Commentary Magazine


Topic: national security

GOP’s Hawkish Turn Rewarded in the Polls

Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

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Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

That swing in public opinion could well deliver the Senate into GOP hands–and it will likely make the next presidential election anything but a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. But before gloating too much, Republicans should reflect that this swing in public opinion actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about President Obama’s mistakes, which are monumental. Naturally, as ISIS and Vladimir Putin run wild, the public has lost confidence in him and his party. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP is worthy of respect or that the newfound popularity of the Republicans will last long.

Happy Republicans should reflect on how decisively they lost their traditional edge, in particular, on national security issues during the bungled years of President Bush’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Luckily for both Bush and the country, he managed to oversee an impressive recovery in Iraq in 2007-2008 whose gains, unfortunately, have been dissipated by Obama’s pullout–for which the president is now paying a price in the polls.

To sustain public confidence in their national-security credentials it would be helpful for Republicans to have a unified line as they mostly did during the Cold War, at least since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft (the standard bearer of Midwestern isolationism) in 1952. That kind of unity has been in large part lacking since the Iraq War turned south, with some in the GOP advocating a more interventionist foreign policy while others preached non-interventionism.

The rise of ISIS has temporarily inspired a return to more hawkish attitudes even among neo-isolationists like Rand Paul. But it remains to be seen if this is a passing fad or whether leading Republicans are finally getting serious about embracing their Teddy Roosevelt-Ronald Reagan heritage of global leadership. If Republicans succumb once again to the non-interventionist temptation, as President Obama did, their newfound popularity will not last long. Because if the latest polls show anything, it is that the public demands strong leadership on national security even if it is uncertain about the particulars of this or that policy.

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Why Panetta’s Lament Is Newsworthy

At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

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At the beginning of this year, when former defense secretary Bob Gates released his memoirs, he absorbed a fair amount of condemnation for his timing. In his book he criticized President Obama’s lack of commitment to the wars of which he took command as well as key players in the administration who had been poisoning the well against the military from within the White House. But, as I wrote, the criticism of his timing fell flat, since the book came after the 2012 election and therefore was not designed to undermine the president’s campaign, and it was too early to interfere in any real way with Hillary Clinton’s.

Now we have a second voice from the administration to add to the chorus of ex-officials unhappy with the disastrous foreign-policy decisions made by Obama. That chorus includes Hillary Clinton as well as advisors loyal to her like Vali Nasr. And now it includes, significantly, Gates’s successor at Defense Leon Panetta. Although Gates served both Democratic and Republican administrations and has always been considered a loyal soldier and a man of sober judgment, the fact that he’s a Republican seemed to color some reactions to his criticism of Obama. The same, obviously, cannot be said for Panetta. Opposition to Obama’s rash, hasty, and overly ideological decisions is bipartisan.

In Panetta’s forthcoming memoir, excerpted and adapted in Time magazine, he writes that, as the deadline for combat operations approached, it was clear “withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.” There needed to be some residual force maintained until Iraq was ready to shoulder the full burden of its own security and–crucially–stability. According to Panetta:

We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

The White House, he writes, wouldn’t lead the effort because the president was committed to getting out of Iraq, not winning the peace. Panetta does not let Maliki off the hook for the chaos that followed: “Al-Maliki was responsible, as he exacerbated the deep sectarian issues polarizing his country.” But it’s clear the president was, as always, more interested in hewing to bumper-sticker slogans than getting the policy right. The hyper-partisan, intensely ideological Obama would not be swayed.

Panetta’s comments have thus far been met with a more muted response than Gates’s, for a few simple reasons. First, as mentioned, Gates was a Republican holdover from the Bush era and Democrats maintain an ever-present suspicion of the motives of anyone to their right on the ideological spectrum. (Witness yesterday’s New York Times report on how the paper was thoroughly confused by the suggestion that Republicans want Obama to stay alive. What’s in it for them, the left wanted to know.)

Second, Gates’s career was far more defense- and security-centric than Panetta’s, having served in the CIA during the Cold War for several administrations (ultimately rising to director), serving on the National Security Council, and eventually serving as defense secretary for two consecutive presidents. As such, Gates’s views carry a certain amount of authority and gravitas that few possess; he’s been on the inside of national-security policy for nearly half a century.

Third, Gates’s memoir was published before Panetta’s. Whatever the criticism, it’s not going to be particularly revelatory for anyone to “me-too” his predecessor. And fourth, thanks to the rise of ISIS it is now undeniable that Iraq is in freefall and the security arrangements left in place when American troops left were insufficient. The fact that Obama has initiated a new war against ISIS (though he calls it an old war) in a new country is an implicit acknowledgement of that. In other words, it’s hard to argue with Panetta’s conclusion.

But that, paradoxically, ought to be a reason for this to be especially newsworthy. Panetta’s lament serves as an “I told you so,” not a “you’ll be sorry” moment. Even the president’s close advisors understand Obama was wrong, and everybody knows it. It’s safe now to disavow Obama’s Iraq strategy because it’s crystal clear it was a mammoth, deadly failure. The idea that Obama was completely, irresponsibly wrong is not controversial, even among dedicated Democrats. Panetta’s criticism isn’t really news, which is why it should be.

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Obama’s Siege Mentality

You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

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You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

There was the famous “hashtag diplomacy,” during which spokeswoman Jen Psaki demanded that Vladimir Putin stop invading Ukraine and thereby truly begin to “live by the promise of hashtag.” Even if Putin wanted to give the order to retreat from Ukraine, there was no way he could do so until he stopped laughing, so the selfie diplomacy was counterproductive as well as inane.

Then there was Marie Harf, first rewriting history on the bin Laden raid and getting called out on television by Andrea Mitchell and then, in the course of defending some more ridiculous moments by Psaki, picking a fight with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and even calling him “sexist” for criticizing Psaki.

If that last gambit sounded eerily like a stale, cynical Obama campaign ploy, there’s a reason for it: Psaki and Harf came to the State Department from the committee to reelect the president. (Though, in fairness, Harf worked in communications for the CIA earlier in her career.) And that, I think, helps us understand why exactly Psaki and Harf were given their current jobs, and why the president may not quite understand how much of a disaster they’ve been.

Over the weekend Paul Mirengoff at Power Line offered his own dual theory as to why Obama hires such “obvious lightweights” to speak for American foreign policy. First, Mirengoff writes, “Obama is playing to a core component of his base — the young.” Second, Mirengoff believes “Team Obama is trying to ‘demystify’ foreign policy — to make it look unthreatening almost to the point of child’s play. Psaki and Harf provide visual expression of this view just by standing at the podium and talking.”

He continues:

If one believes that the world is a dangerous place and that the U.S. must, accordingly, respond with constant vigilance and, at times, forceful engagement, then you want your spokespersons to look and talk maturely and somberly — to project, in a word, gravitas. For those of us who see the world that way, James Haggerty (Eisenhower’s press secretary who once said “if you lose your temper at a newspaper columnist, he’ll get rich or famous or both”) is a model.

