The US Drawdown & National Debt Debate: AfPak, Korea, etc

Afghanistan rocket

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the scale of US commitments and how to reduce them so as to not bankrupt the US in the medium-term. I have gotten a fair amount of criticism that I don’t know what I am talking about, US warfighters are superlative, US forces in various places like Korea or Afghanistan augment US national security, pull-outs jeopardize our credibility, etc. Ok. I am learning like the rest of us on this. I agree that US commitments are sticky, and I have little doubt that US servicemen are professional enough to win conflicts in places like Korea and AfPak (Afghanistan & Pakistan), so long as we have the resources to stay.

Further, I will admit that a ‘post-American’ world is a little unnerving. I say this not as an American who likes ‘empire’ (I don’t), but more generally because I still do think, even post-Iraq, that US involvement generally makes the world a better place. The dollar and US engagement help keep the world economy open, and US force can sometimes be the last line against truly awful acts that shame the conscience. This is why I supported the Libya intervention, and this is why I hope the US can keep forces in Korea. A retrenched, bankrupted, and sullen America worries more than just Americans. To clarify to my critics, my concern is whether the US can support allies around the world, not if it should. I don’t want US Forces in Korea (USFK) to leave any more than anyone else. I can think of few more valuable uses of US force than to help defend a democracy against the last worst stalinist despotism on earth. I just wonder whether we can afford it.

I think we need to be a lot more honest about the huge defense cuts that will be required to balance the US budget. The US deficit ($1.5 trillion) is a staggering 10% of GDP and 35% of the budget; publicly-debt ($9T) is at 60% of US GDP ($15T); and the integrated national security budget (DoD, Veterans, relevant parts of Homeland Security and Energy) exceeds $1T. You hardly need to be an economist to think that this is unsustainable and smacks of imperial overstretch. For an expert run-down on the US budget mess, try here.

This gap could of course be filled with tax increases, but a central GOP policy commitment since roughly the Ford administration has been ‘no new taxes.’ Unless this changes dramatically – and the recent Ryan budget proposal showed no GOP movement on tax increases – this means that most of the $1.5T hole must be filled with spending cuts. My own sense is that allowing the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to sunset, as is current statute, plus tax reform and a carbon tax, could in fact generate a lot of new revenue at tolerable and intelligent levels of pain. This would reduce some of the pressure to cut defense (and all other US government programming). But without such new taxes, the $1.5T hole calls for huge cuts, and the axe would inevitably land on defense too, including US bases and commitments overseas.

I am genuinely agnostic on whether this is a good idea. Part of me thinks that wealthy US allies, especially Japan and Germany, free-ride. They should spend more so that we can spend less. But others have retorted that encouraging wealthy Asian allies like Korea and Japan to spend more could trigger an arms race in Asia that might also go nuclear. Barnett has a nice post on how Asian elites are aware of this and worry about a weak US. (On the other hand, there is not actually a lot of empirical evidence that denuclearization brings peace.)

In response to my commenters at Busan Haps on a US withdrawal from Korea, I wrote:

“America’s economic problems will likely compel the rebalancing all of you are thinking about. Importantly, even if the US wanted to stay and provide ‘extended deterrence’ as we have for 60 years, the dollars are not there for it.

Whether or not we should go is a different question. My sense is that Korea does actually try harder than many US allies. Korea spends 2.7% of GDP on defense. Germany and Japan spend around just 1%. The US spends close to 6%. But like Germany and Japan, Korea is now wealthy enough to spend a lot more. This raises the free-riding question you all worry about.

If Korea really wants USFK to stay no matter what, then the most likely way is for Korea to pay for ALL of the expense of USFK here. Right Korea and the US split the bill roughly so far as I can tell.

But I find great resistance to this thinking. My sense is that within the Beltway, there is strong elite consensus for the US remain committed around the world. ‘Empire’ seems to be a knack or a habit Americans have grown into. We like being a globally present superpower but are increasingly unable to afford it and unwilling to pay the taxes for it.

The question then is what do we do now? Cut entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) to make room for defense? Do we raise taxes enormously for all these things? Are do we retrench from our global posture so we spend less money?

Finally, there is a model for retrenchment. Britain slowly retreated from its empire in the 1950s and 60s. In some places it went very badly – South Asia and southern Africa especially. But this slowly brought British commitments back into line with British resources. The alternative for the US is to change nothing and risk an imperial crack-up – something like the USSR in 1989 or Austro-Hungary in 1914. That is my worry.”

