Archive for July, 2011

The Debt Ceiling Crisis and National Security

Posted in U.S. defense budget, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , on July 24, 2011 by whatafteriraq

It is a central tenet of the right-wing, generally Republican, overwhelmingly pro-TEA Party movement that wields a stranglehold on the U.S. House of Representatives that the central government is not good for much. It does not, of course, put its belief in quite those terms, but nonetheless, that is the libertarian spirit in terms certainly of the role of the central government.

This position is, of course, arguable in either direction,as are its implications. Some of these are no less then bizarre. If government should be minimized, for instance, it follows for those who believe in the minimalist philosophy that governance is best entrusted to “citizens” rather than “professional politicians,” as they argue the Founding Fathers believed. Once again, this position is arguable on historical grounds (a thorough reading of the Federalist Papers indicates the founders agreed on relatively little and changed their minds in many cases, for instance) as well perspectival grounds (the founders thought and wrote in a very different time and might or might not reach the same conclusions today they did in the 18th century). Since none of them are around, one can, however, interpret their ideas in a variety of ways without, for instance, Tom Jefferson standing up and saying, “I never said that.” The bizarre interpretation that arises from the anti-government position, however, is the notion that governance is best placed in the hands of amateurs–in this case individuals who, based on experience levels, do not understand government and, in most cases, dislike government. How people with such an attitudinal and knowledge base can be expected to produce better government than those with the experience and positive attitude (the hated professionals) has never been entirely clear to me. The sophomorism of the TEA Party caucus in the House is evidence of this anomaly.

There is, however, one area where even the most Ayn Rand-besotted libertarians agree that government plays a role, and that is in the provision of national security. Arising from this belief, the GOP right wing (currently wagging the party dog) insists that the massive cuts in government spending they insist upon must exempt defense spending to be acceptable. Their formula for reaching a satisfactory outcome is to insist that massive government expenditure cuts not include cuts to the defense budget which is, of course, the primary source of discretionary spending in the federal budget. Since they also insist that their be no revenue enhancements (particularly directed at the uber wealthy, who finance the TEA partiers and hold the rank and file in their irrational thrall), the only way this can be accomplished is by gutting non-discretionary budgets, meaning entitlement programs. One sees Ayn Rand’s curiously named “objectivist” philosophy swirling in the rhetorical fog here. If they do not get what they want, they will not play in the Congressional sandbox, and the country defaults on its debt.

The picture here is of some truculent, pouting teenagers saying that ifthey don’t get their way, they will take their ball and go home. Were it all that innocent and inconsequential, but most observers (including virtually everyone who knows anything about economics) agree that there are very real consequences for the country and its ability to operate effectively in the world. Some TEA Party leaders and supporters say they do not believe anything bad will happen, and even if it does, it is a small enough price to pay for their real objective, which effectively is dismantling FDR’s New Deal legislation of the 1930s (which, of course, is really the objective of the uber rich, for whom the TEA Partiers are the willing–and mostly ignorant–shock troops).

Since no country of the consequence of the United States has ever had the chutzpah to declare effective bankruptcy (or even to flirt as close to the precipice as the United States has already ventured), it is impossible to predict exactly how bad this will all become, but the burden of proof that nothing particularly bad will occur seems to me to fall on those who buck all the experts and say nothing bad will happen.

This is really a question that is familar in national security circles. The rationale for stout defenses in peacetime is that strength discourages adventurism by one’s opponents: that we keep military force to deter its use against us. Generally, it is impossible to demonstrate completely that things would have been dire in the absence of that preparedness, but given the dire consequences had we failed, the effort is justified.

Doesn’t this same logic extend to the current economic crisis? What happens if, on August 3, there is no extension of the debt ceiling, and the U.S. cannot pay all its bills? At a minimum, many who rely on federal checks will not get them (which in turn means they cannot buy things that help stimulate the economy), but where is America’s place in the world? Will it be harder, even impossible, to sell American bonds internationally? Will we trigger worldwide inflation that hurts everyone and for which we are clearly to blame? Will our global position of leadership not be injured? If so, isn’t that a national security setback? Maybe we need to keep up the defense budget to protect ourselves from the understandable ire of the world community toward us. Or maybe we will simply be held in global ridicule as the superpower that refused to act responsibly according to its world position and perceptions about how we are expected to act.

Does the current crisis have national security implications? You bet, and they are all negative. Can we deter the negative reactions like we did Soviet missiles? Sure we can, but that means getting off the schneid and passing a meaningful debt ceiling extension bill. All sides in this sordid experience have some blame in all this, but it seems to me (maybe not to the reader) that particular responsibility falls on the TEA Party caucus who effectively are dragging us toward the cliff. John Boehner, if he has a pair, needs to put on his big boy pants, get out his bag of switches, and inform the TEA Party “patriots,” as they love to portray themselves, to grow up and quit playing Russian roulette with American politics, including national security.