But suppose you don’t believe the world is all that inherently dangerous. Suppose you believe, as Obama does, that the U.S. is at the root of many of the world’s problems and that a new dawn in international relations is possible if America will just lighten up.

In that case, you will be quite happy with light, breezy young foreign policy spokespersons. And if, like Harf, that spokesperson likes to get snarky with conservative journalist, all the better.

I recommend Mirengoff’s whole post on the topic. But my guess would be, as I mentioned earlier, to look to the Harf/Psaki team’s last jobs to grasp their current ones.

Back in 2012, the New York Times published a long article on President Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays,” his weekly meetings on counterterrorism. The article was centered on Obama’s drone war and how he was choosing and eliminating terror targets instead of capturing them. Present in the room for those meetings, the Times revealed, was Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod, “his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.”

Axelrod was there because Obama is always hyper-aware of the partisan political implications of everything he does, including national security acts and choosing which terrorists to assassinate. It rankled people a bit that Axelrod sat in on those meetings, but for Obama cynical political point-scoring tends to be the priority.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel wrote a piece on “Obama’s Kissingers,” the people the president had brought into his national-security inner circle. It was heavy on the “political hacks.” Some of them, like Tommy Vietor (who famously responded to a question on Benghazi with the immortal words “Dude, this was like two years ago”), were particularly undistinguished.

So why put people like that out front to take questions from the press? Because Obama’s innate bitter partisanship dominates his staffing decisions, and because he not only views the press as possible enemies–and treats them as such–but any questions as being part of the daily political competition between the president and his many pursuers.

A disturbing example of this was contained in an August column by Chemi Shalev on the administration’s decision to withhold weaponry from Israel during wartime. Shalev writes: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.”

That is the kind of remarkably unhealthy paranoia for which the president has unfortunately come to be known. And it explains why political hacks and spinmeisters are the only people he trusts to field questions from the press. To this president, everyone’s a suspect.

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Religious Freedom Should Be Foreign-Policy Priority

Reports from Western China suggest that the Chinese government has demanded the local Muslim population cease fasting during Ramadan. While the New York Times’s Tom Friedman and other columnists may sing the Chinese dictatorship’s praises, little marks tyranny as much as repression of religious freedom. China takes it to a new level when they demand people eat who otherwise have refrained from eating during the day. Government overreach is pretty clear when it seeks to dictate when to eat and when not to.

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Reports from Western China suggest that the Chinese government has demanded the local Muslim population cease fasting during Ramadan. While the New York Times’s Tom Friedman and other columnists may sing the Chinese dictatorship’s praises, little marks tyranny as much as repression of religious freedom. China takes it to a new level when they demand people eat who otherwise have refrained from eating during the day. Government overreach is pretty clear when it seeks to dictate when to eat and when not to.

Too often diplomats whitewash adversaries in order to make diplomacy easier. Easier diplomacy, however, isn’t necessarily more effective, especially if it does not reflect reality. It never makes sense to gear U.S. policy to what diplomats wish an adversary would be rather than what it actually is. Realism shouldn’t mean blind diplomacy with enemies; it should instead require dealing with reality.

While religious freedom may not seem a paramount U.S. national-security interest at first glance, it is perhaps the greatest window into the character and sincerity of any regime. The purpose of diplomacy is to change behavior. Governments can easily promise concessions on nuclear weapons, other conventional weaponry, ballistic missile programs, or terrorism. Often they lie, knowing American diplomats would rather cover for their lies than risk talks collapsing. A close study of diplomacy with rogues and adversaries suggest that respect for religious freedom can be correlated directly to those states’ and groups’ willingness to adhere to their other negotiated agreements.

Religious freedom, however, is easy to monitor. It may not substitute for other issues of more immediate national-security concern, but it is a barometer of sincerity and a metric for more substantive change among the states which most often threaten international order. Perhaps if religious freedom and individual liberty are to remain part of the American brand, no U.S. administration or American diplomat should be shy about standing up for either.

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

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Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet.

Introducing “international regimes” to control infrastructure in place of the United States or building a system with the U.S. on the outside looking into the control room are two options that would end up rolling back Internet freedom. Perhaps Greenwald thinks this is a fair tradeoff–that it’s worth sacrificing relatively unfettered Internet freedom for the sake of weakening America’s national-security apparatus. But Greenwald knows far too much about this issue to be unaware that that’s precisely what he’s suggesting.

And a publication with a history of supporting the tyrant shedding the most innocent blood in attempting to turn back the tide of the Arab Spring–and who continues to gas his opponents–is a perfect receptacle for this trash. Greenwald isn’t a truth-teller; he’s a panderer who assesses the level of hostility to American national defense in each interlocutor of his and provides them with the ammo to make their case.

Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation. The Greenwald-Snowden collaboration has been a boon to ruthless autocrats and tinpot dictators and the violence and propaganda they promote. But the piece in Al-Akhbar demonstrates the plain fact that those suffering under authoritarian regimes who would use the Internet to attempt to organize dissent have no friend in the Greenwald-Snowden tandem. They are undermined by them.

Greenwald also knew the paper would be a good place to offer some of his obtuse paranoia about another democracy that really gets under his skin:

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media…

The United States apparently is both an all-powerful global hegemon and bullied repeatedly by a nation the size of New Jersey. Greenwald doesn’t know which theory to believe, so he believes them both.

In any event, the purpose of this interview seems to be Greenwald’s declarations that more documents are coming on American cooperation with governments in the Middle East. Anyone who thought the project of leaking the NSA’s data collection was really going to be about curbing domestic surveillance in the name of constitutional oversight is no doubt feeling pretty silly these days.

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Obama’s Epic Incompetence (continued)

Yesterday I wrote a post about Barack Obama’s epic incompetence. Now, as if to prove my assertion, Karen DeYoung wrote a Washington Post story that begins this way:

A year after President Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.

In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”

But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.

Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others.

So you can add this to the list of Mr. Obama’s ineptness.

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Yesterday I wrote a post about Barack Obama’s epic incompetence. Now, as if to prove my assertion, Karen DeYoung wrote a Washington Post story that begins this way:

A year after President Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.

In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”

But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.

Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others.

So you can add this to the list of Mr. Obama’s ineptness.

There is something oddly impressive when it comes to the sheer scope of this administration’s failures. To have gone more than five years as president and to have almost no governing successes to point to is a standard most people, and most politicians, could not hope to attain. Yet Mr. Obama, being the historic figure that he is, decided to enter previously uncharted territory.

At some point I suppose it was inevitable that Jimmy Carter would be pushed aside when it came to incompetence. Now he has.

