Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The 4% Doctrine
If that number seems arbitrary and detached from the applicable context, that's because it is - at least in terms of assessing the need to spend the amount prescribed. Optimally, and logically, defense spending should be based on a rational assessment of risks, needs and exigencies. By relying on a fixed percentage, rather than a review of needs, the Pentagon can obviate the risks of cuts brought about by a peace dividend, or the need for a cash-strapped country to make fiscal trade-offs.
The 4% approach also has its advantages from a marketing perspective, and the number chosen serves multiple purposes. For one, its proponents will claim that the US is currently spending under 4%, and that, therefore, we must increase defense spending to reach the magic ratio. That calculation is misleading, however. As Cernig points out that while Four-Percenters claim that our current spending is a mere 3.43% of GDP, that calculation ignores supplemental spending on Iraq and Afghanistan which, when added in, pushes spending to 4.73% of GDP. But even if you remove Iraq and Afghanistan from the equation, as those spending items will be eventually (sooner the better), could anyone really argue that the US would be spending too little on defense if the percentage hovers around 3-3.5%? Actually, Some would:
Taking their cue from this groundswell of Pentagon support and nongovernmental advocacy, Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and Representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) introduced a joint resolution in December 2007 stating that the United States should “commit a minimum of four percent of the nation’s gross domestic product to the base defense budget.” In explaining the legislation, Franks said it was “the only way we can stop the inexorable slide of national defense.”
The inexorable slide? Really? Any fair accounting of US defense spending compared to the rest of the world, or any other relevant metric, would not describe the trend in recent decades, years or months as an inexorable slide. Perhaps an inexorable drag, but that's something quite different.
The other argument will be historical in nature: pointing to past eras in which US defense spending was much higher than 4%. Even then, however, pegging defense spending to GDP in such a manner elides the actual dollar amounts being spent due to the fact that GDP has increased so dramatically over our nation's history. As Travis Sharp explains:
[T]he United States will spend significantly more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, for defense in FY 2009 than it did during the peak years of the Korean War (1953; $545 billion), the Vietnam War (1968; $550 billion), or the 1980s Reagan-era buildup (1989; $522 billion). The United States is also projected to spend more on defense in FY 2009 than the next 45 highest spending countries combined, including 5.8 times more than China (second highest), 10.2 times more than Russia (third highest), and 98.6 times more than Iran (22d highest). Indeed, the United States is expected to account for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending in FY 2009.
Further, as Sharp points out, there is money to be saved and, where not cut entirely, redirected to more efficient uses*:
Our current armed forces have more than sufficient budget and manpower to deal with the current threat and [fourth-generation warfare] threats. However, they must be reorganized to fight the enemy as he is rather than remaining organized to fight the enemy of the past. The United States could take some current funding away from expensive high-tech weaponry, which may be useless in future Iraq-style conflicts, and redirect it toward enhanced intelligence, diplomacy, counterinsurgency training, language competency, humanitarian assistance, and nuclear nonproliferation programs.
Bruce Falconer highlights just how difficult it is to rein in spending on the expensive - and often underperforming - big ticket items:
"The last I heard, Al Qaeda doesn't have an air force," says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at Washington's Center for Defense Information and the editor of the forthcoming book America's Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress**. The F-22, which he describes as a "dog" on performance (more fragile and less maneuverable than Vietnam-era fighters), "is ridiculously expensive, and its huge cost prevents you from buying a respectable inventory of them."
But focusing on individual boondoggles like the F-22 is not the solution, says Wheeler. Instead, if Obama hopes to switch things up, he and his aides must understand that cost overruns and development delays at the Pentagon are not the exception but the rule. "I'm all for getting rid of the garbage, but if we simply trot out a cut list, we're going to get killed," Wheeler says. "The advocates [for each weapons program] inside the Pentagon will go on full alert. They'll activate their porker friends inside Congress, and that will be the end of it." Rather, he suggests, change rests on getting decision makers the real, unvarnished information they need to grapple with structural problems inherent in the defense acquisitions system.