Here are two good recent articles from the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Gelb and Max Boot on whether or not we can drawdown from Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) post-bin Laden. I lean toward Gelb, but I think Boot makes some good points. Particularly, Boot notes that a US presence in Afghanistan made it possible to get OBL, because US forces were proximate. But Boot still sidesteps the debt issue. Both Beinart and the US JSC chairman call the debt the biggest threat to US national security. I am inclined to agree…

Thoughts on Bin Laden’s Death: Can/Should We Wrap the ‘GWoT’?


Amid the flood of commentary, I would recommend this and this.

It’s hard not to be thrilled at this moment. I am not especially nationalistic, but Osama bin Laden (OBL) was doubtless an enemy of liberal democracy, a homicide, and virulently anti-American. Like Obama said, the world is a better place without him, and certainly America, the West, and liberals everywhere are safer. If there is a liberal democratic ‘end of history,’ this was a step on that path. So here a few thoughts:

1. Did we assassinate him? Did we intend to kill him, or just capture him? When I  first saw the CNN story, a by-line in the scroll at the bottom of the screen quoted an unnamed spokesmen saying the goal was to kill him, not capture him. If he really was unarmed, was this then an execution, a murder (!)? What if he had put his hands up? Would the US government or Obama be liable (!)? Honestly, these are just academic question though. No one really wants to ask them, Arabs and Muslims included, and probably not even the Pakistanis. Everyone, Middle Easterners included, is just glad he’s gone. As Walt notes (last link), the rules of engagement on the raid were probably pretty loose, because no one really wanted him captured. Ideally, that would have been best and most humane, but his capture would open up so many problems, that practically, killing him was the most attractive option. If we had him, what would we do with him? Send him to Guantanamo? Torture him? (Imagine how the pro-waterboarding crowd would have responded.) Do we send him to NYC for a trial, or a military tribunal? If he did get a trial, imagine the OJ-style feeding frenzy and his use of it as a platform to capture global attention once again. Given how much trouble we have had structuring a legal architecture for the global war on terror (GWoT), even after 10 years of conflict, the legal issues would have bedeviled the country for years. In fact, if we would have tortured him the way we tortured Khalid Sheik Mohammed (waterboarded 183 times in one month), and then executed him (like Timothy McVeigh), it may in fact have been more humane to kill him during the raid.

2. If we did assassinate him, then can/should we do the same to Gadaffi? I find it ironic that at the same time we killed OBL in a targeted strike, NATO argued that it was not purposefully targeting Gaddafi. It seems very likely that Gaddaffi’s death would end the Libyan war at a stroke, saving countless lives. Assassinations however are a violation of US law.

3. Is it right/wrong to be ‘happy’ that OBL is dead? It feels terribly macabre to wish for someone else’ death, and notably, both Obama and Secretary used the oblique ‘brought him to justice’ in order to avoid saying something like ‘we are glad we shot him in the head.’ (Go here for that ‘Rot in Hell!’ headline.) But OBL is one of those figures like Hitler or Pol Pot who have such a history of unrepentant and continuing awfulness that the moral calculus likely changes. If OBL were the prodigal son and legitimately changed his ways, perhaps we should feel differently. But even after 9/11, he didn’t stop. At some point, even the most Christian/Buddhist/pacifist/Amish/liberal whatever could agree that ethics would be served by his death. Because he so obviously planned to keep on killing on a huge scale, killing him undoubtedly saves lives. This alters the moral discussion, I think. My Korean students and friends seemed a little unnerved that I was pleased. But I mentioned the obvious parallel of Kim Jong Il. He too is one of the figures with such an awful and continuing record that just about everyone believes Korea will be a better place without him. And indeed, SK has flirted in the past with trying to kill his (equally awful) father. When unification comes, if there is war or large-scale violence, it is hard to imagine the SK government wouldn’t also be thinking it would just be easier if Kim and his top cronies die in a firefight. (More likely though is a Mussolini/Ceausescu-style ending where is he is lynched by enrage locals.)

4. Was Pakistan sheltering OBL? Did we connive with western-leaning elements of Pakistan against islamist-leaning ISI elements? No one wants to say this, but it seems increasingly unlikely that OBL survived in a reasonably comfortable home (not in the cave we all thought) in the middle of the country without substantial informal tolerance. Others know far better than me on this point, but this is yet another marker that we should probably be slowly getting out of South Asia.

5. How important is this? W famously said he doesn’t worry to much about OBL anymore. That was probably the right attitude actually, although W was pilloried by the Democrats for saying so. OBL was isolated – the house in Pakistan had no phones or internet to prevent tracking, and his communication with the world went through just a few couriers. So he really was not in operational command of anything anymore. Has the jihad and GWoT moved on? Probably, as Bush said. So yes, OBL’s death was a necessary conclusion to the long post-9/11 story. But it doesn’t actually change too much in the larger GWoT; if anything, maybe we can take it as an opportunity to declare victory and get out of South Asia (see below).