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On Ike Skelton

Want to know why there is so much partisan deadlock in Washington today? In part it’s because of the rise of a radical Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which is interested in grandstanding, not legislating. But it’s also due to the demise of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as represented by the likes of Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman who served 17 terms in the House and has just died.

Skelton represented the area where Harry Truman came from and he often voted like Truman. He was one of the most pro-defense members of Congress–and one of the most knowledgeable experts on military issues. A longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, he capped his service as its chairman. He made his primary impact not by grandstanding for the cameras but by working quietly behind the scenes to bolster the armed forces. He had a particular passion for enhancing military education and he put in place schooling requirements which remain in effect to this day.

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Want to know why there is so much partisan deadlock in Washington today? In part it’s because of the rise of a radical Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which is interested in grandstanding, not legislating. But it’s also due to the demise of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as represented by the likes of Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman who served 17 terms in the House and has just died.

Skelton represented the area where Harry Truman came from and he often voted like Truman. He was one of the most pro-defense members of Congress–and one of the most knowledgeable experts on military issues. A longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, he capped his service as its chairman. He made his primary impact not by grandstanding for the cameras but by working quietly behind the scenes to bolster the armed forces. He had a particular passion for enhancing military education and he put in place schooling requirements which remain in effect to this day.

His views allowed him to hold office even as his district turned more conservative. But his luck finally ran out in 2010 when he was beaten by a Republican challenger. Two other conservative Democrats–John Spratt of South Carolina and Gene Taylor of Mississippi–lost in the same year.  

Races such as those enabled Republicans to recapture control of the House in 2010. But it’s not your father’s Republican Party anymore. The Tea Party wing is now in effective control in the House–i.e., if not actually able to pass its priorities, it is able to block anyone else’s most of the time. The Tea Party Caucus formally numbers 46 House members but its influence is larger. On the other side of the spectrum are equally ideological members of the Progressive Caucus which now numbers 68 members.  

Unfortunately there are too few Ike Skeltons left. Congress and the country are the poorer for it.

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Not News: The U.S. and Israel Cooperate

On her blog today, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, took issue with her paper’s news judgment. Responding to complaints from readers, she said she disagreed with the paper’s decision not to run a piece following up on a Guardian article alleging that the United States and Israel have shared intelligence that might be derived from intercepts of communications by the National Security Agency. Though I rarely concur with many if not most of the choices made by the Grey Lady’s editors, in this case I think managing editor Dean Baquet was right: the Guardian, which is the main conduit for stories stemming from the leaks of classified U.S. material by Edward Snowden, had hyped a detail gleaned from the stolen material that was neither “significant or surprising.” Though those hostile to Israel (such as Snowden’s journalistic partner Glenn Greenwald) may think this is worth treating as if it were a scandal, the notion that the two allies share data about terrorist suspects or related material is not news. Nor is it anything for anyone who cares about protecting either country from Islamist terrorists to worry about.

While Sullivan apparently thinks anything about the NSA intercepts is newsworthy and may well have succumbed to the cliché about Jews being news, this mini-controversy about what the Times publishes should give us insight into much of the breathless hype about the government’s data mining. Though libertarians, isolationists, and critics of big government have been feeding public paranoia about the NSA, this particular nugget of information tells us just how uncontroversial much of the agency’s activity has been. Just as the intercepts are both legal and a reasonable use of resources, so, too, is the NSA’s sharing of some of material with a country that shares much of its own considerable intelligence resources with the United States. The attempt to render this useful cooperation controversial or, as the Guardian implies, illegal does nothing to protect civil liberties while potentially damaging U.S. national security.

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On her blog today, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, took issue with her paper’s news judgment. Responding to complaints from readers, she said she disagreed with the paper’s decision not to run a piece following up on a Guardian article alleging that the United States and Israel have shared intelligence that might be derived from intercepts of communications by the National Security Agency. Though I rarely concur with many if not most of the choices made by the Grey Lady’s editors, in this case I think managing editor Dean Baquet was right: the Guardian, which is the main conduit for stories stemming from the leaks of classified U.S. material by Edward Snowden, had hyped a detail gleaned from the stolen material that was neither “significant or surprising.” Though those hostile to Israel (such as Snowden’s journalistic partner Glenn Greenwald) may think this is worth treating as if it were a scandal, the notion that the two allies share data about terrorist suspects or related material is not news. Nor is it anything for anyone who cares about protecting either country from Islamist terrorists to worry about.

While Sullivan apparently thinks anything about the NSA intercepts is newsworthy and may well have succumbed to the cliché about Jews being news, this mini-controversy about what the Times publishes should give us insight into much of the breathless hype about the government’s data mining. Though libertarians, isolationists, and critics of big government have been feeding public paranoia about the NSA, this particular nugget of information tells us just how uncontroversial much of the agency’s activity has been. Just as the intercepts are both legal and a reasonable use of resources, so, too, is the NSA’s sharing of some of material with a country that shares much of its own considerable intelligence resources with the United States. The attempt to render this useful cooperation controversial or, as the Guardian implies, illegal does nothing to protect civil liberties while potentially damaging U.S. national security.

The Guardian’s attempt to blow this detail about Israel into a major aspect of the NSA falls flat. The lede of the piece centers on the fact that some of what is shared with Israel is “raw intelligence” without “sifting it to remove information about U.S. citizens.” The implication is that the NSA is not only wrongly spying on American citizens but that it is facilitating Israel’s efforts to do the same thing. It then goes on to repeat gossip about Israel spying on the U.S. government and attempts to imply that the relationship between the two countries is lopsided in favor of the Jewish state even if it acknowledges further down that many allies, including the U.S., spy on each other.

First, it is far from clear that any sharing of intelligence data with Israel is illegal or even violates government guidelines. As even the article notes, anything shared with Israel is done under strict rules that prevent any targeting of U.S. individuals and limits use of the information.

Moreover, while there is some understandable concern about the broad-based nature of the NSA intercepts that could occasionally cause them to scrutinize material that is not pertinent to their mission, this story illustrates just the opposite of what most people were worried about. After all, the U.S. is not handing over billions of files but rather individual cases that clearly merit a closer look. Anyone whose “privacy” is intruded upon in such cases is not a random average citizen but most likely someone with clear connections to suspicious if not dangerous foreign contacts. Giving the Israelis a closer look at such information merely enhances the ability of the U.S. to defend our homeland and is not merely a gift to Jerusalem.

While in the anti-Zionist universe in which the Guardian operates any kind of cooperation with Israel is suspect, even the editors of the Times know that the intelligence agencies of the two countries have worked closely together to fight terrorism for many years. Israel has long punched far above its weight in terms of the strategic assistance it gives the United States. While Israel cannot compete with the vast technological resources that the U.S. can bring to bear on the problem, its Mossad is renowned for its skill in ferreting out information about Arab and Muslim radicals. It is obviously in the best interests of the West that the two cooperate, and that is exactly what they should be doing. 

