A few weeks ago, President Obama released his much ballyhooed strategic blueprint, called “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” It called for a force that would be “agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced,” with “cutting-edge capabilities,” staffed by “the highest-quality, battle-tested professionals,” and with a “global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.” Today, the Pentagon unveiled details of the new defense budget which make clear none of these promises will be kept.
The most defensible elements of the new cutbacks are rolling back military pay increases and increasing the cost of Tricare insurance, both of which are generous by civilian standards–even if it does call into question the president’s pledge to “keep faith with our troops, military families, and veterans.” Our faith in those brave men and women is truly strained if not broken altogether by the decision to fire 100,000 of them–80,000 soldiers and 20,000 Marines who are being let go to find jobs in an anemic economy.
What of the promise to sustain U.S. global leadership and even to increase power projection in the Pacific? It’s hard to see how we can possibly do this when the current budget once again slows down acquisition of the F-35, the critical fifth-generation fighter needed to counter China. Six of 60 Air Force tactical squadrons will be eliminated altogether, further hurting our power projection capabilities. Also gone will be 27 giant C-5As and 65 of the smaller C-130s which are needed to move troops and materiel around the world–the centerpiece of the not-so-new “lily-pad” strategy that Don Rumsfeld had pushed and which Leon Panetta has now revived. This is premised on the idea of reducing our permanent overseas presence in favor of moving small numbers of troops for short-term exercises and Special Operations-type raids. However, with the reduction in the number of our cargo aircraft it will be harder to accomplish that.
Our fleet–already the smallest since the early years of the 20th century–will suffer more cuts, too: “To find savings,” the New York Times reports, “the Navy will retire seven cruisers, and slow work on amphibious ships and an attack submarine. Two littoral combat ships will be eliminated.” All of these cutbacks are coming, mind you, in the midst of China’s rapid military buildup which is already shifting the balance of power in the Western Pacific against the Seventh Fleet. To keep pace we need to build more ships–not mothball those we already have.
The administration claims we should not be worried about all these cuts–why, we are expanding Special Operations Forces and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Both SOF and UAVs are important capabilities, but they should be seen as supplements to, rather than replacements for, conventional forces. It appears, ironically, the Obama administration is being seduced by the same techno-utopian vision that entranced Rumsfeld–of doing more with less. The fault in that line of thinking was displayed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we quickly found out there was no substitute for a humble rifleman to impose our will on the enemy at bayonet point. Now the Obama administration is fooling itself into thinking we will never have to fight another major ground war again. That is a myth we have fallen prey to many times before–only to have a painful disabusing. You would think we would have learned our lesson. Apparently not.
Obama’s Defense Budget: Broken Promises
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Trump starts a fight, but will he win it?
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us (me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman) discussing the weekend of knee-taking and Trump-tweeting about patriotism and the NFL and blah blah blah while North Korea threatens hydrogen bomb-testing and Puerto Rico reverts to a state of nature. And we enjoy the decline and fall of Valerie Plame. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
What is he winning exactly?
Conservative political analysts seem so wrapped up in the matter of whether or not Donald Trump can, no one has given much thought to whether he should.
The latest national scandal, which will surely be as fleeting as its myriad predecessors, was whipped up by the president on a whim while he fed off the adoration of his fans at an Alabama political rally over the weekend. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of the NFL owners when somebody disrespects the flag to say get that sonofabitch off the field?” the president boomed. The crowd roared, Trump absorbed the positive feedback, and the nation’s opinion makers on the right and the left responded to the president’s goading with Pavlovian predictability. Trump so enjoyed the quivering of the raw nerve he touched that he spent the following morning attacking a variety of African-American professional athletes and disinviting them to the White House on, ostensibly, patriotic grounds.
What urgent controversy was the president addressing? Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became the subject of national scrutiny when he opted to protest police violence targeting African-Americans by kneeling for the national anthem, hasn’t played in the National Football League this year. He became a free agent when his contract elapsed in March, and another team did not sign him.
Isolated episodes of questionable police violence against African-Americans persist, like the tragic 2016 murder of Philando Castile—a case in which moral justice, as opposed to the purely procedural variety, has proven elusive. So, too, do contentions that some police departments are eager to cover that violence up, like the three Chicago officers indicated for conspiring to hide evidence related to the fatal 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. But were there mass Black Lives Matter protests paralyzing American urban centers when the president made his remarks, as there had been in years past? No.
The president decided to ignite a controversy, and the nation’s culturally conservative commentators—even those sympathetic to claims that justice is routinely denied blacks in over-policed portions of the country—proceeded to deem Trump the winner of this manufactured kerfuffle. National Review’s Rich Lowry noted that Trump’s antipathy toward Kaepernick and those in professional sports who sympathize with his tactics called his agitation indicative of a “gut-level political savvy.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson agreed: “Donald Trump Did Not Start This. But He Will Finish It. And He Will Win.”
