Traditionally, military planners have operated under a worst-case scenario: i.e., what do we need to have in place to respond if nothing goes as planned? The Obama administration and Congress appear to be operating under a best-case scenario: i.e., what is the minimum force we can field on the assumption that nothing will go terribly wrong?
Thus the new defense budget, being unveiled today, which cuts the army’s active-duty force size to the smallest level since before World War II–just 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a wartime high of 570,000, although even that figure was painfully inadequate to allow the U.S. to respond to two unforeseen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As critics of the Bush administration–including Senator Barack Obama–were once fond of pointing out, Bush never sent enough troops to stabilize Iraq until 2007 and that commitment was only made possible by keeping a ludicrously small force in Afghanistan, once known as the “necessary” war. The failure to send more troops early on allowed the Taliban to rebound from near-defeat in 2001 and allowed various insurgent groups to sprout all over Iraq.
So if 570,000 troops were not enough to handle such relatively weak foes as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, how on earth would 440,000 troops be able to handle more robust contingencies–unlikely but not impossible–such as simultaneous wars with Iran and North Korea and a stabilization mission in, say, Yemen? The answer is that they couldn’t.
Actually the situation is even worse than the news would have you believe. Because the army’s plan to cut down to 440,000 to 450,000 is premised on the assumption that Congress will continue to provide relief from half a trillion dollars in sequestration cuts. But the budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray only provides sequestration relief in 2014 and 2015; unless Congress is willing to turn off sequestration in future years, the army will have to go even lower in end-strength.
Moreover, the defense budget includes modest cuts in personnel spending–spending on pay, pensions, and health care–which are long overdue but which are likely to be blocked by Congress, as was the case with a recent attempt to cut cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees by a measly one percent. Unless Congress goes along with cuts to personnel costs, which now constitute half of the defense budget, other parts of the budget–including, no doubt, the army’s end-strength–will have to endure further scaling back.
That is a responsible decline in military strength only if you assume that we will never fight another major land war, or engage in simultaneous stabilization and counterinsurgency operations. And that, in turn, is a tenable assumption only if you assume that the laws of history have been repealed and a new era is dawning in which the U.S. will be able to protect all of its vital interests through drone strikes and commando raids. We all hope that’s the case but, as the saying has it, hope isn’t a strategy. Except, it seems, in Washington defense circles today.
If history teaches anything, it is that the era of land wars is not over and that we will pay a heavy price in the future for our unpreparedness–as we have paid in blood at the beginning of every major war in American history. Our failure to learn from history is stunning and (from a historian’s standpoint) disheartening but not, alas, terribly surprising: Throughout history, supposedly enlightened elites have been able to convince themselves that the era of conflict is over and a new age is dawning. The fact that they have always been wrong before does not, somehow, lead them to question those assumptions in the present day, because this is such a convenient belief to have.
Today, for both Republicans and Democrats, the president and Congress, these hope-based assumptions about defense spending allow them to put off the truly difficult decisions about cutting entitlement spending. But at what cost? If history is any guide, the cost of unpreparedness will be steep and will be borne by future generations of American troops.
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The Defense Budget vs. History
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A flawed system fails.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, Democrats had a good laugh at the Republican predicament—and who could blame them? Observing as a neophyte celebrity dispatched with one capable and well-groomed contender after another with just 25 to 35 percent of the vote is hilarious—that is, when it’s not happening to you. Fortunately for Republicans, they might soon get their own chance at schadenfreude in watching the Democrats fight it out.
With the political winds blowing stiffly in Republican lawmakers’ faces, a number of prominent GOP officeholders have opted out of a re-election bid in 2018. Among them, California’s Darrell Issa and Ed Royce—two high-profile Republicans from competitive districts where the president is deeply unpopular. The opportunity for Democrats in these and other Golden State districts is so obvious, in fact, that it has yielded a bumper crop of candidates. For the Democratic Party, that’s a problem.