As for any of this being such a big secret, as anyone who paid attention to the presidential campaign last year knows, President Obama and his surrogates spent a disproportionate amount of time bragging about how much he had improved security cooperation between the two countries.

As for the talk about spying, again none of this is new or surprising. All countries, even allies, spy on each other and that includes U.S. spooks that do what they can to learn all of Israel’s secrets.

At the heart of the outrage about the Snowden leaks is a belief on the part of some, especially Greenwald and the Guardian, that there is something inherently wrong with the work of the NSA in fighting Islamist terror. Those who wish to criminalize legal activity that is aimed at enemies of the United States speak of civil liberties being violated, but their main agenda might well be termed counter-counter-terrorism. If that effort dovetails with the anti-Israel agenda of others on the left or the far right, that suits them just fine. But if they succeed, it will be the safety of Americans that will suffer.

The U.S.-Israel alliance is based on common values but also on an understanding that they share common enemies as well. That the Times sees nothing remarkable in this shows that for all of their demonstrated anti-Israel bias, they are still light years removed from the hardened anti-Zionist prejudice that is business as usual at the Guardian and other British papers.

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Too Soon to Call Sequester a Success

From the standpoint of a budget hawk like Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the budget sequestration process may indeed look like a success. “After President Obama’s first two years in office, many in Washington expected that number to hit $4 trillion by 2014,” Moore writes. “Instead, spending fell to $3.537 trillion in fiscal 2012, and is on pace to fall below $3.45 trillion by the end of this fiscal year (Sept. 30). The $150 billion budget decline of 4% is the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”

That is certainly good news, given the long-term threat to our international standing posed by runaway spending, even if there is cause to doubt how lasting the success of sequestration will be. As R. Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write in the New York Times, “The C.B.O. still anticipates a 2015 deficit of $378 billion. And Uncle Sam is heading — and this is the best-case scenario — toward nearly a trillion dollars of red ink every year after 2023.”

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From the standpoint of a budget hawk like Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the budget sequestration process may indeed look like a success. “After President Obama’s first two years in office, many in Washington expected that number to hit $4 trillion by 2014,” Moore writes. “Instead, spending fell to $3.537 trillion in fiscal 2012, and is on pace to fall below $3.45 trillion by the end of this fiscal year (Sept. 30). The $150 billion budget decline of 4% is the first time federal expenditures have fallen for two consecutive years since the end of the Korean War.”

That is certainly good news, given the long-term threat to our international standing posed by runaway spending, even if there is cause to doubt how lasting the success of sequestration will be. As R. Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane write in the New York Times, “The C.B.O. still anticipates a 2015 deficit of $378 billion. And Uncle Sam is heading — and this is the best-case scenario — toward nearly a trillion dollars of red ink every year after 2023.”

More immediately, the danger from a military standpoint is that we are purchasing deficit reduction at the cost of a catastrophic loss of military capability and readiness. As Moore himself notes, “The defense budget is on a pace to hit its lowest level (as a share of GDP) since the days of the post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ during the Clinton years.” He concedes that “these deep cutbacks could be dangerous to national security,” but he argues that “as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were winding down, defense would have been cut under any scenario.” Perhaps so, but there was nothing inevitable to dictate that cuts would be so deep–amounting to some $1 trillion over the next decade–or that they would be enacted so indiscriminately across the board.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave an overview of the unpalatable choices facing the Defense Department when he unveiled the results of a strategic review of spending. Even assuming a 20-percent reduction in headquarters overhead and a $50 billion reduction in military compensation–by no means easy to pull off–the armed forces will still have to cut a lot of muscle to achieve their budget targets.

Option 1 would be to cut the size of the existing armed forces dramatically to preserve investment in cutting-edge technologies. This would mean: “The active Army would drop to between 380,000 and 450,000 troops [from a peak of 570,000]. The number of Navy carrier strike groups would be reduced from a target of 11 to eight or nine. The Marine Corps would be reduced from 182,000 troops to between 150,000 and 175,000. And the Pentagon would retire older Air Force bombers.”

Option 2 would be to preserve more forces in being while cutting investments in “the Air Force’s new bomber, submarine cruise missile upgrades, the F-35 Lightning II, cyber capabilities and special operations forces.”

Either way, the U.S. will suffer a dangerous loss of military capability and hence influence in the world at the same time that the long-term danger from China and the short-term dangers from Iran and al-Qaeda are only growing. Ultimately, history teaches that decline of international security and stability will have parlous consequences for the American economy (see, for worst-case scenarios, the 1930s and 1970s), which will ultimately necessitate a large military buildup and make projected budget savings illusory. It makes more sense to keep in existence the top-notch American armed forces as they have been developed at great cost and effort since the last period of major cuts in the 1970s. But that would require repealing sequestration, which appears increasingly unlikely.

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Must We Cut the Army to Expand the Navy?

Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of defense, has written a fine new book called Mayday, warning of the perilous decline of U.S. naval supremacy. It should be required reading in Washington. As you might expect, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations who is now at the Hoover Institution, gave the book a thumbs up in the Wall Street Journal. But while endorsing Cropsey’s warning about the dangers of allowing the Navy to decline too far, Roughead adds a curious dig at the army:

With its 286 ships, the U.S. Navy is now smaller than it was in 1917, when it boasted 342. The number is stuck, and the trend spans the administrations of both parties. We have spent heavily on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. Navy, which is central to our long-term strategic interests, languishes. Navies, unlike armies, take time to build—why the framers of our Constitution wrote of the imperative to “provide and maintain a Navy,” as opposed to the need to “raise and support an Army.”

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Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of defense, has written a fine new book called Mayday, warning of the perilous decline of U.S. naval supremacy. It should be required reading in Washington. As you might expect, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations who is now at the Hoover Institution, gave the book a thumbs up in the Wall Street Journal. But while endorsing Cropsey’s warning about the dangers of allowing the Navy to decline too far, Roughead adds a curious dig at the army:

With its 286 ships, the U.S. Navy is now smaller than it was in 1917, when it boasted 342. The number is stuck, and the trend spans the administrations of both parties. We have spent heavily on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. Navy, which is central to our long-term strategic interests, languishes. Navies, unlike armies, take time to build—why the framers of our Constitution wrote of the imperative to “provide and maintain a Navy,” as opposed to the need to “raise and support an Army.”

Although he does not expound on it in this book review, Roughead has previously proposed that we cut a further 200,000 personnel from the active duty army which is already supposed to shrink to 490,000 men and women even before sequestration takes effect. (He proposed at the same time adding 100,000 personnel to the National Guard and Reserve, as if reservist and active-duty units are interchangeable–they’re not.) His proposal for cutting the army, while increasing the navy, seems to be based on the assumption reflected in the book review–that armies can be far more quickly regenerated than navies.