As a purely dispassionate political analysis, these assertions have undeniable merit. The majority of the country does not see the American flag or the national anthem of the United States as symbols of oppression, and a majority in 2016 did not sympathize with those who “take the knee.” They might think that African-Americans, in particular, have a legitimate claim to make against the state, but see the broad brush with which some protesters tar the country as unfair to a nation that has sacrificed much to secure freedom and egalitarianism for both its citizens and the whole of mankind. And perhaps white Americans who resent these protesters see Trump as a medium through which they can communicate this point of view to a cultural media establishment that rejects it in its entirety and with overwhelming, righteous passion.
But is Trump winning anything beyond a likely short-lived reprieve from a focus on the fact that he has yet to secure a legislative achievement that will outlast his presidency? No. He has, instead, expertly torn asunder existing fissures in the country, exploiting them for his own temporary political gain. Is Trump as the avatar of true patriotism, self-sacrifice, and national healing toward a racial consensus? Is he going to truly advance the goals of his so-called “silent majority?” Or is he going to increase tensions? Has he brought the nation together, or did he simply embitter white Americans and alienate their black counterparts? Is this leadership? Is it conservative? The right once knew the answers to these questions, but it took a Democrat to make them see it.
To call Trump’s crusade or the campaign of kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner a culture war annoys activists on both sides. For the kneelers, they are protesting state-sponsored bloodletting; their cause is existential. For those who stand, the very definition of their nation is at stake, and the security it provides them and their families with it. But no one so protested when it was Barack Obama serving on the front lines of what most agreed was a culture war.
In 2014, along with making a point of only calling on women during a press conference and executing a variety of legally dubious (and doomed) executive actions on immigration, Obama indulged his liberal critics by finally speaking out more boldly on the issue of race in popular media venues like Black Entertainment Television. Following the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in a chokehold after he tried to sell loosie cigarettes, the president went out of his way to endorse the actions of professional athletes who were disgusted by the injustice.
“You know, I think LeBron [James] did the right thing,” Barack Obama told People Magazine regarding the NBA star’s decision to wear a t-shirt bearing Garner’s last reported words: “I can’t breathe.” Obama compared James to the icons of led the fight for civil rights. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness,” he insisted. “I’d like to see more athletes do that—not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”
Anti-Trump activists who are deservedly incensed by Trump’s behavior will claim that there is no comparison between these two assertions, but that’s how precedents work. Those who inherit them build upon them in ways that are not always optimal or prudent. That’s why presidents should be cautious about setting them. Barack Obama spoke more eloquently and with greater delicacy on the issue of race than Trump is capable of or interested in mimicking, but the 44th President did not heal divisions with these comments. There was no legislative remedy available to Obama to address the issue of excessive local policing targeting minorities. Because such behavior violates existing laws, it is a matter only of enforcement. That’s why Obama’s supporters demanded only that the president speak his mind on race and discrimination, and were largely satisfied when he did.
Culture wars beget a response because they almost never end—not totally. It’s too much to expect those who cheered on Obama’s decision to wade into contentious cultural matters to engage in any introspection, but conservatives should be expected to recall the admonitions they once issued not all that long ago. The president’s words matter a great deal, and he should be supremely careful about deploying them. They can and often do yield more harm than good.
Competition is a scary thing.
Soon after last summer’s U.K. vote to leave the European Union, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched a publicity campaign to reassure investors that his city would remain a dynamic, global hub after Brexit. “London Is Open” was the slogan, and it was supposed to “show the world that London remains entrepreneurial, international and full of creativity and possibility.”
So much for that. Friday’s decision by the city’s transport regulator not to renew Uber’s license suggests that Khan’s London is closed to competition and in thrall to local special interests.
The regulator, Transport for London, said the decision was based on Uber’s alleged lack of corporate responsibility in a variety of areas, particularly public safety. Yet there is no Uber-driven safety crisis in London. If Uber has made missteps, as any company might, putting 40,000 drivers out of work and inconveniencing 3.5 million London riders is a terrible way to respond.
Public safety is a pretext. The Uber ban comes after years of lobbying–and strikes and bullying–by the city’s black-taxi cartel. Before Uber came along, the industry’s high barriers to entry shielded black taxis from competition. It takes tens of thousands of pounds to buy a black cab and years to acquire “the knowledge”–drivers’ vaunted ability to memorize and instantly recall the best way to any destination.