Since 2010, California has been operating on an arcane system that was designed to be more representative of voters’ will. Rather than holding traditional primaries in which the top vote-getting Republican and Democratic candidates face off against one another in the general election, California holds a blanket, non-partisan primary in which the top two finishers—regardless of partisan affiliation—proceed to the general election. In theory, this was supposed to enhance the responsiveness of the political process and to allow politicians—mostly Democrats, let’s be honest—to face a competitive challenge for reelection in districts where the opposition party was not competitive. It was supposed to be a reform that “will change the political landscape in California,” said then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “finally giving voters the power to truly hold politicians accountable.” But the new system’s flaws soon became apparent.
Following the 2010 census, California’s 31st congressional district was transformed from a competitive landscape into an area in which Democrats held a five-point registration advantage; tough territory for incumbent Republican Congressman Gary Miller. In 2012, then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar decided to challenge the incumbent, but he was joined by a series of other Democratic and Republican candidates. Despite being the top Democratic vote-getter in the district, he finished behind two Republican candidates who both advanced to the general election. Aguilar eventually won his seat in Congress, but not before his name became a verb associated with this new system’s undemocratic pitfalls. Today, with Democrats crawling over one another for the shot to run for Congress in a favorable environment, California’s Dems are bracing for a cascade of Aguilars.
When the top-two system was put in place following a referendum, Republicans who opposed it said it would inevitably become anti-democratic in practice. “This is a process that lends itself to back-room dealing, to big decisions being made by small groups of people,” said former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring. He was absolutely right. Politico revealed on Thursday that Democratic power brokers spent the week frantically working the phones to persuade, cajole, entice, or intimidate uncompetitive Democrats converging on GOP-led districts to get out of the race before the filing deadline. Their efforts have not been as fruitful as they’d have liked, and many races will likely see a glut of Democratic candidates who functionally serve to protect the Republican candidates in the race from the voters’ rebuke.
This system also lends itself to gaming. In California’s 48th District, the GOP maintains a substantial voter registration advantage, but it was one of seven Republican-led districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016—districts that represent the foundational building blocks of the Democratic Party’s strategy to retake the House of Representatives. There, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, whose conspicuous efforts to shield Vladimir Putin from due censure tie him to one of Donald Trump’s most unlovely traits, is not popular and his fundraising has been underwhelming. He faced a series of qualified Democratic challengers, any one of whom has a chance of victory in November. But Rohrabacher might have received a reprieve in the form of an unexpected challenge from within his own party by Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh—a popular, connected, and well-known figure in this district. Now, with eight Democrats vying to consolidate the modest liberal vote share in California’s 48th, “A Republican-only top two runoff is possible here in November,” wrote Golden State handicappers Rob Pyers and Darry Sragow.
Nehring prophesized in 2010 that this defective system would create incentives for moneyed interests and party bosses to exert their influence in an effort to disenfranchise lesser-known candidates without the means to compete. Thus, this supposedly responsive new system would, in fact, lead to the return of the fabled “smoke-filled rooms” from which candidates emerged after an opaque selection process. “We’ll be forced to turn to nominating conventions,” he complained. Nehring might have been right about that, too, but his implication that this would be an unwelcome development is questionable.
Political observers who have marveled over Democrat Conor Lamb’s special-election victory in a Pennsylvania district that voted for Donald Trump by 20 points just 16 months ago attributed his win not just to the national environment and the quality of the candidate, but to the process through which he won the nomination. Lamb was selected—not elected—on the second ballot of a Democratic Party nominating convention. As a result, Lamb was able to run a campaign tailored to voters in his district, not the campaign that progressive activists would have allowed had a purity-tested liberal emerged from a contested primary process.
If California’s new electoral system allows Republicans to secure a reprieve from the voters’ verdict this fall, expect a change of heart from Democrats. Suddenly, there might be a new virtue in the wisdom of a closed nominating process or, for that matter, in the old smoke-filled rooms.
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Podcast: Putin's terror and the GOP's woes
On the last COMMENTARY Podcast of the week, the gang (minus Noah Rothman) delve into the ramifications of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly reckless campaign of terror and assess the Trump administration’s response. We also reflect on Conor Lamb’s special-election victory and what it means for the GOP. Check it out.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
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The polls tell the tale.
