Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. military

Time to End the Killing in Syria

Marc Lynch, a blogger and professor of Middle Eastern studies, has penned a lengthy policy brief about Syria for the Center for a New American Security. It is comprised of two parts that appear to be at war with one another. The first part lays out all the reasons why the West must do something about the escalating violence in Syria.

He warns that Syria is descending into a full-blown “internal war” that “could shatter the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Syria and reverberate across the region.” He even says “Syria could replicate Lebanon of the 1980s, on steroids.” “Beyond these strategic concerns,” he continues, “there is a humanitarian imperative to help the Syrian people. The horrifying evidence of massacres and regime brutality make it difficult – and wrong – for the world to avert its gaze.”

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Marc Lynch, a blogger and professor of Middle Eastern studies, has penned a lengthy policy brief about Syria for the Center for a New American Security. It is comprised of two parts that appear to be at war with one another. The first part lays out all the reasons why the West must do something about the escalating violence in Syria.

He warns that Syria is descending into a full-blown “internal war” that “could shatter the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Syria and reverberate across the region.” He even says “Syria could replicate Lebanon of the 1980s, on steroids.” “Beyond these strategic concerns,” he continues, “there is a humanitarian imperative to help the Syrian people. The horrifying evidence of massacres and regime brutality make it difficult – and wrong – for the world to avert its gaze.”

I couldn’t agree more. Where I disagree is in his recommendations for what to do about this calamity which is now unfolding. He argues against military intervention—even against arming the Syrian opposition—in favor of, you guessed it, more robust diplomacy. He proposes to do the following:

First, the international community should present Assad with an ultimatum: Since Assad can no longer participate in a legitimate Syrian government, he, his vice president and a limited group of top regime officials must resign or be referred to the International Criminal Court for War Crimes (ICC). Second, the international community should continue to tighten the economic and financial sanctions against the Assad regime, its senior leaders and the most senior members of the Syrian military. Third, the international community should conduct a sustained and vigorous effort to isolate the Assad regime diplomatically. Fourth, the international community should strengthen the opposition and encourage it to develop a unified political voice. Finally, the United States and its partners should support a strategic communications campaign to publicize the regime’s atrocities, shame those who continue to support the regime and encourage regime members to defect.

All of these steps are worth taking, but they are not very different from what is currently being done—with scant impact. The Assad regime is able to stay in power because it can count on the loyalty of a substantial portion of its security forces and the backing of unsavory regimes such as Russia and Iran. Lynch himself dismisses airy talk from the administration “that the collapse of the Assad regime is only a matter of time.” He notes, rightly, that “Assad’s fall could take a long time. In the interim, many Syrians will die, and the conflict could evolve into an extended regional proxy war that victimizes the Syrian people.” But if that’s the consequence of our current policy, which is focused exclusively on diplomatic efforts to oust Assad, what reason is there to think more diplomacy will make a difference?

Lynch is right to warn that we need to think through the consequences of various military options such as air strikes, no fly zones, safe havens, and arming of the opposition. All of those policies carry potential downsides that need to be carefully considered. But in the end, I don’t find his objections to any military action terribly compelling, because if we don’t act then we are de facto accepting the unacceptable—i.e., a prolongation of the current civil war, which, aside from being a humanitarian disaster, is likely to further atomize Syrian society and provide an opening for extremists.

No one wants more war. But at this point the international community’s best bet (as it was in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999), is to act to end the killing. Yes, there are significant risks in a post-Assad regime, but by playing an active role in helping the opposition, including providing military help, the U.S. and our allies can win influence to shape the future of Syria.

Lynch himself admits that even if we don’t arm the opposition “arms are likely to flood the country if the civil war continues, regardless of U.S. preferences.” What he neglects to mention is where those arms will come from. A likely source: Gulf regimes such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia and radical groups loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda and its ilk, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The longer we stay on the sidelines, the more influence they will exert.

There is no ideal option in Syria, and I commend Lynch for warning about the potential pitfalls of military action, but at this point, I don’t see a good alternative.

 

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Obama Supporting the Troops?

Could the Obama administration make it any clearer that it has little regard or respect for the men and women who make the world safe so that the president can indulge so happily in the rich man’s game, and his wife and family can gallivant so luxuriously around the globe?

Bill Gertz at the Washington Free Beacon reported yesterday on some strong opposition from the VFW, the Military Officers Association of America, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon to the Pentagon’s plan to lay some of its budget cutting squarely on the backs of military personnel by raising their healthcare fees.

