Archive for August, 2011

Congress and the Cutter’s Blade

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, U.S. defense budget, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , on August 28, 2011 by whatafteriraq

After a month’s respite, in which the major political events have been the emergence of Cowboy Rick Perry in the GOP race and some sniping at President Obama for spending a week at Martha’s Vineyard, Congress will return to Washington in a week or so. Like everyone else, I can hardly wait. Neither can your friends and neighbors at the Pentagon, where the power point presentations must be gathering furiously.

The “highlight” (lowlight?) of the resumed session will be the fight over the budget. Most of the activity will concentrate on 2012 election year posturing, of course, but the Congress has set itself up by including the provision for draconian cuts to be triggered automatically after Thanksgiving unless the Supercommitte does the unexpected and comes up with a viable compromise solution to bringing the deficit under control. Given the constituency of the committee, one should not hold one’s breath on that one, especially given that all six GOP members have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge and that virtually every responsible adult in the United States understands that the process cannot possibly achieve anything like balance without additional revenues. The only chance is that the committee can come up with some convincing euphemism by which new taxes and are called something else, but even the ideological fanatics of the right will probably see through that. The prospects for the system working this out are, in other words, not very good.

Enter the Pentagon. If the automatic trigger goes into effect, the Department of Defense takes it in the knickers, as, of course, does everyone else. Defense planners have already stated that the additional cuts the automatic reductions would impose, about $.5 trillion over a decade or roughly $50 billion a year, will seriously compromise the national defense and thus must be avoided. The power point writers have undoubtedly been fervently at work building the case for the Apocalypse should this occur, and they can be counted upon to share their concerns with anyone who will listen.

In the past, DOD has been very successful in dodging budget bullets. Their key weapon, however, has been the existence of a reasonably clear and present threat that needed blunting. The Russian bear (or the Chinese dragon, or both) could always be dragged out of the closet to frighten the public and assure that Congress would not apply the blade to the DOD budget during the Cold War, and Osama bin Laden has provided the same kind of valuable service for the past decade. But the Russian bear is mostly a Mafiosi now, the dragon stocks our local Wal Mart, and bin Laden is dead. It is not clear who can play Freddie Kreuger and scare the bejusus out of us now to defend high levels of defense spending. The threats may be there, but they are more subtle, less convincing and, quite frankly, less compelling.

If one is defending the defense budget, this leaves one with four arguably Devil’s Choices. One can defend no taxes, high defense budgets, and thus really deep cuts in social services–a position that has traction with the GOP right that has been an historic ally of defense. The problem is that this solution attacks the large constituency who receives social benefits that get pared back radically under these solutions. This constituency is only beginning to become aware of the consequences of this strategy for them, and Democrats will help them fill in the details. When they figure out what Paul Rand-Ryan(Rand as in Ayn Rand) really has in mind for them, they are not going to be happy. And, by the way, they vote in higher proportions than just about any other voting group.

Second, they can play good soldiers, and accept the sacrifices of being full participants in deficit reduction without additional tax revenues. At the abstract level, this has some appeal. It seems patriotic, but it leaves the military with less than they truly believe they need, and playing their traditional guardian role requires resources: patriotism thus cuts both ways. Most military/defense intellectuals consider themselves conservative and thus lean Republican, but other than contractors, they are not among the uber wealthy who benefit the most from this solution.

Third, they can join the chorus that argues that some sacrifice is necessary, but deep cuts are unacceptable, and that the only solution is increasing taxes, some of the revenue from which will defray additional cuts in defense. From a strict calculation od self-interest, this is probably the optimal solution, but it is a tough one to swallow if one believes, as many defense types do, in very limited government that does  nothing opulently except for funding national defense. The problem is that no one is really pushing this position: it is essentially libertarian, but Ron Paul, the darling of the libertarians, is also an ardent isolationist (he of course does not call himself that) who essentially wants to withdraw to the shorelines, which can be defended at considerably smaller costs than now being incurred (which is one reason he favors that posture).