6. Congrats to the US intel services for a job well-done. I haven’t always been too congratulatory of the US conduct of the GWoT, but this was clearly a big breakthrough that richly deserves praise, as does Obama. The headlines about US power are that we are in decline, and that is true, relatively. We are wildly overstretched and need to start coming home. But this is an important marker that we can still be effectively, coherent and focused, in contradistinction to our image from Iraq. This was clearly planned and efforted for many months with lots of details thought out in advance. After the mess we made in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was a good demonstration of the way we can struggle against terrorism without a GWoT. Success doesn’t require massive invasions and the inevitable blunt tactics that come with them. I hope this stands as a future model of US force, along with our moderate efforts in Libya, and not more Iraqs and Afghanistans.

7. What is the Muslim world’s view? I saw Feisal Abdul Rauf (the guy who wants to build the World Trade Center mosque) on CNN. I was disappointed that he couldn’t seem to admit on TV that OBL was bad for solely killing Americans or non-Muslims. He had to say ‘we’ (Muslims) also suffered at his hands. This is true and makes it political easier to ‘sell’ in the Middle East. But he still should have said that OBL deserved justice solely for 9/11 on its own terms. Given that he has proclaimed the WTC mosque to serve ‘inter-faith outreach’ and all that, his automatic tribal instincts at such an important moment disappoint.

8. Will this finally push apart the Taliban and al Qaeda? Can this help us get out of South Asia? Yglesias suggests we can ‘declare victory in the GWoT’ and start to wind down? I am mixed on this. We really need to, but it is not yet clear how much this will set back al Qaeda. Is Zawahiri, who is just as homicidal and fanatical, going to step in keep al Q rolling along? But it does make sense to pivot from a war-fighting to a management strategy at some point. (By management, I mean seeing terrorism like a ‘regular’ social problem akin to crime, piracy, or drugs – limiting the massive use of resources and force, because ‘victory’ is impossible without doing more harm than good.) We will never kill all terrorists globally. That would be far too difficult, would turn into US global imperialism for decades, will bankrupt the country, and destroy our liberal values. As Lithwick notes, the unending GWoT is perverting our sense of justice and liberal values (torture, warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detentions, and so so). As the Framers and republicans everywhere since Cicero have noted, unending war is terrible for democracy and liberalism. So maybe this is the long-needed juncture so that we can finally move on.

2011 Asia Predictions (2): Middle East, South Asia, Russia

Russia to the World – Bite me!


For my 2011 East Asia predictions (predictions 1-3), try here.

Last year, I put up 2010 predictions for Asia and Korea. Last week, I evaluated those predictions. This week come my 2011 predictions. It’s a fun exercise, if only to see how bad you blow it 12 months from now…

4. The Middle East peace process will go nowhere.

Why: Ok, this is not a particularly challenging prediction. Yet, we can always hope, but my guess is our hopes will once again be dashed. There are no elections coming up which might open possible policy shifts, and none of the big players seem to be rethinking much. Indeed, everyone seems fairly comfortable with the status quo, the current mix of intransigence and inaction. Particularly the Israelis seem to be fairly comfortable with the drifting-toward-apartheid status quo. And Obama, like so many POTUS before him, seems burned out with trying to resolve this tangle. So I don’t see anything suggesting real movement by anybody. Indeed, I increasing think that the two-state solution is pretty much gone; as Pillar says, wth are the Israelis thinking? So the status quo is pretty much the future: stasis.

5. India will back off on Afghanistan to give some room for US success and less Pakistani paranoia.

Why: This prediction is a little gutsier. If India continues to intervene in Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan, then Pakistan will never properly democratize, nation-build itself, or repress its Islamist-Taliban buddies, because they will remain a tool to use against India and to control Afghanistan after we leave. My sense is that there is growing recognition of this ‘AfPak’ logic. Increasingly it is clear that the Afghan war is irresolvable without some kind of Indo-Pakistan rapprochement. That is not likely and not my prediction, but I do increasingly see the Indians talking as if they are already a great power. If so, then Pakistan isn’t that important anymore. If India is just a regional power, then Pakistan is big trouble. But if India is a great power, then Pakistan is just a sideshow. So if India is growing up as a great power – they got Obama to support a UNSC seat for them last year – then Pakistan is the past. Far more important for India is the relationship with China and America, and Indian moves to encircle Pakistan in Afghanistan ultimately harm the US and aid China (by pushing Pakistan toward China) – exactly the opposite of its preferred outcome if it is a global power. Yes, India wants to reduce and humiliate Pakistan as it has Bangladesh, but I reckon the Indians increasingly see the costs of such pointless ideological satisfactions. India cannot retake Pakistan. Even without Pakistan’s nukes in the way, an Indian reabsorption would be colossal expensive and permanently delegitimize it as a great power. In short, global India has increasingly little to gain by provoking regional Pakistan. Even Kashmir isn’t really worth it: poverty, mountains, and fanatics – why bother? India has already won the Indo-Pak competition, as just about everyone knows. Pakistan is a paranoid faux-democracy riven by militarism, religious fanaticism, and terrorism. India is none of those things, so it can just savor Pakistan’s implosion and move on. Pakistan to India today is less like East Germany to West Germany, and more like Mexico to the US.

