The budget crunch on defense and foreign policy has me thinking: While Congress is off on its merry pursuit of Passover or Easter and the White House is preoccupied with bringing peace (again!) to the Middle East, this is a good time to think about how we really ought to engage the world.
Not the phony baloney about the "indispensable nation," attributed to Madeleine Albright and believed by too many in Washington. There are plenty of folks ready to dispense with us, especially after the travesties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not the "declining power," which is only the shadow side of aggressive, neoconservative interventionism. It's all about our power, you see. With it, we "shape" the international environment (or just write the rules ourselves when we are being really outrageous). Without it, global security is done for and anarchy will break out -- terrorists on all fronts, nuclear weapons on every corner.
How about some plain old common sense? The United States is just another country -- a big one, with big interests and big capabilities, but still just one in a world crowded with countries and problems that need to be solved. We cannot write all the rules; we can influence some of them. We cannot shape neighborhoods whose traumas and dilemmas are up close and personal to them (see Israel-Palestine, or China-Japan). Too often in the last 10 years we have tried to write the rules, only to create new adversaries or stir up old ones.
I am not making a plea for withdrawal, but for modesty -- modesty in ambition and expectations. It's a good moment for modesty. Everyone's resources are stretched; internal dilemmas (some with external instigators -- see Russian money and Cypriot banks for a nice synergy) are barking at every national and regional door.
Well, count me a wacko bird, who wants neither to intervene with the Marines or special operations forces, nor to withdraw, but rather to remain engaged.
I will add my own twist to the wacko-bird manifesto. As we define more modest engagements, we need to demilitarize our foreign policy machinery so that we don't define every issue as solvable with military force. The Pentagon and the uniformed military should not define the framework for our global engagement; they should proudly and competently support our statecraft.
We should be sending advisors to governments seeking to create effective, efficient, and accountable governance, not sending "security" trainers to beef up other countries' militaries and internal police forces before local civilian officials know how to handle them.
We should have a diplomatic and foreign assistance capability that can prevent and resolve conflict and advise on governance, not one that backs away from this kind of engagement and restricts itself to representing the United States and reporting on events. And we should use this capacity modestly, for the task is large and we cannot "shape" it either alone or in our image.
A changed perspective on how we engage the rest of the world is a big part of the answer to the endless thrashing about of the past 20 years. Liberal international interventionists have had their day, and paid the price. Conservative regime changers have shamed themselves adequately (though to read the reviews on Iraq 10 years later, there seems be a shortage of shame. Doug Feith? Really?)
Time for the wacko birds. Sign me up.
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The big weapons have moved in. On February 13, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went over the top of the trench, grabbed the biggest artillery piece he could find and charged the enemy, saying a sequester of the defense budget on March 1 would "upend our defense strategy," leave the U.S. open to "coercion," and force us to "break our commitments" to the troops, the defense industry, and our friends and allies.
What is this, a Saturday Night Live sketch? No, just another piece in the confetti-laden ticker tape parade the service chiefs and the chairman are leading around the friendly confines of the Armed Services Committees to beat back a sequester on defense.
He may convince the already-convinced members of the committee, but the almost comic rhetoric should not fool anyone else.
Let me say it again: Sequester would pose serious management challenges to the Department of Defense, no doubt about it. But the U.S. military is a dominant force, with few challengers. It is the only force capable of global sailing, flying, and deployment. The only one with global logistics, communications, intelligence, transportation, and infrastructure. It costs five times the that of the Chinese military, and accounts for 40 percent of the spending on all world militaries combined. It spends more money today than it ever has, in constant dollars.
They are an awesome bunch, and everyone around the world knows it. There is no way a sequester would leave this force or the country open to coercion.
Losing 10 percent of the planned resources in one year will change none of that. Properly managed, even sequester would be survivable, leaving a dominant military capability. Nobody has to revisit strategy -- the pivot to the Pacific would happen anyway, and, frankly, is more a matter of moving things around than adding new military kit to the region. We have left and are leaving the two big combat operations, substantially increasing planning flexibility -- every other deployment (Sahel, Horn of Africa, Philippines) involves a tiny fraction of the overall force.