The fourth option, of course, is to continue things as they are: large budget deficits. While a short term case can be made for this solution, one thing the Tea Party right has successfully done is to take this option off the table. 

The net result of all this is to leave the defense establishment in a pickle of sorts. They believe in fiscal responsibility but generous resource allocation for defense. They generally oppose additional taxes, but they also oppose running what many of them join other conservatives in decrying as ruinous deficits. The problem is they cannot have it both ways. Anybody who believes that the outcome of this whole process is going to be the gutting of entitlement programs to defend an opulent defense budget must suffer from a dangerous belief in the Tooth Fairy: despite the wildest dreams of the Tea Party (which is almost certain to fade rapidly as the social consequences of  its advocacies are fully understood), this simply is not going to happen. Defense can only be resilient and funded at levels with which it is comfortable by raising taxes. It is really as simple as that, and anyone who tells you different is either a chronic liar or a delusional fool. While I understand this describes a large number of the current membership in Congress, it is nonetheless true.

Welcome back to Washington, Congress! Citizens, on the other hand, beware!

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U.S. Humanitarian Activism: Libya and Syria

Posted in Middle East and US Election, Middle East Conflict, Obama foreign policy, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The remaining hot spots from the Arab Spring are in Libya and Syria. In both cases, popular uprisings erupted against tyrannical governments inspired at least patrially by the Arab Spring events that began in Tunisia and moved quickly to Egypt and elsewhere. Distinguishing characteristics of these two cases, however, have been the continuing brutality of the regime against its dissidents and the dogged organized resistance to the regime’s actions by those seeking change. This level of resistance and the need for continued bloody suppression distinguishes Libya and Syria from places like Bahrain and Yemen, where dissidence was fairly quickly suppressed and things returned to fairly quickly to whatever passes for normalcy.

Libya and Syria are different from one another and from the others. Their duration sets them aside from other Arab Spring events. Libya has produced a full-scale revolutionary movement that, with the considerable assistance of NATO air forces, may be closing in on the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime; the effort in Syria has been less organized and militarized, but worldwide publicity has resulted in a steady drum beat of international demands for the resignation of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad that are increasingly difficult for him to resist.

The level of violence, even savagery, of government oppression of resisters in both countries has raised both to the level of international humanitarian disasters or crises–situations where there is widespread atrocity against or abuse of a country’s citizens by its government. One response to such a situation is humanitarian activism, which I define as intervention (including military force as its most dramatic manifestation) in humanitarian crises by other countries to end the conditions defining the disaster. The United States has a long, if uneven, record of action or inaction in such situations; in both Libya and Syria, however, the United States has adopted a fairly passive form of opposition to the disasters, preferring to defer leadership to others. Why?

It seems to me that to understand when the United States does and does not become personally invested in these kinds of situations requires looking at three variables. The first is American mood at the time. Is the United States feeling especially optimistic about its internal situation and place in the world, in which case it is likely to become internally activist, seeking to spread its own message and gospel to others? Or is the United States feeling insecure and recessive, turning inward and evincing a sense of isolation from world events that is part of the U.S. historical DNA?

Second is the nature of the international environment in which any proposed action might occur. Partly, this assessment reflects Americans’ self-assessment and confidence in themselves, their ability to shape the world, and their confidence in their world role. At the same time, this assessment includes the competing demands on American national security resources elsewhere in the world: can the United States afford to divert scarce resources (especially military) to humanitarian missions that can or might be needed elsewhere?

The third variable is geopolitics, and it also has at least two facets. One is the American relationship with the country in which the disaster is occurring. There were, for instance, no shortage of what now are called humanitarian crises in countries with which the United States was allied dring the Cold War (Central Africa and Central America offer fine examples) where the Unied States did not condemn the harsh treatment of populations by “friendly” rulers; given the dangers of Cold War escalation, however, all we did with similar events in the communist world (e.g. Cambodia) was condemn them. Context may be everything. At the same time, the attitude and willingness of friends and allies is also a geopolitical factor: the United States almost certainly would not have dispatched and kept force in the Balkans in the 1990s and beyond were it not for the insistence of NATO allies.