Getting that information is not as easy as it might seem. According to retired Marine Lt. Colonel John Sayen, a former Pentagon analyst, the Defense Department's procurement bureaucracy is practiced at pushing its wish list through Congress "by downplaying costs and/or exaggerating benefits" and "quickly building a support network of vested interests to lock in a front-loaded decision before its true costs or performance become apparent." In other words, military procurement is an institutionalized scam. Even when problems surface, Congress rarely interferes. Assembly of the F-22 alone involves spending in 44 states, says Wheeler, and "people on Capitol Hill are leaving drool trails in the hallways to buy more."
The only way that we, as a nation, can continue to dedicate such a large share of our treasury to defense spending is if we either continue to grow our already enormous deficits, or severely curtail spending on all other priorities: from infrastructure, education and environmental protection, to health care, social security and other safety net initiatives. Not to mention other unforeseen, cough, crises that might require bail outs and other spending.
Ironically, our out-of-balance spending on defense runs the risk of making us less secure as a nation if we continue to ignore our more pressing needs and sink deeper into debt.
(*I shall discuss spending priorities in a subsequent post)(**I hope to review America's Defense Meltdown at some point in the near future)
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
You Do It to Yourself, You Do, and that's What Really Hurts
I am referring to the Bush Administration's intervention in Somalia in the name of the War on Terror. It has helped to destroy that wretched country's best chance of peace in a generation, left more than a million Somalis dead, homeless or starving, and achieved the precise opposite of its original goal. Far from stamping out an Islamic militancy that scarcely existed, the intervention has turned Somalia into a breeding ground for Islamic extremists and given al-Qaeda a valuable foothold in the Horn of Africa.
As the RAND Corporation, pointed out, the heavy-handed reliance on the US military in combatting terrorism is, generally speaking, a self-defeating endeavor. Lucky for us, al-Qaeda has some talented goal scorers as well. In pursuit of its agenda, al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims, and these brutal tactics (that run afoul of Muslim theology) have alienated many potentially sympathizers throughout the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Zarqawi's bombing of the wedding party in Jordan was a particularly damaging event in terms of this element of the PR war.
In Iraq, too, those that claim al-Qaeda's mantle have employed excessively destructive and domineering tactics as well: deliberately targeting Muslims deemed takfir, while bullying tribal leadership whose roots stretch back centuries. The Awakenings strategy itself, which has done much to tamp down violence in Iraq (more than 30,000 extra troops brought in pursuant to The Surge), was made possible by the conflict between Sunni tribal/secular elements and the soi disant al-Qaeda in Iraq. As a result of many Sunnis' willingness to work with the US in an effort to rid themselves of al-Qaeda, AQI has little sanctuary in an increasingly hostile Iraq.
Which brings me to the subject of a recent post at Democracy Arsenal. In that piece, Ilan Goldenberg cites the three core vital interests for the US vis-a-vis the future Iraq. One of those is as follows:
No Al Qaeda Safe Havens: The U.S. has an enduring interest in preventing Iraq from resembling Afghanistan on September 10th, 2001.
This fear is overblown, however. For one, Iraq is a far less hospitable place for the emergence of such a safe haven: Iraqis themselves are, generally speaking, wary of foreign interference, Iraqis tend toward a more secular view of Islam that is incompatible with al-Qaeda's extreme Salafism/Takfirism, and the geography of Iraq (and lack of support from the locals) would leave al-Qaeda leaders exposed to attacks by US and Iraqi forces. As mentioned above, al-Qaeda's tactics and chauvanism have alreaday made enemies of most Sunni Iraqis, and so maintaining a presence will be exceedingly difficult. Further, AQI is able to draw recruits from neighboring countries because of the opportunity and, as some interpret it, obligation to combat a Western occupying army. Remove the US military from the equation, and AQI loses its most effective means of recruitment by far.