The Pew Research Center doesn’t really do “shock polls,” but it released a doozy earlier this year. Reflecting on its telephone survey of American attitudes on Israel, Pew concluded that the “partisan divide in Middle East sympathies, for Israel, or the Palestinians, is now wider than at any point since 1978.”
Pew asked, “in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, who do you sympathize with more?” And although respondents chose Israel over the Palestinians by 46 percent to 16 percent, and Republican sympathy with Israel was sky high at 79 percent, just 27 percent of Democrats said they sympathized more with Israel compared with 25 percent who did not. The remaining Democrats volunteered either “both,” “neither,” or “don’t know.” This finding seemed to confirm a trend—a dramatic drop in sympathy for Israel among Democrats from what had previously been solid numbers. 27 percent is the lowest level of Democratic sympathy for Israel recorded in the 40 years Pew’s report considers. Along with many others, I wrote nervously that lovers of Israel should be “wary of hugging” Donald Trump “or the present incarnation of the Republican Party too hard.”
But, as was true last year, Gallup has come out with different results, even though it asks a similar question in its own telephone survey, “In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with the Israelis or the Palestinians?” Support for Israel was at 64 percent; a level reached just twice in the past three decades. But more interesting, since Pew’s findings don’t dispute that American opinion toward Israel is very favorable, is Gallup’s account of Democratic support. Although Gallup found Democratic support for Israel declining from 53 percent in 2016 to 47 percent in 2017, the 2018 survey shows support rising slightly to 49 percent. No implosion here. Gallup also showed that Israel’s favorability rating has surged to 74 percent, a 17-year high.
Though there is a considerable gap between Democrats (64 percent) and Republicans (83 percent) on this question, those numbers do not suggest the beginning of the end of bipartisan support for Israel.
Gallup’s survey, taken after President Trump’s Jerusalem decision had been made, casts some doubt on the thesis that the embrace of Israel by an unpopular president will harm Israel’s standing in American public opinion. For the time being, if Gallup is right, it has had no effect at all; not even on Democrats.
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The bed they've made.
The spin is on, and you’re probably already dizzy from it. Don’t listen to a word of it. This race wasn’t about right-to-work legislation, steel tariffs, or cultural conservatism. Candidates matter, but the national environment matters more. Like so many elections of its kind, the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district–a district Donald Trump won two years ago by 20 points–was a referendum on the GOP under this president. The voters do not approve.
The conditions and the candidates vary, but the story since the president’s inauguration has been remarkably static. The vote in both special elections and the off-year races last November has swung away from Republicans and toward Democrats. What’s more, despite divergent candidate quality, the GOP candidates’ margins have tracked with Donald Trump’s job approval rating by state (with Roy Moore’s race in Alabama representing the exception to the rule).
The GOP’s traditional strongholds in the educated and affluent suburbs are no longer reliable, and that’s not because Democrats have suddenly become popular. Voters are not delivering a negative verdict on the economy; it is growing with room to run. They’re not sour on the state of affairs abroad; the world has its troubles, but there are no major combat operations sending American soldiers home in caskets in numbers sufficient to capture the nation’s attention. The next election will be a values election—specifically, it will be a referendum on Trump’s values—and voters appear eager to register their dissatisfaction with them.
Democratic energy isn’t sufficient to explain the party’s string of impressive victories in the last year. Republicans are depressed, and who can blame them? The GOP has squandered its period of ascendancy, scuttling the ambitious agenda set by Paul Ryan in late 2016 and managing to secure only a scaled-back tax code reform package by the skin of their teeth. On a near-daily basis, Republican voters are told by their trusted entertainers and lawmakers that Donald Trump cannot succeed, not with a seditious deep state “conspiracy” undermining his presidency from within. No wonder the GOP is depressed.
If Trump is depressing GOP voters and energizing Democrats, then the solution to the problem seems easy: “dump Trump.” That’s Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis’s suggestion. But Donald Trump wasn’t imposed on the losing GOP candidate in Pennsylvania’s special election, Rick Saccone. The GOP candidate ran as “Trump before Trump.” On issues like tax cuts as well as steel and aluminum tariffs, Saccone wrapped himself in the #MAGA flag. Perhaps most portentously, the losing candidate needed the president to parachute into the district to campaign on his behalf. He might regret that decision today.