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Could the Obama administration make it any clearer that it has little regard or respect for the men and women who make the world safe so that the president can indulge so happily in the rich man’s game, and his wife and family can gallivant so luxuriously around the globe?

Bill Gertz at the Washington Free Beacon reported yesterday on some strong opposition from the VFW, the Military Officers Association of America, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon to the Pentagon’s plan to lay some of its budget cutting squarely on the backs of military personnel by raising their healthcare fees.

Specifically, if President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta have their way, active duty servicemen and women will have to pay higher co-payments for prescriptions and will no longer get incentives for buying generic drugs.  And military retirees will see 30 percent to 78 percent increases in their annual healthcare premiums for the first year, and after that, five-year increases from 94 percent to 345 percent.

Meanwhile, guess who gets off scot-free in the budget-cutting scheme? Surprise! It’s civilian workers – in the Department of Defense and other agencies – who happen to belong to that last bastion of labor movement power, government employee unions. And just to hedge the president’s bets on another four cushy years in the White House, the increases aren’t scheduled to begin until after the election.

Oh, and, for anyone who still buys Obama’s promise that we’ll be able to keep our current plans if we like them, apparently his administration expects that one of the side benefits of the planned increases will be to push American soldiers, sailors and flyboys (and girls) away from their military healthcare plans and into the waiting arms of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act program.

Hot air about supporting our troops from Mrs. Obama and Dr. (Jill) Biden notwithstanding, it’s pretty obvious where the sympathies of this White House lie.

 

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A Death Knell for American Military Power?

Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the liberal Brookings Institution make an important point regarding the looming dangers of sequestration, about which much of Washington seems to be in denial. If nothing is done, in January 2013 the Defense Department will have to start chopping another $500 billion or so from its budget–on top of the nearly $500 billion in cuts already being implemented. The results could be catastrophic, and we don’t have until Dec. 31 to head off this disaster. As Eaglen and O’Hanlon note, Congress must act now to avoid the willy-nilly budget cutting that otherwise will occur in less than a year’s time. They warn:

Sequestration will cause its greatest disruptions immediately in early 2013, when mechanistic and severe cuts have to be imposed overnight. The military can adapt to reductions that it sees coming; for all the inefficiencies of the Department of Defense, it is still one of the world’s most competent planning bureaucracies. But this is a whole different kettle of fish: Because spending would have to decline for 2013 based on cuts taking effect only in January, there would be no opportunity to use natural attrition in the force to cut personnel costs, no opportunity to use the natural annual cycle of working with defense industry to restructure contracts and keep alive those weapons programs that are needed and desired, no realistic way to scale back training carefully in a way that saves money yet keeps the military ready.

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Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the liberal Brookings Institution make an important point regarding the looming dangers of sequestration, about which much of Washington seems to be in denial. If nothing is done, in January 2013 the Defense Department will have to start chopping another $500 billion or so from its budget–on top of the nearly $500 billion in cuts already being implemented. The results could be catastrophic, and we don’t have until Dec. 31 to head off this disaster. As Eaglen and O’Hanlon note, Congress must act now to avoid the willy-nilly budget cutting that otherwise will occur in less than a year’s time. They warn:

Sequestration will cause its greatest disruptions immediately in early 2013, when mechanistic and severe cuts have to be imposed overnight. The military can adapt to reductions that it sees coming; for all the inefficiencies of the Department of Defense, it is still one of the world’s most competent planning bureaucracies. But this is a whole different kettle of fish: Because spending would have to decline for 2013 based on cuts taking effect only in January, there would be no opportunity to use natural attrition in the force to cut personnel costs, no opportunity to use the natural annual cycle of working with defense industry to restructure contracts and keep alive those weapons programs that are needed and desired, no realistic way to scale back training carefully in a way that saves money yet keeps the military ready.

This could well be the death knell for American military power–or at least a guarantee we will again hit the nadir we last saw in the late 1970s. Congress needs to wake up and act before it’s too late. These cuts will not be averted by wishful thinking; it will require political leadership which, alas, appears to be sorely lacking in Washington at the moment.

 

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Obama Apologizes for Koran Burning

Protests have been raging in Afghanistan for the past few days, after the U.S. military reportedly burned Korans – along with other confiscated religious materials – taken from detainees at Bagram Airfield. In an effort to restore peace, Obama sent a note of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai today, assuring him the Koran burning was unintentional:

“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,” Obama wrote. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.”

The president concludes the letter: “The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.”