It’s certainly true that naval ships take a long time to build–and it takes a long time to gain proficiency in operating them once they are added to the fleet. Granted, rifles, tanks, and helicopters don’t take as long to build and are easier to operate. But that doesn’t mean that an army can be generated with a snap of the fingers. We have learned this lesson time and again throughout our history in the early battles of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, among others–all of which exposed the inadequacies of ill-trained, ill-equipped recruits commanded, in many cases, by incompetent generals.

In point of fact, a professional, high-quality army takes a long time to develop–simply developing the capacity to be a competent battalion commander in today’s army can take 20 years. If we downsize the army excessively now, it will be no easy feat to replace lost experience on some future battlefield. History suggests we will pay a heavy price if we break up the high-quality, combined-arms ground forces we have today because, however unlikely it may look at the moment, the odds are that we will be engaged in another ground war sooner or later.

Roughead is right that we need to keep the U.S. Navy from shrinking further–and we even need to expand it. But it would be a mistake to eviscerate the army to pay for naval power. The U.S. is a full-service superpower that needs–and can afford–world-class forces on both soil and sea, not to mention in the skies.

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Defense Cuts Rest on Faulty Assumptions

Buried deep in this Wall Street Journal article on the future of the U.S. Army is this dismaying revelation: “Defense officials said the Army must shrink by an additional 100,000 soldiers if the across-the-board cuts remain, bringing the service to 390,000.”

Let’s put that figure into perspective. The army shrank by roughly a third after the end of the Cold War–from 730,000 active-duty personnel in 1990 to 491,000 in 1996. That was grossly inadequate to deal with the challenges of the post-9/11 world (or arguably the pre-9/11 world either), and so over the past decade the army slowly grew, reaching a peak strength of 557,000 in early 2012. A year later the army is down to 541,000 and shrinking fast.

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Buried deep in this Wall Street Journal article on the future of the U.S. Army is this dismaying revelation: “Defense officials said the Army must shrink by an additional 100,000 soldiers if the across-the-board cuts remain, bringing the service to 390,000.”

Let’s put that figure into perspective. The army shrank by roughly a third after the end of the Cold War–from 730,000 active-duty personnel in 1990 to 491,000 in 1996. That was grossly inadequate to deal with the challenges of the post-9/11 world (or arguably the pre-9/11 world either), and so over the past decade the army slowly grew, reaching a peak strength of 557,000 in early 2012. A year later the army is down to 541,000 and shrinking fast.

The plan had been, because of half a trillion dollars in defense budget cuts mandated by Congress in 2011, to cut army end-strength down to 490,000–i.e. roughly the pre-9/11 level. But sequestration has added another half-trillion dollars in cuts which, if not rescinded, will result in an army of 390,000–the smallest level since before World War II.

Such drastic cuts only make sense if you assume–as the Obama administration and many on Capitol Hill seem to–that we will never fight another major ground war in the future or that if we do we will have plenty of time to mobilize and train reservists and new recruits. Neither assumption is historically warranted.

First, wars today do not take place after an elaborate mobilization; more often they arrive out of the blue, as the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan did.

Second, despite our aversion to fighting more wars after Iraq and Afghanistan, there are still plenty of places where it is easy to imagine American combat troops being sent–in fact just about anywhere in the giant arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, in other words from Mali to Pakistan. That region is full of dangerous regimes and non-state actors and it is growing more unstable, not less. The danger to the U.S. is heightened by the fact that one country in that area (Pakistan) already has nuclear weapons, another is close to acquiring them (Iran), and others (Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) may yet follow suit.

Sending large numbers of U.S. grounds is not anyone’s preferred solution to the dangers emanating from this area–but even in a best-case scenario we will have to continue providing substantial security assistance and Special Operations missions to keep the threat under control. The worst-case scenarios (e.g., war with Iran, another 9/11 emanating from Pakistan) could, in fact, dictate large-scale ground deployments.

No matter how much we hate the idea of another major war, especially on the ground, prudence suggests we need to have the capability to fight and win–and the only way to achieve decisive results (i.e., change of regime) is through ground action. Ground troops can sometimes be provided by allies, such as the Libyan rebels, to complement American airpower, but we cannot rule out the possibility that in the future U.S. ground forces will have to be deployed.

It is the height of folly to cut our ground forces so much–and to degrade their readiness so markedly–that they will no longer be able to deploy in sufficient strength to win future wars. But that is precisely what we are now doing.

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Time to Correct Dysfunctional Navy Procurement

Pentagon bloat frustrates both Congress and ordinary taxpayers. Many on the left perceive of the Pentagon as a cash cow whose budget they can divert in order to fund ever more expensive entitlement programs. That strategy may delay a final reckoning about systemic economic issues, but it comes at a significant national security price.

Because of high seas and stormy weather, I had a bit of a Gilligan’s Island experience and was stranded for three days last week on a ship to which I was to lecture for only around four hours. Over subsequent days, I got to spend a good amount of time with the commanding officer, the executive officer, officers, and crew. While that ship appeared to be in better condition than most, there were problems with its electronics and computers. Indeed, stepping onto almost any U.S. ship is to step back in time when it comes to computers. Most computers are old and decrepit. If sailors and riders are lucky, they will handle at least Windows 98. Internet is spotty at best: It can take over an hour to send an email because of bandwidth issues, and even Google or Wikipedia can be difficult to access. It is one thing to complain about slow Internet access, but the sad fact is that slow computing is the symptom of a larger problem.

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Pentagon bloat frustrates both Congress and ordinary taxpayers. Many on the left perceive of the Pentagon as a cash cow whose budget they can divert in order to fund ever more expensive entitlement programs. That strategy may delay a final reckoning about systemic economic issues, but it comes at a significant national security price.

Because of high seas and stormy weather, I had a bit of a Gilligan’s Island experience and was stranded for three days last week on a ship to which I was to lecture for only around four hours. Over subsequent days, I got to spend a good amount of time with the commanding officer, the executive officer, officers, and crew. While that ship appeared to be in better condition than most, there were problems with its electronics and computers. Indeed, stepping onto almost any U.S. ship is to step back in time when it comes to computers. Most computers are old and decrepit. If sailors and riders are lucky, they will handle at least Windows 98. Internet is spotty at best: It can take over an hour to send an email because of bandwidth issues, and even Google or Wikipedia can be difficult to access. It is one thing to complain about slow Internet access, but the sad fact is that slow computing is the symptom of a larger problem.

Officers were ready with an explanation about why it is that pretty much every ship lags behind. When the Navy decides to order a ship, it essentially pre-pays because the budget is set at the start. Ships can take years to construct. Construction on the USS Gerald Ford, our country’s next aircraft carrier, began in 2005. When the ship is launched in 2015, its computers will already be a decade out of date. Technology certainly has advanced in the interim. When the Pentagon looks at the ship and decides it needs current capability rather than the capacity of yesteryear, it can cost tens of millions of dollars—if not hundreds of millions of dollars—to retrofit and redesign the original plans. It is not uncommon, therefore, for the Navy to be faced with a choice between a ship which is becoming obsolete almost as soon as it is launched, or one that will have exceeded its budget by 50-100 percent.