Different periods of recent history can be gauged in these terms. During the Cold War, there was basically no such thing as humanitarian activism, because geopolitical, Cold War considerations precluded it. The term entered the lexicon after the Cold War ended, and there was a spate of such activism by the United States in the 1990s, when all the variables aligned favorably: the American mood was confident and expansive, the rest of the environment was fairly placid and undemanding, and there were few geopolitical inhibitions to preclude identifying and stomping on the bad guys who abused and denied the rights of their citizens.

And then there is now. The United States has not acted decisively in either the Libyan and Syrian cases. In Libya, we play a very limited supporting role (that has had opposition anyway), and beyond leading the verbal condemnation of Assad, have done very little in Syria. Admittedly, these are two countries where the U.S. has few interests and even fewer levers of influence it can apply, but it has clearly not been an instance of any kind of humanitarian activism by any measure.

The three variable help explain this. Two of them are negative. In the current economic climate, the United States is not feeling good and positive about itself, and were the Obama administration to propose any more than what it is doing, it would be accused of taking its “eye off the ball” of our real priorities, of trying to divert attention away from its internal problems, or both (most likely both). At the same time, the United States is still heavily invested in military adventures elsewhere in the region that strain resources; the American people would hardly embrace a new Middle Eastern military adventure. The only positive variable is international support for activism. Europe, after all, is devoting resources to Libya (which it arguably cannot afford), and even other Middle Eastern countries have condemned the Syrians. In a sense, this willingness of others to take the lead relieves the United States of any pressure it might otherwise feel to get out front on either crisis.

Libya and Syria may or may not represent the long-term future of American humanitarian activism, but they are likely to be models for the next few years, until American prosperity and self-confidence reappears and we are looking at the world differently than we are today. If one is against such interventions anyway, then “let the bad times roll,” since they are keeping us from doing what we have no business doing anyway, as Ron Paul would argue. If the United States is the shining city on the hill (Reagan’s typification) and should be ready and willing to help transform the world, wait for a better day.

GOP Candidates and National Security

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on August 14, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Probably because it has been a generally slow week in the area of national security (other than the spike in Afghanistan deaths largely the result of the Chinook helicopter crash), my mind drifted to the 2012 election (a depressing topic, admittedly), and given the general focus of this blog, the national security implications of electing one of the GOP candidates in the race. The prospects are pretty dismal.

My method was, in the case of the major candidates, to go to their campaign web sites and see what they have to say. It is not a very fruitful exercise. The most organized site is Mitt Romney’s, which it should be, since he has been running for president continuously since at least early 2008. Aside from the discouraging reality that all the time and money he has spent cannot get him past the one-quarter proportion of support among members of the GOP, his site is curiously short on the subject. In fact, in the section on issues on the web site, the choices one has to hear Romney on individual issues (including national defense) is cleverly covered by a shirt-sleeved picture of the candidate, and all one can glean is a general statement that he loves a strong America (now there’s a surprise). On the real and hard issues, apparently Nada!

The same is true for most of the pretenders. It is difficult to figure out what any of them is for, other than the opposite of whatever President Obama is for on any given issue. It is hardly a distinguished or distinguishable array. With Tim Pawlenty (the classic “who dat?”) out of the race, most of the rest has about the same likelihood of becoming president as I do (although that does not mean they cannot compete for the nomination), and the fact that they have no discernible credentials in this area is probably innocuous. Within that field of feckless wannabes (Santorum, Paul, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Bachman), the only one who has any track record in the foreign policy/national security area is former Utah Governor John Huntsman, but he is too bland and not crazy enough on social issues to get run the nomination gauntlet successfully, and he is way too Mormon at that. If he were to move to Massachusetts and declare himself a Democrat, he might have a future. Being a Democrat in Utah is like being one in South Carolina (where I live); Utah, Mormon and Democrat do not fit together into any sentences that do not contain a negative somewhere. The only other candidate with any real chops on policy in any area is Newt Gingrich, but the former speaker has so much extraneous baggage from his personal life that the day he is inaugurated, a spontaneous snowball fight will break out in hell. Some may take umbrage over my consignment of Michelle Bachman to the dust heap, but I just don’t think she will hold up long, especially with Sarah Palin peering coylyover her shoulder; I could, of course, be wrong here.