Finally, it is unlikely that Iraq will resemble Afghanistan on September 10th, 2001 due to the absence, in Iraq, of senior al-Qaeda leadership. In many respects, AQI is an indigenous group formed by some foreign elements like Zarqawi. But Zarqawi was not officially al-Qaeda when he began, and had a notoriously shaky relationship with bin Laden and Zawahiri. He was only assimilated into al-Qaeda after he cemented his leadership position in Iraq, swore an oath of fealty and was deemed to be a net plus to bin Laden and Zawahiri due to his popularity and prominence. But even then, serious tensions persisted between bin Laden/Zawahiri and Zarqawi as the former objected to the latter's targeting of Shiites (which they viewed as counterproductive to the cause of directing a united Muslim front against the US).
After Zarqawi was killed, and even during his reign, al-Qaeda has moved some more senior personnel to Iraq but still, it has not assembled a braintrust akin to 9/11-era Afghanistan, and due to the factors mentioned above it likely couldn't and wouldn't want to. We should be so lucky to have Zawahiri and (if he's still alive) bin Laden in the relative open of Iraq as opposed to the almost impenetrable Waziristan region.
But back to the subject of own goals. Today, Zawahiri released an audio tape in which he criticized President-elect Obama for, among other things, being a "house negro" (though the literal translation of the Arabic abeed al-beit is "house slave"). Compared to some of the other misteps mentioned above, this one is fairly minor, but still, the gratuitous injection of race into his critique of US policy will not serve al-Qaeda well in terms of PR. Consider: the world at large has reacted with a remarkable level of excitement at the election of Barack Obama, and the significance of his victory in terms of America's long history of racial discrimination is one of the more inspiring storylines. Yet, for no apparent reason, Zawahiri leads al-Qaeda directly into that headwind with a racial insult that serves little ideological purpose.
Now let's just hope our striker lining up to take a shot at Iran misses wide right.[UPDATE: What Ackerman said:
Who would have known that electing a black president also turns out to have an information-operations component as a bonus? We should want to publicize, far and wide, that Zawahiri is a racist. Drive this discrediting message into the heart of the Muslim world. I wonder what the tens of millions of African and African-American Muslims think about Zawahiri’s charming statement.Word.]
[UPDATE: What Ackerman said:
Who would have known that electing a black president also turns out to have an information-operations component as a bonus? We should want to publicize, far and wide, that Zawahiri is a racist. Drive this discrediting message into the heart of the Muslim world. I wonder what the tens of millions of African and African-American Muslims think about Zawahiri’s charming statement.
[UPDATE II: Ilan Goldenberg on some of the own-goal swapping of recent years:
First and foremost, Al Qaeda is an organization that thrives on propaganda. It paints the United States as an evil empire that oppresses its own minorities and has little regard for the rest of the world. Al Qaeda uses these types of narratives to raise funds and recruit. The Bush administration played right into this trap. Its "with us or against us" mentality and invasion of Iraq damaged America's image around the world and reinforced Al Qaeda's narrative.
But Al Qaeda's narrative is now under siege and it's clearly uncertain about how to react. The election of the first African American President, one with a Muslim father, flies in the face of this narrative. It shows America as an open and tolerant society - not the oppressive empire Al Qaeda would like to portray. In fact, the overwhelmingly positive international reaction to Obama's election is proof of the the threat Al Qaeda faces. [...]
Thus, it's not surprising that Zawahri has resorted to calling Obama a "house negro" to try and paint him as just another American President. But this is clearly more a defensive and weak message than effective propaganda that might actually work.
[UPDATE III: Spencer has more:
With an American president as loathed as George W. Bush around the world, it’s easy for Al Qaeda to portray the U.S. as venal and stupid and brutish as he’s proven. Obama complicates the narrative significantly: the very color of his skin, precisely what Al Qaeda mocks, symbolizes America’s willingness to change. That’s exactly what Al Qaeda fears most.
That’s why I kind of disagree with my friend Eric Martin of Obsidian Wings when he writes, “for no apparent reason, Zawahiri leads al-Qaeda directly into that headwind with a racial insult that serves little ideological purpose.” The racial epithet is a botched way of advancing a deep ideological necessity for Al Qaeda: to keep its narrative going, Zawahiri has to define Obama as not authentically American.