And as for that "commitment" observation, pay and benefits for the troops are untouched by sequester, leaving the commitments intact. And the industry figured out two years ago that the defense budget was going down. They have been consolidating capacity, shrinking the workforce, bringing subcontracted business in house, selling assets for two years. Only this year are these long-term, sensible decisions being blamed on sequester; they were already happening and will continue to happen, with or without sequester.
And our friends and allies? In Europe they have already figured out that defense requirements need to be balanced off against broader fiscal and social needs, as we are only now doing today. And in Asia, a number of allies are starting to do exactly what we have been asking them to do for decades: Assume more responsibility for their own security. The United States will still be around, nonetheless.
But we must be in another act of the budget battle. The military has been pushed into the point of the spear as part of the pressure to get to a deal, so hyperbole commands the stage. Personally, I can't wait for the show to end.
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It appears there are second acts, or is it a third? Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times on Sunday described the "dramatic return to the public stage" of the neocons, who hope to finish off Chuck Hagel's nomination with theatrically embellished claims about his stances on Iran and Israel.
There would be no such drama and no return to the stage but for the eagerness of media editors to stimulate the appearance of a conflict. These folks -- the William Kristols and Elliott Abramses of the policy right -- should be condemned to the dustbin of history for their fatally mistaken fantasies that left a deep, lasting, and negative legacy for U.S. security interests and goals around the world. Kristol is certainly no "mainstream internationalist," as he tries to repaint himself in the Times story; he is a policy extremist, one among many who caused this damage over the past decade.
They fantasized hegemony -- that the 21st century would be an "American century," with U.S. military power ensuring dominance, stability, and the ability to shape events around the globe. But the 21st century, as a recent National Intelligence Council report makes clear, is a global century, with changing coalitions and rising powers, not ours to dominate.
They hoped that sending American men and women in uniform into Iraq in sheer ignorance of the political and cultural conditions on the ground would instantly install democracy (it didn't), eliminate a sponsor of terror (it was not), and end a threatening program of weapons of mass destruction (there weren't any).
That a surge left in place a shaky and hardly democratic regime and a country in shreds is no victory; it is escaping a bad situation without tar and feathering on the way out. They screamed that we should have left troops there to prevent disintegration, ignoring the reality that the presence of U.S. troops could only delay a resolution of Iraq's historic and internal cultural conflicts, at the cost of a continuing loss of American life.
They hoped to eliminate the Taliban as a host to al Qaeda by invading Afghanistan. They accomplished about a third of that task (throwing out the Taliban, but not eliminating it) and then completely dropped the ball in their eagerness to take on Saddam Hussein.
The Taliban returned, the new government sank into the cesspool of corruption too common in that country, and the Obama administration is now coming to terms with the reality that more American soldiers cannot reshape Afghanistan (any more than the Russians or the British could), and it is time to come home.
And it took a focused, disciplined effort on the part of a non-neocon administration to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden, a mission at which the neocons had failed miserably.
Now the chickenhawks are gearing up to send U.S. soldiers into the field again, this time into Iran. For them there will be no staying the hand of an Israeli government determined to go to war; America's fighters must pay the price. They worry that Chuck Hagel might not share this new fantasy.
Have they no shame? Clearly not. Not a lick of embarrassment crosses their faces. It is as if the past does not exist; it's as if they could airbrush the last ten years off the map of history and the nation would forget. Sadly, too many members of Congress are prepared to bluster with them.
I have been clear that I would like some very tough budgetary and managerial questions to be put to the nominee for secretary of defense. Even if he is not deeply steeped in the internal workings of DOD, and he is not, it will be critical for him to focus on managing a defense drawdown in a responsible and balanced way, and not to become a pure mouthpiece for "more" or "holding the line." For a drawdown is surely underway.
But Hagel is vastly more qualified than some to be secretary and certainly more focused on the world as it is, not as the neocons fantasize it to be. Their fantasies have damaged America's reputation, its ability to lead, its national security interests, and left too many soldiers and their families dead or damaged beyond repair.
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