budget) or raising taxes is a chimera. No, make that a conscious lie that everyone who makes the argument realizes unless they are stupid or delusional. Ike knew this, and he said so. Tea Party activists who deny it are being inconsistent philosophically (they do not stand alone in this regard), and their continued advocacy of policies that do not address the very issues they publicly endorse should raise questions about the assertion on their bumper stickers: “Tea Party Patriot.”

Remembering Ike: Deficits and Defense

Posted in US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , on January 16, 2011 by whatafteriraq

In his farewell address to the country shortly before leaving office, President Dwight D. (“Ike”) Eisenhower warned of the pernicious effects of a defense establishment that becomes too large and too powerful. He described this problem in terms of the “military-industrial complex,” the relationship between the Department of Defense, large military contractors, and their Congressional and retired military supporters. His basic warning was that unless controlled, this complex would swallow up American resources at an unacceptable, pernicious rate and actually endanger rather than reinforce national security.

The basis for Ike’s assertions regarding the effect of large defense spending on national security was his belief that the necessary underpinning of a strong national security environment was a healthy economy, and that a healthy economy in turn required a balanced budget, which out-of-control defense spending undermined.

Eisenhower’s words were, of course, uttered slightly over a half-century ago, but they still have resonance, possibly particularly so in an era of enormous, and growing, government debt fueled by enormous budget deficits that everyone in Washington decries but no one in Washington seems to have any serious interest in reining in. We are all familiar with the laments about current trends in projections, and nothing I can add would do much to improve the general sense of expressed malaise. I can, however, add a dissident perspective on how to approach the problem.

As politicians from both parties have put forward what pass as plans to reduce the deficit, one area that has consistently ignored or underanalyzed is the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense and the other governmental budgets (e.g. Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs) that contribute to expenditures on generic national security. Certainly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (whose tenure will, sadly, end this year) has proposed minor cuts: $78 billion over five years. These cuts, he quickly adds to avoid howls of weakening national security and leaving us at the mercy of our predatory enemies, are not savings, however, but really only ways to shift spending from less to more productive means. Calls for real cuts remain outside the mainstream of discussions.

The exemption of defense cuts from proposals to reduce government spending and thus reduce deficits is notable, since it is hard to conceive how any meaningful deficit reductions can occur without major DOD (and associated agency) reductions, for two reasons. First, the amount of government resources devoted to defense is huge: the base budget for FY 2010 was $533 billion, and when “overseas contingency operations” (OCOs or spending on overseas operations like Afghanistan and Iraq not totally encompassed in the base budget) are included, that number jumps to $664 billion. Requests for FY 2011, on which the Congress has not yet acted, are larger: base budget plus OCOs have a price tag of $721 billion. If one adds all the other budgets that are arguably attached to national security (Homeland Security, Vaterans Affairs, etc.) that number approaches $1 trillion. Add to that the interest on debt accumulation for past defense deficits, and the number is between $1.1 and 1.5 trillion,depending on where borrowed money is accounted). This is not chump change. Second, over half the so-called federal “discretionary budget” that everyone agrees should be the first object of cutting is for defense, and proposals (especially from the GOP) almost uniformly exclude these from the budget cutter’s axe.

These numbers return us to Eisenhower’s contention. Those who defend huge defense budgets generally do so on the basis that they are necessary to keep the country safe from our enemies, and that any large cuts would leave us unacceptably, even unconscionably,vulnerable to the predators out there. Setting aside that these arguments may not stand up to close inspection across the board, they ignore Eisenhower’s entreaty, which suggests, to paraphrase Walt Kelly’s words spoken through Pogo, that he has met the enemy, “and he is us.” The essence of this argument is, I think, that the enormous budgets devoted to defense are actually HURTING national security rather than helping it because of their contribution to the deficit. If you do not believe that defense is making an impact, figures for last year conclude that while defense made up only 19 percent of US government expenditures, it constituted 28 percent of government revenues. The remaining 9 percent, by whatever accounting, is deficit spending.

I have no specific plans for reducing the defense budget, which is beyond my personal area of expertise. I do, however, believe that if the country is serious (and it is not at all clear to me that it is beyond the purely rhetorical level) about returning to an area of fiscal responsibility defined in terms Ike would approve, then Defense must play a meaningful part. Such participation would require some major rethinking of American priorities in such things as the extent and quality of American overseas power projections (English translation: deciding that maybe we can’t afford wars in places like Iraq or Afghanistan): funds for OCOs would almost certainly be a victim. Overseas spending reductions are just an example, of course, if one really questions how the United States spends money on defense. The alternative is to ignore Ike, which is to say to raise the white flag over serious attention to Ike’s advocacy of balanced budgets. At the risk of putting words in the general’s mouth, budgetary restraint may be among the higher forms of patriotism, not unfettered defense spanding. Readers’ views are welcomed!

