Session One –– World Security Situation - Russia, Iraq and Syria, and Beyond
Chaired by Richard Kaufman
I would like to provide some background and context for our discussion and I’ll cite a few facts about the world security situation and where we stand today.
The US is into a second decade of armed conflict in the Middle East. Tensions are rising with Russia, heightened by the events in the Ukraine and Western economic sanctions. There is the potential for a confrontation with North Korea and Iran over nuclear developments. Tensions also have been increasing in the Far East between Japan and China. And China’s rise as a world power poses an additional set of challenges. Among the larger questions raised in the interests of the world security situation are whether we can arrest what appear to be the trends towards permanent limited war in the Middle East and renewed cold war with Russia, as well as the likely increased defense spending that would inevitably result from those.
We should be mindful that, although defense spending has declined significantly under the Obama administration, it remains substantially higher in real dollars than the Cold War average and higher, too, than the peak Cold War level of the mid-to late ‘80s. We’ve just come down from the peak spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this “lower level” is still as high as the peak level of the Cold War.
In short, is this the new normal? And whether it is or isn’t, what can be done about it?
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War I am rather distressed to look around and find not a common global home, as many of us had hoped for, but a fine mess.
The contours of this mess include the prospect of a new cold war or wars with China and/or Russia. Cascading war and instability across much of the Arab and Islamic world carries the possibility of greater contention and less cooperation with China and Russia, while they potentially grow closer and move towards operating as a duo.
Another concern is revived and expanded US military involvement in Syria, Iraq, and possibly Lebanon, and delayed withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A final obvious implication is increased defense expenditure. Today our total defense expenditure sits at about $585 billion, down from a high in 2010 of about $741 billion in today’s dollars, and most of the overall reduction comes from reductions in war spending. I think we can expect presidential candidates in 2016 to vie in bidding up the budget, with up to a $100-billion increase likely by 2018. Although the armed forces don’t need it, the candidates need it for political purposes. Much of the progress of the past few years will likely be reversed.
There is a popular narrative that says when the US withdraws from the world, the world goes to hell. First, although we did withdraw troops from Iraq, we continue to be involved in about 15 other conflicts worldwide, posting continuously an average of about 250,000 troops overseas. As we withdrew from Iraq, we increased our involvement in Afghanistan. So in no sense can we really say that what happened was a withdrawal from the world.
The second, more important point is that the problems that we see evolving today in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and in our relations with China are more accurately traced to our overconfidence in military power and the increased use of it—not to its absence. We are standing in the ruins of a failed security policy that in its fundamental tenets spans three administrations. It comes in neoconservative and neoliberal varieties with some significant differences between them; but their core propositions are the same.
The first premise is that US security depends on US global military primacy and our role as the world’s indispensable power. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the fundamental maxim was that this was not a choice; it was essential to our security that we maintain such a position of primacy.
The second is that we can effectively put that primacy to work in transforming the security environment. We’ve used it to attempt to contain rising powers, patrol the global commons, stabilize fragile states, extinguish extremism, reform or even overturn what we see as rogue nations. What we’re seeing today is the failure of those efforts at tremendous expense.
For example, in Iraq, at first the notion was to move in and topple a bad regime, which then would lead to the rise of good actors and a transition to market democracy. Instead we saw, in the second phase, the rise of insurgencies and the development of a government that falls far short of our expectations. In Syria the first and second phases took place simultaneously; and it seemed as though there were no good actors. In some sense that realization stalled our involvement there.
Over the past few years President Obama has restored the neoliberal version of this strategy with its greater admixture of diplomacy and emphasis on more discrete, standoff uses of military power rather than major campaigns. But the problem is that we remain stuck in a paradigm that overemphasizes military power. The choice inevitably comes down to how much military power, for how long, of what type. As long as we’re operating in that paradigm, when we face a difficult situation, as we do in Ukraine and Syria, there is a tendency to escalate. The blue (Democrats’) version of this strategy tends to feed back into the red (Republican) version, and we’re left with the dilemma of how to extract ourselves from this paradigm altogether.
Some in Washington have pointed to ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola, and general turbulence to argue that we need substantial increases in Pentagon spending. Part of the argument goes, the more we spend, the more everybody else will behave, even if we don’t use our military. Bret Stephens makes the case for the United States as the world’s policeman. But the Pentagon is not going to get what it wants in the next year or two. Even if budget increases are approved, I don’t foresee a period of endless military growth, as happened between 1998 and 2010.
Luckily for the Pentagon, they have a whole other fund they can use called in Washington-ese the Overseas Contingency Operations Account (because you can’t call it the War Fund). A lot of items that belong in the Pentagon budget show up there. In 2014, about $30 billion of the $80 billion OCO budget had nothing to do with any wars; it was just to cover items the Pentagon couldn’t fit under the caps in their official budget. I expect this arrangement to continue, although I don’t think the Pentagon can continue to get $30 billion a year out of it because the war against ISIS is not the war in Iraq. We’re currently at about 2 percent of our expenditures in Iraq at the peak of the Bush-initiated war. Even if the president puts in some ground troops, it’s not going to be as costly. So if choices have to be made, what should they be?
The Pentagon wants to buy a lot more weapons systems for more money than they have available. For example, the F-35 combat aircraft will cost $400 billion over the next couple of decades and $1.4 trillion over its lifetime to procure and sustain, making it the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon. It’s not a great airplane; it doesn’t do any of the many things it was designed to do particularly well. Scaling back and, if necessary, building upgraded versions of current systems to fill in any gaps could save tens of billions of dollars in the coming decade.