The advent of GPS and ride-sharing meant that having the knowledge wasn’t all that special. Rather than try to outcompete Uber by offering better prices and service, the black taxis continued to charge outrageously overpriced fares. And they sought to defeat ride-sharing politically. Now they have succeeded. The losers are riders who used ride-sharing for fast, reliable, and accountable service.
The first black taxi I ever took, in 2014, took me from Heathrow Airport to Euston, in central London. It cost nearly £100 (or $170 at the time). That taught me early on to rely on my Uber app, and since then I have taken hundreds of rides. Defenders of the ban point to pre-booked minicab services and the like that often cost less or about the same as Uber. Yet none of those services offer the speed, ease, and pickup accuracy that Uber does. Black taxis don’t routinely serve many low-income neighborhoods, moreover, whereas Uber works wherever people have smartphones.
If you leave a personal item in a black cab and pay cash, there is no way to recover it. With Uber and similar apps, you can immediately track down your driver, and he will usually return the item to you within hours. As for safety and sexual assault: Rachel Cunliffe pointed out in the Spectator that Uber is the far safer option for female riders, who don’t have to trawl the streets looking for taxis. Every ride and every driver is tracked.
The Uber ban is the triumph of protectionism over innovation and clientelism over consumer choice. London is not open.
A boon to America, the region, and the world.
The Kurds have been a people without a state for centuries. Monday’s independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish zone is an important step toward rectifying this historic injustice, and I believe the U.S. is making a grave mistake by opposing the vote.
The Trump administration announced its displeasure in a September 15 statement, noting that the referendum “is distracting from the effort to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” It added: “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the White House said, should work out its differences with Baghdad through dialogue.
Not now, go away, in other words. The statement reflected the sort of rigid adherence to Washington dogma that too often prevents America from seizing the opportunities presented by the tectonic shifts in the Middle East. The Trump administration failed even to nod at Kurdish aspirations, or offer an alternative timeline if the current moment is too inconvenient. This was an unnecessary slap when there are compelling moral and strategic reasons for creating a Kurdish state in northern Iraq sooner than later.
The Kurds got by far the worst treatment during the decades of Baathist rule in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of them in the 1970s. Then, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, he set out to destroy the Kurdish community. The regime fired chemical weapons at Kurdish civilians, summarily executed men and boys, and sent entire villages to concentration camps.
President George H.W. Bush’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in 1991 granted Iraqi Kurds protection against Saddam’s depredations and a measure of autonomy. The Kurds used the opening, and the one provided by the 2003 invasion, to develop institutions of self-government. Iraqi Kurds constitute a coherent nation. They stand out in a region full of non-nation-states in various stages of disintegration. Kurds speak a common language, albeit with regional variations. Most are Sunni Muslims, though there are Christians and even a very few Jews among them, as well. They have deep historical ties to their territory. Their culture sets them apart, visibly, from their neighbors. They have distinct national institutions. And they already enjoy quasi-state recognition in the corridors of power in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.
Iraqi Kurds, moreover, share what Douglas Feith has described as the key subjective factor in nationhood: a “type of fellow feeling” that is “an extension of the affection people tend to have for their family members.” Whatever their tribal differences—and these are real—Kurds living in Erbil or Dohuk today look upon other Kurds, not Iraqis, as their true compatriots. The bonds of Kurdish sympathy are much stronger and more enduring than those of Iraqi nationalism, if the latter means much at all.
Taken together, these factors mean that Iraqi Kurds are ripe for statehood. The Arabs have 22 states, and the Turks, Iranians, and Jews each have one—so why shouldn’t the Kurds enjoy statehood? There is no good answer to this question.
Then, too, Iraqi Kurdistan is vibrant and free. In Erbil today, within an hour’s drive from what used to be the second capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” you can enjoy a beer, surf a largely unrestricted Internet, and criticize the government without having to fear death squads. You won’t hear chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” on the streets. There is corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to be sure, and a degree of political nepotism that would make Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump blush. But by regional standards, KRG governance is more than acceptable.
An independent Kurdistan, moreover, will bear strategic fruit for the U.S. It could serve as a counterweight, however small, to Iranian hegemony. KRG leaders have taken a moderate, pragmatic line with all of their neighbors. That is wise policy, given the region’s size and strength relative to the likes of Iran and Turkey. Even so, the introduction of a new, fully sovereign Kurdish actor would interrupt Tehran’s so-called Shiite crescent stretching from Sanaa to Beirut. Today Iraq is trapped in the crescent. An independent Kurdistan wouldn’t be. It would irk the mullahs still more if this new state turned out to be a democratic success story. Conversely, by blocking Kurdish aspirations, the U.S. is putting itself in the same camp as Iran.