I think Spencer is absolutely right that I was too quick to reject the notion that there was a purpose. There clearly was, and I mostly agree with Ilan and Spencer on what it was that Zawahiri likely hoped to achieve. One caveat, however. Spencer writes that:
I think Zawahiri was less trying to portray Obama as "not authentically American" as he was trying to portray Obama as just another "typical" American leader, despite the color of his skin.
...to keep its narrative going, Zawahiri has to define Obama as not authentically American.
That's why he likened Obama to Condi and Powell. In other words, don't get fooled by his name, Islamic lineage and/or race - he's just a house negro who is going to maintain the same Imperial/Crusader policies as his traditionally white/anglo-saxon predecessors. On their behalf even.]
Monday, November 17, 2008
Deficits Actually Do Matter and Defense Is, In Fact, a Budget Item
Some claim that the Party must distance itself from some of the extremism embraced by the cultural warriors within its ranks. Others suggest the opposite tack: that the GOP defeat was the result of McCain's lack of dedication to those same cultural issues. Some have chosen a form of denial by claiming that the election of a candidate derided as the most liberal politician in the Senate during the campaign is actually proof that the country is still solidly center-right. Or something.
Others, still, have claimed that it was Bush's profligate ways and lack of fiscal discipline that sunk the GOP's electoral prospects, and so they sound the call to return to traditional Republican fiscal principles. What unites most, if not all, though, is an underlying belief in the need to return to the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan's leadership (or at least an idealized version of the Reagan presidency). There are some serious flaws and contradictions in the fiscal conservative/Reagan nostalgia analysis. For one, as Matt Yglesias argues, Bush's "big government" policies weren't that unpopular:
Most of George W. Bush’s most dramatic “big-government” actions — Medicare bill, farm bill, steel tarriffs, invasion of Iraq, USA PATRIOT Act, [me: NCLB] etc. — took place during his first term. And he got re-elected. And the evidence suggests that most of those initiatives helped him.
Further, George Bush's treatment of debts, deficits and budgets was completely consistent with the Reagan approach - not some departure from the prior course. The reasons are of the utmost relevance to some of the challenges facing the new Obama administration. As Andrew Bacevich points out in his remarkable book, The Limits of Power (*more on this below):
During the Carter years, the federal deficit had averaged $54.5 billion annually. During the Reagan era, deficits skyrocketed, averaging $210.6 billion over the course of Reagan's two terms in office. Overall , federal spending nearly doubled, from $590.9 billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1989. The federal government did not shrink. It grew, the bureaucracy swelling by nearly 5 percent wile Reagan occupied the White House. [...]
Tax cuts and the largest increase to date in peacetime military spending formed the twin centerpieces of Reagan's economic policy, the former justified by theories of supply-side economics, the latter by the perceived imperative of responding to a Soviet arms buildup and Soviet adventurism. Declaring that "defense is not a budget item," Reagan severed the connection between military spending and all other fiscal or political considerations - a proposition revived by George W. Bush after September 2001. [emphasis added]
That "severing" as Bacevich terms it, renders meaningless the clamoring for "small government" and "fiscal discipline" that percolates from conservative quarters every time a Democrat inhabits the White House - even if some now rush to repudiate the Cheney claim that "deficits don't matter." Discretionary spending is a relatively small fraction of government outlays when you factor in real costs of operating government, spending on entitlements, financing the debt and, alas, defense spending (discretionary and non). And yet the small government proponents bracket off defense spending and remove it from all discussions on how to reduce the size of the federal budget. But by doing so, they have rendered the conversation moot, unless they want to really make a push to eliminate (or vastly reduce) entitlement programs. Good luck with that.
Jim Henley recently wrote about a piece by Sean Scallon discussing the failure of small government Republicans to stick to their guns. Quoting Scallon:
The conservative tradition of Burke expounded on by people like Russell Kirk or Richard Weaver simply was politically unsellable to the general public when actually tried. This why the Reagan Revolution failed, this why the Gingrich Revolution failed. The politicians then moved to right-socialism in order to survive all the while trying to fool people into believing they were still “conservatives”. This worked until 2008 when no one believed it anymore.