For the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines at a minimum of $5 billion each, a modest suggestion would be to build eight instead of twelve and configure them to be able to launch the same number of warheads as twelve.
The Army would like to have 490,000 troops, but it’s only currently funded for 420,000. I think they could stay at that level or lower, because I don’t believe we’re going to fight another Iraq or Afghanistan. The current threats do not justify large increases in troops on the ground.
Finally, the United States is now the world’s leading arms-exporting nation. A couple of years ago we sold $69 billion in weapons, the largest amount in arms sales ever recorded. But we’ve had problems finding reliable partners. We’ve armed countries that have engaged in military coups; that have given their weapons to their adversaries, as the Iraqi army did; that have sectarian divisions, where some of the weapons are used to repress the civilian population rather than to fight the adversary we’ve assumed was being fought. We need stronger human rights provisions, stronger consideration of stability and where these weapons are going to end up. For example, in Afghanistan, many of the weapons we’ve sent have ended up with Islamic extremists who are now fighting the United States or our allies.
My main point is we don’t need to increase Pentagon spending under any current scenario, and we need to get our arms exporting policy under control, or we’re going to be emboldening and actually arming our future adversaries.
As long as our domestic political new normal is caught in heightened polarization, it’s going to be very difficult to evolve any kind of coherent security strategy. The bad news is that a coherent strategy that we like is unlikely to emerge. The good news is that a coherent strategy that we don’t like is also unlikely to emerge.
The conversation about American strategy needs to recognize that not everything in the world is happening because we made it happen. This becomes even truer as we move into an era in which the US does have peer powers economically, if not militarily.
A couple of factors have contributed to the scrambling and angst of the last year: A Russian government under Vladimir Putin will have very strong views about its neighbors’ security status and identification regardless of US strategy. Similarly, the leader of China is balancing his own very challenging domestic issues with concerns about how China is perceived in the world, China’s resource needs, etc. The US affects China’s attitudes and concerns about Japan, Korea, its outer island chain, Tibet, and the Uyghurs only at the margins.
The US is going to face choices about responding to these two very big issues. We cannot avoid this dilemma; we can only choose our actions according to whether they help or harm specific interests. This is a conversation that we’re not used to having domestically.
In the Middle East the US must take some responsibility for uncapping the bottle and letting out the forces of chaos and destruction with the decision to invade Iraq and the decades of propping up repressive forces across the region. And even here you have sectarian conflict, Sunni versus Shiite, secular versus extremist, with the good old Israeli-Palestinian conflict layered over the top. There is nothing that the US can do to wipe any of those off the screen; so we must decide what our interests are when facing those conflicts.
So what is the new normal? Regardless of whether or not you believe that US withdrawal from the world actually hasn’t been tried, or if you think that President Obama is just another wrinkle in the traditional model of neo-liberalism, or if you think that Obama is a significant departure, the experiment with withdrawing from the world is now over, de facto. The experiment with getting the US off a war footing is also over. It will be fascinating to see whether Congress is able to negotiate a new authorization for use of military force in Iraq and Syria. Until now there’s been reluctance to do this lest we put into law an even more expansive view of what an administration is permitted to do militarily than is already the case.
Our political culture for the next two years is likely to feature intense fear-mongering, and that will make it much harder to have rational conversation about national security issues. Remember September 2013, when Congress and the administration were shocked by uniform bipartisan public reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria? There is an awareness in politics that the when-in-doubt-push-the-fear-button strategy can go too far. Anxiety is very high, but war fatigue is also very high. We’re not going back to the full upward slope on Pentagon spending anytime soon In addition to weapons systems, another major driver of Pentagon budget growth is health care and retirement benefits. Members of Congress who fall all over themselves to make sure there aren’t COLAs for civilians vote every year to give the military a higher COLA than the one the Pentagon requests. This year, again, the Pentagon put forward a budget that included a request for members of the military to pay a health care copay. But there continues to be a political debate about whether such reforms are feasible. If you can’t change the conditions under which new members of the military get benefits and retirement, or ask retirees who are pulling down six-figure salaries in the private sector to pay for their own health care, then you don’t have money for weapons systems, training, or nifty unmanned gadgets.
We’re also going to see warfare among the services. The Navy and the Air Force say, “We’re not going to be invading anymore countries soon, so we can cut the Army; but we need more of our gadgets.” And the Army says, “You’re not actually winning the war in Syria with your planes and your missiles; the only way you can win wars is with us.” We’ve forgotten what this sort of internecine warfare looked like during the past decade of endless growth in the Pentagon budget.
Over the next two years we are going to be in an environment where our political leaders have no incentive to stake out really strong strategic positions because the public can’t figure out what it wants and what those strategic positions correspond to. At the same time the Russians, the Chinese, and ISIS are very clear about what they want. It would be nice to say that this conflict is somebody’s fault, but it’s a conflation of factors; we can’t blame any one person or party.
Right now our military leaders are actually among the proponents of making hard choices. They are saying that retired four-star generals don’t need free health care and that we can’t intervene everywhere in the world. But there’s no room to have that conversation - not because civilians are stupid, or weak, or ill-disciplined, but simply because our economic and political incentives are so perverse right now.