If there is a workaround, it is in contracting which mandates contemporary standards upon launching. It would be up to shipbuilding companies to gauge needs ahead of time rather than plan for the past. Such a change would require a new way of doing business in Pentagon acquisitions. Let us hope that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can find a way, because the cost of facing China or any other rising powers with a substandard fleet in this era of declining budgets will ultimately have an even higher cost.

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Sequestration Impact on Military Isn’t “Synthetic Hysteria”

Washington pundits–especially of the conservative stripe–continue to insist, as George Will wrote in a recent column, that all the talk of the disastrous impact of sequestration is “synthetic hysteria.” If only.

Actually, we are already seeing severe consequences for our military readiness even though the full brunt of the cuts has not yet taken effect–many will not be implemented for another month or more. But already the Navy has announced that in addition to canceling the deployment of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group to the Persian Gulf (which Will denounced, based on no actual evidence, as part of a “crude, obvious and shameful” campaign by the Navy “to pressure Congress into unraveling the sequester”), it will have to cancel eight other ship movements and ground four air wings.

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Washington pundits–especially of the conservative stripe–continue to insist, as George Will wrote in a recent column, that all the talk of the disastrous impact of sequestration is “synthetic hysteria.” If only.

Actually, we are already seeing severe consequences for our military readiness even though the full brunt of the cuts has not yet taken effect–many will not be implemented for another month or more. But already the Navy has announced that in addition to canceling the deployment of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group to the Persian Gulf (which Will denounced, based on no actual evidence, as part of a “crude, obvious and shameful” campaign by the Navy “to pressure Congress into unraveling the sequester”), it will have to cancel eight other ship movements and ground four air wings.

Two more air wings will be operating at minimum safe flying levels–i.e., flying fewer hours than judged necessary to maintain a high state of warfighting readiness. Military Times reports: “Basic flight training for pilot and flight officer trainees will halt in March.” Since the Navy only has nine active carrier air wings, this means that it has effectively lost nearly half of its aerial strike power.

There is still time to restore the combat effectiveness of the Navy and the other services, but that will require a recognition on the part of both Republicans and Democrats that a crisis is at hand. At the moment, however, most of the power brokers in Washington appear to be in denial mode, which means that our armed forces will pay a heavy price for partisan gridlock.

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Kamikaze Drones over the Strait of Hormuz

Like clockwork, every four months or so, one Iranian official or another will threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon assumes that Iran would seek to carry out its threats with mines, and so has deployed extra mine-sweepers to the region. Certainly, the Iranian navy would not be a match for the U.S. Navy. Anti-ship missiles are another concern, but it is a safe bet that not only the Defense Intelligence Agency, but also the militaries and intelligence agencies of most regional states, keep an eye on Iranian mobile missile launchers.

The latest news from Iran—if true—should raise new concerns and could undercut U.S. strategy for keeping the waterway open.

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Like clockwork, every four months or so, one Iranian official or another will threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon assumes that Iran would seek to carry out its threats with mines, and so has deployed extra mine-sweepers to the region. Certainly, the Iranian navy would not be a match for the U.S. Navy. Anti-ship missiles are another concern, but it is a safe bet that not only the Defense Intelligence Agency, but also the militaries and intelligence agencies of most regional states, keep an eye on Iranian mobile missile launchers.

The latest news from Iran—if true—should raise new concerns and could undercut U.S. strategy for keeping the waterway open.

While Tehran is prone to fantastic—and false—claims regarding its unmanned aerial vehicles, it is also true that it has made progress. Late last month, the Persian-language press reported successful tests of “suicide drones.” Such reports might be exaggerated, but it doesn’t take the most advanced technology to ram drones—perhaps packed with explosives—into ships (or helicopters, or other targets). If the U.S. Navy is assuming that Iranian mines pose the biggest problem for international shipping, the Iranians may have a surprise in store. It’s not 1988 anymore.

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Are We Repeating the Mistakes of the “Peace Dividend?”

A lot of conservatives seem to be taking the reflexive attitude that if President Obama is warning that sequestration will be disastrous, then it must a good thing. Witness this National Review symposium, wherein various contributors bemoan “the hysteria of President Obama, liberals in Congress, and the media over very small cuts in federal spending” and argue “let’s do it” because “sequestration is the only chance we have had, and probably ever will have, to cut any federal programs under President Obama.”

Time for a reality check. It’s not just President Obama who is warning of the dire consequences of sequestration. So are our foremost admirals and generals, men and women who have devoted their entire lives to the nation’s defense and can hardly be accused of being liberal Democrats–most are in fact conservative Republicans. The Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to testify to Congress about the terrible impact of sequestration and as more and more details emerge, their case becomes even stronger.

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A lot of conservatives seem to be taking the reflexive attitude that if President Obama is warning that sequestration will be disastrous, then it must a good thing. Witness this National Review symposium, wherein various contributors bemoan “the hysteria of President Obama, liberals in Congress, and the media over very small cuts in federal spending” and argue “let’s do it” because “sequestration is the only chance we have had, and probably ever will have, to cut any federal programs under President Obama.”

Time for a reality check. It’s not just President Obama who is warning of the dire consequences of sequestration. So are our foremost admirals and generals, men and women who have devoted their entire lives to the nation’s defense and can hardly be accused of being liberal Democrats–most are in fact conservative Republicans. The Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to testify to Congress about the terrible impact of sequestration and as more and more details emerge, their case becomes even stronger.

To get the details you have to skip the MSM, which tend to report only sweeping rhetoric, and instead read the defense-industry press, which has chapter and verse. See, for example, this report in AOL Defense, which notes “the Army already knows it will cancel all full-brigade wargames except for a single brigade that will deploy to Afghanistan, a mission the service insists it cannot shortchange.” It further notes “the service has already decided to defer essentially all maintenance at its bases – which will certainly cost more in the long run and may make life distinctly uncomfortable in the meantime.”

And beyond the issue of being able to train and maintain our soldiers, there is also the issue of how many soldiers we will have. The House Armed Services Committee predicts that if sequestration goes through the Marine Corps’ active-duty strength will fall from 200,000 personnel to 145,000 and the Army will fall from 569,000 to 425,000. That amounts to the loss of a quarter of all our ground forces. It would cut the Marine Corps down to its smallest size since 1950, before the start of the Korean War, and the U.S. Army down to its smallest size since 1940, before the American entry into World War II. Those conflicts should remind us of the catastrophic consequences of military unpreparedness of the kind we are now facing.