6. Russia will stay a Corrupt Mess, and Putin will genuinely reemerge.

Why: For several years now we have all been hoping that Putin might actually recede from the spotlight, that Medvedev might actually become a meaningful figure, that law might slowly push back corruption there, etc. All this was captured by the Obama administration expression ‘the reset.’ By 2011, it is time to admit this is over. The signal moment for me last year was the open farce of the Khodorkovsky trial – rather than the various gas tricks with Eastern Europe, stomping on local NGOs, or journalist murders (awful as all that is) – because ending ‘legal nihilism’ (ie, corruption) was Medvedev’s signal political promise. Well here was the big chance to show that with just a bit of movement on the biggest court case in Russia in a decade, one the world was watching. A little restraint might have convinced people that Medvedev wasn’t wholly a marionette of the old man. Instead, as Ioffe notes, Putin didn’t even both trying to cover up the sham. If I were an investor, I’d dump my rubles today. Putin just gave Wall Street (and the West) the finger. So I predict in 2011, that it will become widely acknowledged that Putin is still the chief, that he will be yet more public in preparation for reassuming the Russian presidency in 2012, that Russo-US cooperation will therefore slide, and that Russia’s political economy will stay a black market nightmare. To be sure, these aren’t exactly gutsy predictions, but it does seem to me that 2010 was an important year regarding the direction of the Putin-Medvedev tag-team, and the year’s events clearly downgraded the latter for all the world to see. We now know that Medvedev is a joke. So in 2011, given the looming presidential election and Putin’s consequent need to reassert himself for it, Medvedev will fade to black.

Ahh, the Navel-Gazing Pakistani Military: One More Reason to Be Out the Door of South Asia…


Thomas Barnett is a good blogger and his strategy work, especially the Pentagon’s New Map, is solid, if not exactly IR theory. I think Barnett sees himself more like Halford Mackinder or Robert Kaplan than Kenneth Waltz or Robert Keohane. In any case, his books are worth your time in that ‘not-quite-IR-but-still-important’ category (which also includes books like the Lexus and the Oliver Tree, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and The Best and the Brightest).

He absolutely nails it in regard to Pakistan here. We shovel mountains of money to the Pakis so they can scare the hell out of America’s emergent ally in Asia through this month’s huge military exercise right on India’s border (pic above). I noted last year as well the Pakistani military’s propensity to read the GWoT as just another way to bilk the US into paying for it never-ending anti-Indian build-up. Why are we running with these people?…

These shenanigans just reinforce my growing sense that we need to get out of the middle of the Asian landmass.

“F-16s are an ideal counterinsurgency tool,” or Why Pakistan might Fall to the Taliban

In case you want to explain why Pakistan might go down in flames in just one sentence, it is hard to beat, for sheer pithy idiocy, this money quote from a WSJ editorial:

“We also hear the [Pakistani] military is reluctant to take up U.S. offers to fix Pakistan’s idle attack helicopters and focus on the hardware suited for a civil war against a lightly armed enemy. Instead, says a U.S. Defense official, "we always hear things like, ‘F-16s are an ideal counterinsurgency tool.’"”

This line is so hysterically (in a bad way) bone-headed, its hard to know where to even begin in response. I will just direct you to my shortened thoughts on proper counterinsurgency.

I’ve been teaching terrorism and the GWoT for 5 years now, and this ranks up there with Rumsfeldian classics like ‘freedom is untidy.’ When I first read that F-16 line, I have to admit I laughed out loud. Good lord, even my undergrads learn basic asymmetry in the GWoT. Sigh…

Maybe I should add a monthly ‘surreality’ feature to the blog. This could be the May edition, while Stalin simultaneously battling aliens and dancing to techno could be the April entry.

Update: Here is a good piece explaining why the Pakis obsess so much over the F-16s: But it hardly validates the silly notion of F-16s as a COIN tool. The real, obvious answer is that they are a prestigious tool against India.