A Black Cloud over Baghdad

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting Into Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraqi Oil with tags , , , on January 9, 2011 by whatafteriraq

We have now–finally!–entered the last year of American military involvement in Iraq. As the months proceed toward the removal of the last U.S. forces by year’s end, one can expect to hear a great deal of justification of the war that began when George W. Bush ordered a full-scale invasion of that country in 2003. Those rationalizations will be essentially that, because any hard look at what has happened, and what is likely to happen, in Iraq after we finally depart can only maintain straightfacedly that we have accomplished exceptionally little at extraordinarily large costs.

A couple of particularly black clouds crossed the radar in the United States last week that bode very poorly for the prospect on a positive American footprint at the end of the adventure. In Baghdad, our good friend, Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Malaki (as quoted in the Perspectives section of Newsweek) bid us a fare-no-so-well, stating of the withdrawal, “This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed.” In other words, “don’t let the doorknob hit you in the a**hole on your way out.” So much for the gratitude that the neo-conservatives assured us that the Iraqis would have for our “help.”

The second, and blacker, bit of news was the return of Muktada al-Sadr from his self-imposed exile in Iran. Al-Sadr, to put it mildly, is no friend of the United States, and his return bodes very poorly for the political tenor of Iraq toward the United States and U.S. interests post-occupation. For one thing, the Sadr army has been among the most violent opponents of the U.S. occupation (they have fought us at least twice), and al-Sadr’s political supporters have the second most seats of any party in the  Iraqi parliament, where their support has allowed al-Maliki to secure his majority. It is, of course, highly unlikely that al-Sadr ever talked politics with members of the Iranian government during his exile, but this still does not heighten the prospects of warm, congenial, and mutually supportive U.S.-Iraqi relations in the future, particularly with regard to Iran.

These events should not come as much of a surprise to anyone. It has become virtually conventional wisdom that the major geopolitical effect of the U.S. military action in Iraq has been to hand Iran a major geostrategic prize it could not achieve on its own when faced with a Sunni-dominated Iraq: primary political influence over its major Arab Sunni opponents in the region. The Arab states understand that their position vis-a-vis the Iranians has been materially compromised by George Bush’s war, which, among other things, helps amplify their horror over Iranian nuclear weapons development. If you are an Arab, your security is far less firm than it was before the invasion, and although you may not have liked Saddam Hussein very well–who could?–at least he kept the crazy Shiite Persians off your front doorstep. The Americans, in effect, have put them back in that position. Thanks, Dubya!

These events also help prejudice the post-occupation ethnic politics of Iraq in ways that do not favor American interests. When the major pinheads who planned the war (Paul Wolfowitz, et. al.) decided that a western-style democracy was just what Iraq needed, they seemed to ignore the obvious implication that this would be run by Shiites whose motives toward other religious and ethnic groups were no more benign that that of the Sunnis that our “idealism” would displace. The return of al-Sadr as a major prop for al-Maliki means the Shiite motive for revenge is going to be intensified, and we will not be there to get in the way. Although post-American internal instability in the country was pretty much a given under any circumstances, this can only make it worse. 

The rubber will hit the road over Kurdistan, where the United States has and will retain what few interests it ever had in Iraq. For one thing, the Kurds are the only group in Iraq that actually like us, largely because they think we will protect their autonomy (given the casualness with which we have turned on the Kurds in the past, why is not clear) in post-occupation Iraq. More objectively, the United States wants access to Kurdish oil (about half of Iraq’s reserves), and if we don’t get it, we will leave Iraq with absolutely nothing to show for our sacrifice. Concessions for the other half of Iraqi oil in Shiite areas, after all, was held last year, and the U.S. came out of that without a drop of oil. If the Shiites dominate the discussions of what happens to the Kurdish oil, the result could be the same. Should that be the case, we will be left holding the bag, and it will not be a sack with no appreciable oil stains on it.

If the reader happens to be (which he/she almost certainly is not) an Iraqi Shiite, this analysis is the cause of joy, not concern, and the black cloud analogy does not much hold. Rather, the final, irrevocable removal of the Americans lifts, not imposes the cloud. Rather, maybe it is more appropriate to say the black cloud has descended over Washington (where, in a deadlocked Congress, the Democrats will declare it is black, the GOP will equally declare it is white, and they will be unable to agree on a shade of gray). Or maybe the cloud will descend in the tony neighborhood in Dallas where the Chief Decider decided that invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place.