Henley goes on to theorize that "[t]he Republican Revolution of the mid-1990s, particularly on the House side, probably did want to deliver something like "small-government conservatism," but that the political costs were deemed too high when a showdown with Clinton cost them in the midterms. While there is truth to the belief that attempting to scale back entitlement spending is a political loser (and how), Henley gives too much credit to the would-be champions of "small government": again, few, if any, discussed real cuts in that budgetary behemoth termed "defense spending." So, at best, small government conservatism as championed by Reagan and Gingrich involved revenue-sapping tax cuts, proposed reduction in entitlement spending and a ramping up of expenditures on defense.
Small in some ways, big in others. Also: quite reminiscent of the Bush years, even if Bush strayed somewhat from the Gingrich model in terms of expansions in discretionary spending (but not the Reagan model, which tends to suggest that the position vis-a-vis discretionary spending is more a function of the party affiliation of the then-current president).
Obama will have to reckon with the legacy of Reagan and Bush as the Pentagon and faux-small government conservatives prepare to demand a vast increase in the sort of spending that Reagan laughably claimed doesn't count. Matt Yglesias:
The uniformed services are trying to lock in the next administration by creating a political cost for holding the line on defense spending. Conservative groups are hoping to ramp up defense spending as a tool to limit options for a Democratic Congress and president to pass new, and potentially costly, social programs, including health care reform.
They also like the idea of creating an unrealistically high baseline of expectations for defense spending that will allow them to claim President Obama has cut defense spending.
I’ve written about this previously for The American Prospect so you can find detailed thoughts at that link. But suffice it to say that I think it’s absolutely crucial for the larger progressive agenda that we find a way to hold the line on this. Ever since the 1994 midterms, Democrats have shown no real interest in pushing back against DOD spending requests. And the short-term cost of that wasn’t high during a time when there was no real legislative prospect of big progressive change anyway. But the situation is different now, and we need to ensure that military spending is being weighed seriously against other options.
While it is quite possible that the GOP decides on a return to the rhetoric of small government and fiscal discipline, the agenda sought under that rubric will remain the same: enormous outlays on defense spending, revenue-draining tax cuts and a masked desire to gut entitlement programs (and I haven't even discussed the hypocrisy involved in pushing for an expansion of executive power and curtailment of citizens' rights). Same as it ever was.
Yet, defense spending is, and has been, out of control for many decades, and the time of reckoning is approaching. We, as a nation, cannot continue to spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined and expect to be able to fund infrastructure, guarantee a minimum safety net and otherwise implement an effective government capable or responding to various crises, whether it be the aftermath of an event like Katrina, or a bailout out of the banking industry.
*(Regarding Bacevich's book: I tend to agree with Clark Stooksbury and Daniel Larison, with the latter remarking, "it is the book conservatives, and indeed anyone interested in a sane U.S. foreign policy, ought to read this year." For those looking for a synopsis, here is an essay by Bacevich himself, and some excerpts from a book salon he conducted recently here.)
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Which Came First, Kirkuk or the Egg?
The bad news for those looking to fix the crisis in Kirkuk is that the obstacles needed to overcome are at the center of the many conflicts fueling the instability in Iraq (the federalism issue, oil wealth distribution, ethnic/sectarian communalism, reckoning with the Baathist legacy). To state the obvious, these conflicts have proven intractable, the implications are enormous for the future of Iraq and, thus, Iraqis have been fighting for the various factions' respective desired outcomes. Due to this dynamic, the status of Kirkuk has remained in limbo - held hostage by the failure to resolve the entrenched and larger underlying conflicts.
The good news is that resolving Kirkuk is taking on a sense of urgency. But, again, any effort to establish a workable solution to the Kirkuk conundrum requires a more comprehensive approach to the underlying issues. Thus, the need to fix Kirkuk could force Iraq's leaders to establish a grand bargain to address the macro issues that are represented in Kirkuk's microcosm. Hanna and Hiltermann:
Worth reading the rest.