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Winding Down in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by whatafteriraq

With the deficit ceiling crisis dominating the headlines (copmpeting with the Anthony murder trial and Murdoch family travails), events in Afghanistan have taken on a diminished level of public attention. Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, the poster child of corruption in the country, is murdered with scarcely a ripple, an apparent business-as-usual occurrence in the war (and country) that the United States has chosen to forget. But change may finally be in the wind, a breeze that will, with some luck, fill the sails for the American desert schooner to make its way out of that country’s morass.

The symbol of that change in the past week has been the changing of the guard at the Interntional Security Assistance Force/US Forces in Afghanistan (ISAF/USFOR-A) from General David Petraeus to Marine General John R. Allen. The move has enormous potential symbolic value. Petraeus has been the symbol of the American commitment to graft an apparently successful (apparently because the success will only be determined sometime in the future) counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy from Iraq to Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons, that application has been less than a total success; if anything, it more closely resembles the path to total failure. By hanging up his uniform and hopping aboard the plane for Washington and the directorship of the CIA, Petraeus has successfully extricated himself from the apparent impossibility to succeeding in Afghanistan, and the United States government can now quietly shelve the entire facade of COIN there and concentrate on the more pressing and realistic task of sneaking out of that country with minimal loss of face. General Allen has been given the unenviable task of overseeing this operation. He must have wanted the work pretty badly to have taken it.

Allen arrives with only a little COIN baggage, having served in Anbar Province in Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening project that converted (or bought off) Sunni rebels who had been fighting the United States to fight Al Qaeda instead. Otherwise, he has held a variety of posts in the field, in Washington, and at Special Forces Command in Tampa. One of the most interesting notes on his resume is that he was the first Marine officer to command the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, a rare honor given the Navy’s proprietary attitude toward its academy. Accepting his new command, he has shown no illusions about the difficulty he faces which, in essence, is to try to preserve the illusion of progress with diminished resources as the American government quietly folds its tent and writesd off this particular quixotic adventure.

The official position of the Obama administration is that the United States will retain forces in Afghanistan through 2014, but don’t count on it, for several reasons. First, by now virtually everyone knows that Afghanistan is a mission impossible and that any real “victory” there is impossible regardless of how long we stay. Secretary Gates’ warning about abandoning the effort when we are “on the two-yard line” and ready to punch the ball in for the touchdown has virtually no resonance anymore; there is no indication gthat successor Leon Panetta has any particular passion for the Afghan task. Instead, the pressure, largely driven by negative public opinion fueled partially by wanting to get rid of the expense of Afghanistan (and Iraq) militates toward a faster withdrawal as long as the economy suffers. The last ditch of rationale for staying is that if we were to bring all the veterans home tomorrow, we would have no jobs for them, and they would contribute to the unemployment crisis. That is true, but unemployment benefits are cheaper than combat pay and support if we choose to extend any benefits to them (not to be taken as a given).

Given the polar positions of the parties on the deficit and debt, the only way to continue supporting the war is to find new money to pay for it. Paul Ryan and his hardy little band of libertarian fanatics, is not going to allow added taxation for such purposes, and AARP would have something to say about raiding entitlement programs to pay to kill Afghans. No new money in this case probably means the war effort is the victim. RIP.

Moreover, next year is–gasp!–an election year. It is hardly prescient to argue that the economic mess will dominate that event, and the war will only enter into it in small ways. For one thing, virtually everybody will argue that winding it down will save money that can be invested better domestically. Unfortunately, think of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. For another, the country is turning inward, and overseas involvements–especially expensive ones where Americans get killed for dubious gain–are not high on the agenda any candidate is likely to want to defend. Obama is stuck with the war because he escalated it (a decision I suspect he would like to have back), and thus must put on the brave face that we are actually accomplishing enough so that we can withdraw without abandoning our goals and admitting we have done all this essentially for nothing (which, arguably, we have). Even very conservative, pro-defense Republicans are not going to tie their fate to the war. The war has become a political pariah, and will likely be so treated in the 2012 campaign.

These dynamics suggest to me that the “schedule” for drawing down the American commitment will be accelerated between now and November 2012. The war, quite frankly, has no voting constituency and can be abandoned without short-term political consequences (the only kind that are really important in an election year). By election day, look for an American troop commitment about half what is projected today and an Obama pledge (which the GOP nominee, whoever that may be, will not publicly contravene) to get it down to zero combat troops sometime in 2013.

General Allen, of course, gets to oversee all this, while David Petraeus hunkers down in his Washington lawyer pin-striped suit at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Wish Allen well; he’s going to need all the help he can get.