Unfortunately, neither President Obama nor congressional Republicans are treating this crisis with the gravity it deserves. The president has made clear he will hold the military hostage to his desire for more tax hikes–he has refused to endorse Republican plans that would achieve the same amount of budgetary savings without eviscerating military preparedness. Republicans, in turn, seem to be so enamored of budget cuts and so opposed to any tax hikes–even the closing of loopholes rather than raising marginal rates–that most of them are willing to see defense sacrificed instead.

This is a tragedy: We are in danger of repeating the same mistake we made after World War II, after Vietnam and after the Gulf War–all times when we cut defense excessively and subsequently paid a stiff price. It is particularly bizarre that we are in effect spending a “peace dividend” when there is in fact no peace—U.S. troops are still fighting in Afghanistan and in the War on Terror, and they are on hair-trigger alert to fight Iran if necessary. Yet at the same time we are exempting from cuts the actual causes of our fiscal crisis–runaway entitlement spending, in particular spending on Medicare and Medicaid.

I am not one of those who has argued that partisan gridlock in Washington endangers our standing as a superpower. I have always retained a large measure of optimism about the ability of our political system to work things out and reach solutions even to the most difficult problems. But now I am starting to think that perhaps the doomsayers have a point. This is as self-inflicted a wound as it possible to imagine.

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Sequestration and National Security

General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, has provided further details of what sequestration could mean for the army–and why it would be so devastating. Already the army is due to decline in size, because of existing budget cuts, from 570,000 active duty personnel today to 490,000 in a few years’ time. If sequestration occurs, Odierno says a total of 200,000 troops could be laid off—35% of the current force. That would result in the smallest army since the dark days of 1940 when, not coincidentally, German, Italian, and Japanese militarists were overrunning the globe.

Supporters of sequestration reply that it’s only fair the military absorb some cuts because of our fiscal crisis. But the military has already absorbed more than its share–unlike domestic programs. As Odierno reminded an audience at the Brookings Institution, in 2010 Secretary of Defense Bob Gates cancelled various procurement programs worth $300 billion, then in 2011 Congress enacted another $487 billion in cuts over 10 years. Thus the sequestration cuts, amounting to $500 billion, come on top of almost $800 billion in existing cuts. The drying up of funds for the war effort in Afghanistan will result in another major hit to the budget; that funding was used to pay for needed training and equipment refitting that will now have to be paid out of the regular defense budget.

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General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, has provided further details of what sequestration could mean for the army–and why it would be so devastating. Already the army is due to decline in size, because of existing budget cuts, from 570,000 active duty personnel today to 490,000 in a few years’ time. If sequestration occurs, Odierno says a total of 200,000 troops could be laid off—35% of the current force. That would result in the smallest army since the dark days of 1940 when, not coincidentally, German, Italian, and Japanese militarists were overrunning the globe.

Supporters of sequestration reply that it’s only fair the military absorb some cuts because of our fiscal crisis. But the military has already absorbed more than its share–unlike domestic programs. As Odierno reminded an audience at the Brookings Institution, in 2010 Secretary of Defense Bob Gates cancelled various procurement programs worth $300 billion, then in 2011 Congress enacted another $487 billion in cuts over 10 years. Thus the sequestration cuts, amounting to $500 billion, come on top of almost $800 billion in existing cuts. The drying up of funds for the war effort in Afghanistan will result in another major hit to the budget; that funding was used to pay for needed training and equipment refitting that will now have to be paid out of the regular defense budget.

Cumulatively, Odierno estimates, “if we implement the 2014 budget without sequestration, it’ll be a 45 percent reduction in the Army budget,” compared to the baseline of 2008. “If we implement sequestration, it’ll be over 50 percent.”

Little wonder than, that Odierno says “today, in my opinion, the greatest threat to our national security is the fiscal uncertainty resulting from the lack of predictability in the budget cycle.”

His words should not be dismissed as the pronouncements of a general bent on preserving his personal prerogatives. They are, instead, the words of a man who has devoted his life to the defense of his country and now sees our front line of defense in jeopardy of collapse. It is hard to exaggerate just how dire the situation is now, especially given that both Democrats and Republicans say there is virtually no chance of reaching a deal before sequestration hits on March 1.

The problem is that President Obama is demanding “revenue enhancements”—i.e., tax increases—along with further cuts to the defense budget as part of any deal to stop sequestration. Republicans, having already gone along on tax hikes once, aren’t budging this time around. Some privately even welcome sequestration; for instance John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that made the pro-sequestration case without once mentioning its impact on defense.

This is the height of irresponsibility all around. Sequestration will have little impact on our fiscal situation (even eliminating the entire Department of Defense will not eliminate the budget deficit) but it will have devastating consequences for our military readiness in ways that will endanger our long-term security. In an ideal world lawmakers would reach a deal to cut entitlement spending instead since that is the real source of our budget woes. In today’s Washington, however, that won’t happen. If Republicans have no choice but to agree to tax hikes to stop sequestration, so be it: Almost any price is worth paying to prevent the evisceration of our most vital military capabilities.

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Army Memo: Sequestration Means “Rapid Atrophy of Unit Combat Skills”

The Marine Corps has already spelled out the likely consequences of sequestration. So has the Navy, which has already cancelled an aircraft carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf. Now comes the Army. It has just released a memo laying out the impact of $18 billion in cuts it is expected to endure if sequestration occurs next month.

The Army will do everything it needs to do to make sure that units rotating to Afghanistan and South Korea are fully prepared for combat. But to do that it will have to stint on training and readiness for the rest of the force. The memo says that the effect of this “shortfall” will be “devastating to training and readiness in FY13 and affects FY14 and beyond.”  

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The Marine Corps has already spelled out the likely consequences of sequestration. So has the Navy, which has already cancelled an aircraft carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf. Now comes the Army. It has just released a memo laying out the impact of $18 billion in cuts it is expected to endure if sequestration occurs next month.

The Army will do everything it needs to do to make sure that units rotating to Afghanistan and South Korea are fully prepared for combat. But to do that it will have to stint on training and readiness for the rest of the force. The memo says that the effect of this “shortfall” will be “devastating to training and readiness in FY13 and affects FY14 and beyond.”  

The memo continues: “These cumulative reductions will distress and shock Army installations and their surrounding communities with terminations of temporary and term employees, wide-scale reduction of support contracts with more than 3,000 industry partners, and furlough all 251K Army civilians for up to 22 days.”

The cost for long-term readiness is even more distressing: “Shortfalls in Professional Military Education/Training means Soldiers will join units without requisite training and preparation.  These lost capabilities require years to reinstate and some cannot be reversed.  The strategic impact is a rapid atrophy of unit combat skills with a failure to meet demands of the National Military Strategy by the end of this year.”

Soldiers joining units “without requisite training and preparation”? Those words should set off alarm bells in Washington–before we repeat the “hollow army” experiences of the 1970s which culminated in the humiliation of Desert One.