At a typically madcap campaign-style appearance in Pennsylvania this weekend, Donald Trump did what he does best: make it about himself. He attacked Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and called NBC News host Chuck Todd a “son of a bitch.” He said Washington D.C. was full of “evil” people. He mocked dignified presidential comportment, calling it boring and declaring his disdain for impulse control. He riffed on the cable news shows he hates. He attacked his reality show competitors, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, and Martha Stewart. He called Maxine Waters a “low-IQ individual.” He mistakenly claimed that he won a majority of women in 2016. In sum, the president made a spectacle of himself, and the national press coverage of what should have been a micro-targeted event reflected that.
These rallies yield diminishing returns for Republican candidates, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to disinvest. They energize the pro-Trump electorate in the districts in which they are set, but they also energize Democrats—maybe even more than they do GOP voters—both locally and nationally. Republican candidates cannot afford to discourage their base voters by failing to display sufficient fealty to the president or his movement, and Donald Trump is unlikely to shrink into the shadows and let Republican candidates run against him. So the GOP is stuck with their president, even if he’s a weight around their ankles.
Pretty soon, the bill for this Faustian bargain will come due. Already, you can see reliable Trump boosters like Fox News Channel’s Laura Ingraham making their peace with Conor Lamb as the kind of Democrat with whom Donald Trump can forge a productive working relationship. For a movement built around “winning” rather than ideas, that is not a difficult intellectual leap to make. If Democrats perform this well in November of 2018, the morning-after narrative will not be that voters handed the GOP a “shellacking” or a “thumping.” No, the results will be hailed as a boon to Trumpism. At last, the establishment shills in the GOP will have been cast off, making room for the kind of protectionism, isolationism, and statism that were the centerpiece policy proposals of Donald Trump’s campaign. #MAGA is endlessly flexible.
As for the GOP, this is the bed they’ve made.
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The fruits of appeasement.
Never ignore the warnings of refugees and defectors from revanchist authoritarian regimes. That’s the lesson the British security establishment is learning the hard way in the wake of last week’s poisoning of a Russian ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, on U.K. soil. The nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, left Skripal and his daughter Yulia in critical condition. Hundreds of innocent Britons may have been exposed to the toxin, and it caused at least one to fall ill.
The Kremlin’s fingerprints are all over this act of terror. Prime Minister Theresa May has issued an ultimatum to Moscow demanding it to account for the episode—or else. But first, the British prime minister might ask herself how it was that Russian operators came to conclude that they could get away with so brazen a violation of U.K. sovereignty. The simple answer is: because it worked the last time.
Few can fail to notice the similarities between the Skripal case and 2006’s polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, another former Russian spy who had taken refuge in Britain. What most may not remember, however, are the lengths to which Britain’s political class went to avoid airing out the facts of that case. Although investigators charged one of the suspects in the Litvinenko murder (in absentia) in 2007, the government long resisted the launch of an independent inquiry.
That was back when Britain and other European powers, following Barack Obama’s footsteps, were keen to appease Moscow. It was necessary to show “flexibility,” to let old bygones be bygones. Never mind that Litvinenko’s killers had deployed a substance that emits 166 quadrillion radioactive alpha particles per second. In 2013, a senior official in David Cameron’s government conceded in a letter to Britain’s High Court of Justice that “international relations”—that is, relations with Moscow—“have been a factor in the government’s decision-making.”
That senior official was then-Home Secretary Theresa May.
For years, Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, pressed the government to launch a commission to investigate her late husband’s death, but to no avail. It wasn’t until 2014 that Mrs. May reversed course, and then only after Russian-backed rebels downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. The Litvinenko Inquiry got underway the following year.
As Marina Litvinenko told me in an interview in 2014, British leaders “put good relations with Russia in top priority. But the Russians have been trained in a different way. They’re not from Oxford, or from Cambridge. They’ve got a different agenda. They’ve been trained by the KGB . . . Every time you cede more, they will try to catch you in a weaker position. If you say, ‘Excuse me, I did something wrong,’ they don’t appreciate it—they say, ‘OK, now I will make it worse for you.’ ”
She told you so.