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Protests have been raging in Afghanistan for the past few days, after the U.S. military reportedly burned Korans – along with other confiscated religious materials – taken from detainees at Bagram Airfield. In an effort to restore peace, Obama sent a note of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai today, assuring him the Koran burning was unintentional:

“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,” Obama wrote. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.”

The president concludes the letter: “The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.”

After a fringe pastor in Florida nearly sparked an international security incident by threatening to burn a pile of Korans, you’d think the U.S. military would at least have the proper safeguards in place to ensure this didn’t happen on their bases. As frustrating as it is to indulge the violent tantrums of religious fundamentalists by tiptoeing around their holy laws, if that’s going to be U.S. national security policy then at least make sure it’s carried out properly.

There actually apparently are exceptions under Islamic law permitting Korans to be disposed of through burning, though it’s usually discouraged, reports Slate. Typically, defaced Korans are buried in the ground or in water. I’m not sure how the U.S. military usually does it, though I imagine ritual or water burial aren’t always possible on military bases.

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Afghan Security Forces Cuts Likely to be “Catastrophic,” Warns General

Maybe it’s only because of the holiday weekend (Happy Birthday Abe! You too, George!), but this front-page article from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has caused curiously little comment. It reveals that the U.S. is developing plans to cut the Afghan Security Forces from 352,000 men today to just 230,000 in 2014 in order to save a few billion dollars in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion. The Afghan Security Forces budget, almost all of it paid for by the U.S., is currently more than $11 billion; the administration would like to reduce that figure to $4.1 billion. While the administration’s desire for cost savings is admirable (were that it extended to domestic programs!), the consequences of this decision, if it’s finalized, are likely to be “catastrophic,” as Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak warns.

Keep in mind the Obama administration is also rapidly cutting the number of U.S. troops–32,000 will be withdrawn by September, faster than commanders had recommended. That will leave 68,000 U.S. troops barring further cuts–but more such cuts are likely. The administration appears determined to withdraw all or almost all of the troops by 2014. That places a great burden on the Afghan Security Forces which are still in the process of being stood up. The current figure, of roughly 352,000, is the minimum necessary to police a country of 30 million; Afghanistan would actually be more secure if it had a force the size of the one in Iraq, where the security forces are over 600,0000.

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Maybe it’s only because of the holiday weekend (Happy Birthday Abe! You too, George!), but this front-page article from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has caused curiously little comment. It reveals that the U.S. is developing plans to cut the Afghan Security Forces from 352,000 men today to just 230,000 in 2014 in order to save a few billion dollars in a federal budget of almost $4 trillion. The Afghan Security Forces budget, almost all of it paid for by the U.S., is currently more than $11 billion; the administration would like to reduce that figure to $4.1 billion. While the administration’s desire for cost savings is admirable (were that it extended to domestic programs!), the consequences of this decision, if it’s finalized, are likely to be “catastrophic,” as Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak warns.

Keep in mind the Obama administration is also rapidly cutting the number of U.S. troops–32,000 will be withdrawn by September, faster than commanders had recommended. That will leave 68,000 U.S. troops barring further cuts–but more such cuts are likely. The administration appears determined to withdraw all or almost all of the troops by 2014. That places a great burden on the Afghan Security Forces which are still in the process of being stood up. The current figure, of roughly 352,000, is the minimum necessary to police a country of 30 million; Afghanistan would actually be more secure if it had a force the size of the one in Iraq, where the security forces are over 600,0000.

To then cut the already barely adequate number of troops and police will make it essentially impossible for the Afghan government to control its own territory barring some miraculous decision by the Taliban and Haqqani Network to discontinue their war. But why should they stop fighting when they know that in a few years most U.S. troops will be withdrawn and the Afghan Security Forces will downsize as well?

Moreover, the fighting quality and morale of the remaining Afghan forces, after what is essentially their abandonment by the West, is to be highly doubted. Add in the fact that under this plan the government of Afghanistan will have to lay off 130,000 trained security personnel. Where will they find employment in an economy that is already in rapid decline because of the loss of foreign aid? Many, it seems safe to surmise, may join the other side.

In short, Minister Wardak is not being hyperbolic in warning of catastrophe. Does anyone in Washington notice or care? The answer seems to be no. The political class, led by the president, is so bent on withdrawing from Afghanistan and reducing defense spending that no one seems to be particularly exercised by the fact that this could result in the collapse of all that U.S. troops have fought so hard to accomplish during the past decade, at such great cost to life and limb. I doubt that Lincoln and Washington, who persevered through far costlier and more politically divisive conflicts, would have approved.