That leaves Cowboy Rick Perry, the newest entry into the pack. Perry does not trumpet his foreign or defense policy expertise; his campaign web site limits itself to saying he is for a “secure border” (a pretty bold statement for the Governor of Texas) and that he “has not taken a firm stand on on foreign policy/national defense as of yet.” I personally can hardly wait. Instead, he is concentrating on demonstrating his social conservative chops (go to church, oppose gay rights, execute lots of criminals) and on job creation, for which he holds up Texas (low unemployment, high job attraction) as an example of his prowess. Presumably, his major advice to the rest of us is to find oil under our soil or, if applicable, under our continental shelf, and then to hop in bed with the oil industry.

 If none of the candidates has any real background and/or interest in national security beyond a desire to wrap themselves tightly in the flag and form the basis to call themselves patriots (the basic position of the Tea Party), then what can one expect? The current field contains sufficient cats and dogs that a Dwight Eisenhower-like figure (David Petraeus would seem the likely candidate) who has both the popular potential and foreign/national security credentials to make a distinctive contribution might yet emerge. If, however, the nomination goes to one of the current crop of national security neophytes, what could one expect?

Since presidential campaigns do not offer the peace and serenity for candidates to become experts themselves, they are going to have to accept the advice of outsiders. For Republicans, that means former members of the Bush administration and experts in the very conservative, heavily neo-conservative Washington think tanks. That is essentially what George W. Bush did, and I cannot see any candidate from the current crop doing much else. They simply lack the expertise and, based on what they have done so far, the interest to do something different. Among the also-rans, Ron Paul, the libertarian who wants to get the government out of almost everything, is the partial exception: he does favor ending the military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. What he is for beyond that is a bit murkier.

As Governor Perry’s name has been bandied about, one of the rejoinders has been whether the United States is ready to accept another Texas GOP governor as commander-in-chief: can Perry get out from under George W. Bush’s shadow? His people will certainly try to prove he is “not Bush,” which will create some interesting moments of its own. But there is another GWB shadow that may hang over the nominee, Perry, Romney or otherwise. That shadow is a likelihood of a return to the Bush national security strategy. Many Americans do not remember that experience so happily as to make it a plus. We will see.

The Devil in the Budget Reduction Details

Posted in U.S. defense budget, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , on August 2, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As this is written, the grand budget reduction package has finally passed and is headed to the White House for the President’s signature. Tinged with more than a hint of digust and distaste for the unseemly process that got to the final agreement, most people are heaving a sigh of relief that the debt default bullet has been dodged at least until after next year’s election. The respite from the thoroughly unpleasant realities that got us here in the first place is, unfortunately, nothing more than a brief respite. The Congress and the President may have agreed in a general sense to overall cut levels and directions for reducing government spending, but the details afre yet to be worked out, and as usual, it is in those details that the devil lies.

The agreement, of course, purports to do three things. First, it sets an overall goal for deficit reduction (over 2 trillion), to be amended (upward, one assumes) by the report of the commission of Congressional members it also mandates and whose report on December 23 will be a Christmas present of dubious desirability for members and the president working toward reeelction. The provisions of the deal say that unless the commission’s work is completed and acted upon, the result will be to “trigger” much more draconian cuts elsewhere, but most prominently to defense and entitlement programs. Since these budgets have the largest and most vocalof all constituency votes, avoiding the trigger (which everybody is rhetorically committed to doing) is a real incentive. The two major potential sources of savings do not change by acting, however, setting up the basis for a firefight the parameters of which are already forming.

The second major provision is that the deal includes no additional governmental revenues in the form of new (or reinstated in the case of the 2001 Bush tax cuts) governmental revenues (taxes). The Republicans are heralding this as a major accomplishment, but it means that any movement toeward deficit or debt reduction has to come exclusively from spending cuts. This provision should be considered as etched in sand as the tide moves in, not in concrete.