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Lack of Money Delays Carrier Deployment

Sequestration is already hitting. It’s no longer about trimming the fat, but rather about undercutting U.S. national security. I was supposed to head off on the USS Harry S. Truman tomorrow as it began its deployment toward the Persian Gulf. I just received the call now not to bother. From the press down at Hampton Roads, Virginia:

U.S. officials say that budget strains will force the Pentagon to cut its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf area from two carriers to one. As a result, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman won’t deploy from Norfolk on Friday as planned.

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Sequestration is already hitting. It’s no longer about trimming the fat, but rather about undercutting U.S. national security. I was supposed to head off on the USS Harry S. Truman tomorrow as it began its deployment toward the Persian Gulf. I just received the call now not to bother. From the press down at Hampton Roads, Virginia:

U.S. officials say that budget strains will force the Pentagon to cut its aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf area from two carriers to one. As a result, the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman won’t deploy from Norfolk on Friday as planned.

Officials say Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has formally approved a plan to keep just one carrier in the region. There have been two aircraft carrier groups there for most of the last two years.

The expected announcement is the biggest indication yet that looming defense cuts have affected the way the U.S. military operates – an effect that will only grow as the cuts materialize. It was a highly symbolic move with lots of practical consequences for Hampton Roads.

It affects more than 5,000 sailors assigned to the carrier, its air wing and the ships that were to accompany it to the Gulf. Sailors routinely put their cars in storage, give up their apartments and sometimes move their families closer to loved ones while they’re gone. Carrier deployments now last around 8 months, meaning the crew likely planned to be gone until October.

It’s time to put aside the political posturing and have a serious conversation about national security. The implications of the past months’ games are no longer theoretical: They will undercut our strategic position in the region at a time we can least afford to be absent.

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GOP Caving on Sequestration?

Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

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Reading this Politico article this morning has really depressed me: “House GOP thinks unthinkable on defense cuts.” It reports: “A new breed of conservatives in the House cares so much about cutting spending they’re willing to extend that to the budget for bullets and bombs, too — in this case, by letting $500 billion in across-the-board automatic budget cuts over 10 years take effect, alongside a similar number for domestic agencies.”

This is crazy on many levels. Start with the policy implications: The Pentagon can’t afford another $500 billion of cuts on top of the $500 billion or so that has already been cut–not at a time when the armed forces must grapple with new missions such as dealing with the spread of al-Qaeda in Africa and an upsurge in cyber attacks.

President Obama’s defense secretary, noted budget hawk Leon Panetta, has said that sequestration would be a “disaster” with “a devastating effect on not only national defense but I think on the rest of the country.”

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to make any cuts in defense. Former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy has some good suggestions in the Wall Street Journal for cutting bloated headquarters, eliminating unneeded bases, making military medical benefits less generous, and paring back the civilian workforce. But significantly she attaches no price tag to the reductions she seeks. The likelihood is that all of her savings, even if enacted, would not make a significant dent in the defense budget given that our military capabilities must grow to deal with threats from Africa to China. In any case sequestration is a mindless process of across-the-board hacking that will do major damage to vital programs; it is the very antithesis of the kind of rational pruning and rebalancing that Fluornoy suggests.

Now to the politics: In the last election, there was evidence that Republicans had lost their decades-old advantage on foreign policy and national security to a party led by the president who ordered the Osama bin Laden raid. How on earth will Republicans ever regain their advantage on these crucial issues if they come out as more anti-defense than Obama’s own defense secretary on the issue of sequestration?

I sympathize with the concerns of House Republicans about runaway spending. The growing public debt is a major concern that if left unaddressed could hamper American productivity and power in the long term. But the way to deal with this issue isn’t to whack away at the defense budget, which even if entirely eliminated would still not close our staggering, trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits. Congress needs to tackle entitlement reform, like it or not. President Obama’s opposition may make that impossible in the short-term but eviscerating our defense capabilities–and thereby making the world a more dangerous place–isn’t a viable alternative.

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U.S. Headed for a Hollow Military?

Sequestration–the process of automatically cutting more than $500 billion from defense spending over the next decade–was momentarily delayed by a last-minute deal between Congress and the White House reached just before it was due to take effect on January 2. But the delay isn’t long–unless a new deal is reached, sequestration will hit on March 2. And odds are no deal will be reached. As Paul Ryan noted on TV this weekend, sequestration is likely to go into effect. This is because the price that the White House is demanding to prevent it–which would include further cuts in defense spending along with tax hikes–is too high for Republicans to stomach.

We don’t know exactly how this process is going to play out, but the Navy has released an instructive memo detailing the very real damage that sequestration will do to our defense capabilities. As summarized by Defense News, the consequences of sequestration include:

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Sequestration–the process of automatically cutting more than $500 billion from defense spending over the next decade–was momentarily delayed by a last-minute deal between Congress and the White House reached just before it was due to take effect on January 2. But the delay isn’t long–unless a new deal is reached, sequestration will hit on March 2. And odds are no deal will be reached. As Paul Ryan noted on TV this weekend, sequestration is likely to go into effect. This is because the price that the White House is demanding to prevent it–which would include further cuts in defense spending along with tax hikes–is too high for Republicans to stomach.

We don’t know exactly how this process is going to play out, but the Navy has released an instructive memo detailing the very real damage that sequestration will do to our defense capabilities. As summarized by Defense News, the consequences of sequestration include:

A drastic cutback in the number of strike group deployments. Aircraft flying hours in the Middle East cut by more than half. Naval operations stopped around Latin America and reduced in the Pacific. Four of the fleet’s nine air wings shut down starting in March. Two carrier strike group deployments “extended indefinitely.” Only partial training for two more strike groups.

Similar consequences will be felt by the other services. As the Marine Corps Times notes, “The Marine Corps is bracing for sudden and severe budget cuts that could throttle programs and services at installations across the globe if Congress and the Obama administration fail to act by March 1.”

Also affected will be the Defense Department’s 800,000 civilian employees. Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters “that if Congress does not come up with a way to avoid mandatory budget cuts by March 1, hundreds of thousands of Pentagon civilian employees will face furloughs and reduced paychecks by April.”

Some of these parlous consequences could be stopped and even rolled back should Congress reach a deal on sequestration after it goes into effect. But given the partisan gridlock on the Hill, there is a very real chance that these cutbacks will not be reversed. If so, the damage to our armed forces will be serious at a time when they confront more threats than ever before–including the Iranian nuclear program, Chinese cyberattacks, Islamist gains in Mali and other countries in Africa and the Middle East, and the instability emanating from the Syrian civil war.

How anyone thinks we can chop defense spending at a time likes this is beyond me; but that is where Washington is heading. The result is likely to be, heaven help us, another “hollow” military like the one in the post-Vietnam years in the 1970s.

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