The struggle for oil-rich Kirkuk threatens to paralyze Iraq's legislative agenda and block political accommodation, destabilizing fragile security gains that have put the issue of troop withdrawals on the U.S. and Iraqi political agenda. The competition to control Kirkuk, whose oil field contains 13 per cent of Iraq's proven reserves, has exposed a deep fault line between Arabs and Kurds.
In addition to the intermittent ethnic violence in the city, Kirkuk is at the centre of a national parliamentary gridlock. In July, Iraqi Kurdish parties and their ally in the ruling coalition, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, blocked a provincial election law - legislation seen by the United States and key regional actors as critical to recalibrating Iraq's shaken political system. The parliament approved a revised law in September on the basis of a compromise proposed and encouraged by the United Nations, whereby a separate parliamentary committee will address disputes on Kirkuk outside the framework of provincial elections, allowing voting to proceed in the rest of the country. So the fundamental disputes over the city remain, and the feasibility of future legislative efforts and the country's future depend on addressing the “Kirkuk veto.”
Paradoxically, this dispute also holds the potential for political compromise on the future shape of the Iraqi state. If the country's leaders can get Kirkuk right, there is real hope Iraq can stabilize into something more closely resembling a governable state.
Beyond the basic territorial issue, Kirkuk's future status touches on fundamental issues that divide Iraqis, including the nature of federalism, prospects for provincial elections and the management of oil wealth. The scope of these concerns and the difficulty of reaching piecemeal agreements complicate legislative progress, as do shifting parliamentary alliances and the Kurdish parties' ability to hold federal legislation hostage to their aspirations in Kirkuk.The interlocking nature of the issues involved suggests that a comprehensive deal - a grand bargain - makes political sense. And it seems quite possible given the precedent set by a package deal earlier this year, when national legislators agreed on a national budget, an amnesty and provincial powers all at once.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
From Downtown Manhattan the Village
See how us Fake Americans celebrate presidential elections in the East Village. We of the Less Patriotic, not Pro-American persuasion:
Aid and comfort to the enemy I tell ya. Aid and comfort.
I Go Out on Friday Night and I Come Home on Saturday Morning
Date: Friday, November 7th
Location: Scratcher (on 5th Street just east of Bowery/Cooper Sq. - the bar is slightly sub-street level fyi). One of the better pints of Guiness in NYC.
Just ask Natalie the bartender to point you in my direction. RSVP if you're coming in the comments, and feel free to email me with questions.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Joe the Strummer
Despite my cushy voting existence, today, things didn't exactly go as planned. I ended up spending an hour on a line that stretched a full city block just to get back into my lobby. The line was easily more than twice as long as 2004 - and this is New York City! Where our votes count little! And yet, there was this interminable line of people exuding a palpable excitement, if a bit dampened with a touch of groginess.
On an unrelated note, my mind kept inserting various Clash tracks into my cerebral disc player while I was waiting to vote, and I haven't been able to get the buggers out all day. Then I got to thinking that Joe Strummer would probably be smiling broadly at today's events - it's his kind of election. And that's when it dawned on me: Joe Strummer has chosen me as his vessel to communicate to the people from beyond the grave on this most joyous of days. Joe in his own words:
Midnight to six man
For the first time from Jamaica
Dillinger and Leroy Smart
Delroy Wilson, your cool operator
Ken Boothe for UK pop reggae
With backing bands sound systems
And if they've got anything to say
There's many black ears here to listen
But it was Four Tops all night with encores from stage right
Charging from the bass knives to the treble
But onstage they ain't got no roots rock rebel
Onstage they ain't got no...roots rock rebel
Dress back jump back this is a bluebeat attack
'Cos it won't get you anywhere
Fooling with your guns
The British Army is waiting out there
An' it weighs fifteen hundred tons
White youth, black youth
Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood
And ask him for some wealth distribution
Punk rockers in the UK
They won't notice anyway
They're all too busy fighting
For a good place under the lighting
The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got Burton suits, ha you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money
All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If Adolf Hitler flew in today
They'd send a limousine anyway
I'm the all night drug-prowling wolf
Who looks so sick in the sun
I'm the white man in the Palais
Just lookin' for fun
I'm only looking for fun