Most important, friendship should mean something. Iraqi Kurdish forces fought valiantly alongside the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. When the jihadist army seemed invincible, it was Kurdish fighters who stopped its march across Iraq (and Syria). As Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani told me in 2015, “In this entire area the Kurds are probably the most pro-American people that you can find. Forever we will be thankful for the U.S. support since the day of toppling Saddam’s regime.”
If Washington keeps neglecting and mistreating friends, America’s credit rating in the region will suffer irreparable harm. Responsible, pro-American populations, like the Iraqi Kurds, deserve American support.
The liberals strike back.
Given his reputation for favoring even wildly impractical progressive policy objectives, few might have guessed that the first prominent liberal to stand athwart the Democratic Party’s reckless lurch to the left would be Joe Biden. With liberals fawning over progressive firebrands and amid the growing unanimity around the notion that there is no social and economic challenge that cannot be solved by throwing money at it, the former vice president has emerged as a vocal opponent of at least one idea popular among liberal reformers and libertarian technocrats alike: a universal basic income.
“The theory is that automation will result in so many lost jobs that the only plausible answer is some type of guaranteed government check with no strings attached,” Biden wrote in a post for the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute.
“While I appreciate concerns from Silicon Valley executives about what their innovations may do to American incomes, I believe they’re selling American workers short,” he continued. “Our children and grandchildren deserve the promise we’ve had: the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work.”
Now, before we go congratulating Biden’s attack on indolence and his tacit acknowledgment that material incentives to be productive have a better record than their alternatives, it’s important to acknowledge that Biden may, in fact, be endorsing the traditional liberal position.
As far back as 2013, progressive activist and former MSNBC host Krystal Ball advocated the adoption of a “mincome” as a means of eliminating poverty. “The basic concept is simple,” she continued. “Every non-incarcerated adult citizen gets a monthly check from the government,” she said. But there’s a catch: “Other safety net programs are jettisoned to pay, and poverty is eliminated.” Just like that!
The problem with this proposition is the notion that progressive policy advocates would ever consent to the elimination of any anti-poverty program for any reason, particularly in order to pave the way for one that is “universal” (e.g., not directed toward uniquely threatened or preferred constituents).
“I’m not against a guaranteed income because I think that it would make the government too big,” American University professor emerita and liberal economist Barbara Bergmann told PBS. “I think government ought to be much bigger.” She noted, accurately, that the idea government could eliminate poverty and hardship by disbursing, say, $11,000 annually to every citizen is nonsense and doesn’t take into account disparate needs. Given the political inclinations of the present Democratic Party, the notion that any candidate could successfully run on a platform that consists of paring back bloated entitlement programs is delusional.
As Oren Cass wrote for National Review, a “mincome” would soon take its rightful place in the pantheon of sprawling American welfare-state programs alongside Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act’s provisions for individuals and corporations. Further, such a program would alter Americans’ perceptions of their relationship to the state; for the first time in American history, the government would be transformed into every American’s first and most essential source of well-being. And contrary to the protestations of UBI proponents, it would by necessity undermine the value of work and productivity. “Stripped of its essential role as the way to earn a living, work would instead be an activity one engaged in by choice, for enjoyment, or to afford nicer things,” Cass noted.
For the social-justice left, there is one other attractive element to the UBI—one so subversive it is barely spoken above a whisper outside venues that care little for how they are perceived by the respectable sort. “In recent years, a UBI has been embraced in particular by the post-productivist left, which carries a strong feminist and ecological bent and rejects the traditional left’s valorization of labor and the working class,” wrote Jacobin Magazine’s Shannon Ikebe.
She said there were actually two kinds of a UBI—the kind on which you can live comfortably and the kind on which you can’t. She obviously prefers the latter. Her argument soon devolves into neo-Marxist prattle, blathering on about how an empowered working class free from the need to produce would create capital flight and divestment, increasing class divisions and, eventually, compelling us to reengage with “the age-old question of the ownership of the means of production.” That’s only relevant insofar as it provides a window into the thinking of the kind of politics that finds the UBI an attractive proposition.
It’s a funny kind of Marxism that looks down its nose at labor and those who perform it. You can, however, see how that would appeal to Democrats who resent having to appeal to those backwater blue-collar voters who lost faith in the Democratic Party under Barack Obama or—to their eternal disgrace—voted for Trump. That’s precisely the kind of mentality that Joe Biden (who is originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania, if you needed reminding) would dedicate himself to combatting.
The fight over a UBI is a fascinating glimpse at the sub rosa ideological battles being waged within the Democratic coalition. Biden’s jab at the concept is, no doubt, self-interested, but it comes from a place of pride in the traditional American ethos of personal responsibility and industriousness. Unfortunately for him and those who would join him in this internecine fight, they are vastly outmanned.