Third, the deal requires a vote in both chambers on a proposal for a balanced budget amendment. This is pure political posturing to make the sullen children of the Tea Party caucus happy, and although it makes good apparent sense on the face of it, it will become a part of the U.S. Constitution approximately one week after the first full-scale flight of flying pigs passes over your home. It’s part of the deal, and both sides will use its failure to stoke its campaigns in emotional and misleading ways, but that’s about it.

The devil in the details is in how to turn the general numbers into real reductions in the ratio between what the government takes in and what it spends. The actual contribution of various sectors has effectively been kicked down the road, where it will form the core of the 2012 election campaign, particularly for the presidency. Defense, which is the general concern of this blog, stands at the center of this debate. Let me suggest that two questions will dominate that debate and dictate its outcome.

The first question is the ratio of budget cuts to “revenue enhancements.” Conservatives maintain they have taken this question off the table, but don’t believe it. Clearly, deficits can be reduced either with cuts in spending, increases in revenue,or some combination. The deal says reductions only, but that was a sop to the GOP. Since the exemption of tax increases (or reforms) is the current focus, balance can only be achieved by greater cuts. Conversely, enhanced revenues reduce the cuts that must be made. Anyone who thinks that question has been settled is in for a rude awakening that will play out in the 2012 election.

The most public arena will be over cuts to entitlements. Democrats are going to argue that cutting entitlements effectively taxes the poor and weak at the expense of providing additional benefits for the fat cats (rich people whose taxes would be raised under tax reform). It is a powerful emotional argument. Republicans will skirt the issue of further enhancing the already rich (because the wealthy are their most important constituency but do not have enough votes to win elections) and argue instead that additional taxation are “job breakers” (based on the unproven assertion that the wealthy will invest their untaxed income on job creation rather than in simply piling more dollars in their “counting rooms”). This will become particularly emotional when the actual detailed impacts on entitlements that actual people depend on are put on the record (which, of course, Democrats will do with some glee). The Republicans are counting on the dual notions that people want smaller government and that their cuts do not particularly affect current recipients, just future ones. The problems here are that people agree abstractly that they do not like big government except in areas where they benefit from it and that some current recipients actually do care about their descendents. A food fight of epic proportions (and unparalleled nastiness) looms.

The other question is how much defense will participate in these reductions. The first wave is not especially onerous, because much or it is premised on savings from drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan that have already been programmed and accepted (if not embraced) by the Pentagon. The argument for full participation by Defense in cuts arises from the size of the defense budget (second largest program) and the proportionof so-called discretionary money that is in that budget (about 65 percent of the total of funds that must be appropriated annually).

The wagons are already circling on this one. Deeper cuts, we are told, will cut into the “muscle” of the military and leave it incapable of protecting all of America’s overseas commitments. The deeper the cuts get, the worse the effect is. Since nobody wants to be accused of making the country more vulnerable to its enemies, there is a strong emotional conflict here that has to be resolved.

This debate has to be taken in the context of the overall reduction debate. The amount the Pentagon has to sacrifice is directly related to the debt left after other sources–notably entitlements and new revenues–are accounted for. Defense is thus pitted against programs from which large numbers of Americans who vote in large numbers benefit from and the tax breaks of the wealthist Americans. There are no simple answers to how that relative contribution should be assessed, although plenty of simple answers, all of which are flawed in some ways, will be floated during the campaign. In the most general terms, Republicans are likely to argue a minimum defense contribution and no new taxes, leaving virtually the entire reduction on the backs of entitlement programs. That is simply not going to happen electorally. The Democratic answer is new revenues (closing loopholes, doing away with the Bush cuts), fairly deep defense cuts, and lesser cuts to entitlements. The lines are thus drawn in the sand, ready to be washed away with the tide. It is not going to be pretty to watch, but it will be exciting once the current eye in the storm passeds over and thosepesky details have be attended to.