 

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The Myth About Our “Pivot to the Pacific”

The great myth about our ongoing defense drawdown is it is designed to make possible a “pivot to the Pacific.” This is only true in the sense that the Navy and Air Force–the primary services concerned with a future Pacific conflict–are being cut less than the Army and Marine Corps, upon whom we have depended to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade.

The ground forces are losing more than 100,000 troopers. The air and naval forces are not making such drastic cutbacks, but they are cutting back just the same, as this article in the San Diego Union Tribune notes: “The Navy is cutting nearly 3,000 mid-career troops in a first-of-its-kind layoff this year, made necessary by record-high re-enlistment.” In other words, petty officers who had been looking forward to a 20+-year career, as is standard, are now being sent to the unemployment line after only 10 or so years of service–this at a time of high unemployment. As the article notes, this is part of an ongoing reduction of the Navy’s ranks. In 2006, it had  359,373 personnel; today it has 325,700; by 2014 it is due to be down to 320,000.

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The great myth about our ongoing defense drawdown is it is designed to make possible a “pivot to the Pacific.” This is only true in the sense that the Navy and Air Force–the primary services concerned with a future Pacific conflict–are being cut less than the Army and Marine Corps, upon whom we have depended to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade.

The ground forces are losing more than 100,000 troopers. The air and naval forces are not making such drastic cutbacks, but they are cutting back just the same, as this article in the San Diego Union Tribune notes: “The Navy is cutting nearly 3,000 mid-career troops in a first-of-its-kind layoff this year, made necessary by record-high re-enlistment.” In other words, petty officers who had been looking forward to a 20+-year career, as is standard, are now being sent to the unemployment line after only 10 or so years of service–this at a time of high unemployment. As the article notes, this is part of an ongoing reduction of the Navy’s ranks. In 2006, it had  359,373 personnel; today it has 325,700; by 2014 it is due to be down to 320,000.

This personnel downsizing has been accompanied by a downsizing in the fleet. The Navy today is down to 282 ships, the lowest level since before World War II, and is likely to wind up during this decade with just 246 ships. As retired Marine Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson notes, “This is important because no matter how capable the ship, it can only be in one place at a time. And power projection that stays is about ships.”

Meanwhile, as Richard Cleary and Tom Donnelly note, the new defense budget is also reducing our acquisition of the F-35 Lightning, the essential fifth-generation fighter we need to keep up with China: “The Obama Pentagon has reduced the 2013 purchase of Lightnings from 42 to 29 and reduced the planned five-year buy by more than 100 aircraft.”

Pacific pivot? Hardly. More like an across-the-board disarmament that is proceeding at varied rates in different services and different parts of the world.

 

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Santorum’s “Women in Combat” Comments Under Fire

The media vetting process on Rick Santorum is kicking into high gear this week, and his comments on women serving in combat are the latest to come under scrutiny:

Mr. Santorum had faced a brief storm of criticism after saying on Thursday in a CNN interview that to put more women in combat roles “could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved.”

He managed to quell some of the criticism – if not all – by saying later that he was referring to the emotional reactions of male soldiers. “Men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way,” he told NBC News on Friday, adding that “the natural inclination” is “to not focus on the mission but to try to be in a position where you might want to protect someone.”

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The media vetting process on Rick Santorum is kicking into high gear this week, and his comments on women serving in combat are the latest to come under scrutiny:

Mr. Santorum had faced a brief storm of criticism after saying on Thursday in a CNN interview that to put more women in combat roles “could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved.”

He managed to quell some of the criticism – if not all – by saying later that he was referring to the emotional reactions of male soldiers. “Men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way,” he told NBC News on Friday, adding that “the natural inclination” is “to not focus on the mission but to try to be in a position where you might want to protect someone.”

The “controversy” over the remark is overblown. Not only is Santorum making a fairly standard argument against women in combat, it’s also one that’s made by women who have actually served in the U.S. military. That said, this line of reasoning has always seemed a little weak. Emotions will always play a role in combat; many times the men fighting alongside each other are close friends. Doesn’t this add an element of emotion that could impact the mission? And yet members of the military still manage to carry on and get the job done.

There’s also a shade of condescension in the idea that women shouldn’t serve in combat roles because men have a “natural inclination” to protect them. After all, what types of women seek out or qualify for combat roles? These aren’t delicate flowers. They need the size and physical strength necessary for the position.

Which brings us to the central problem of women in military combat: there are few who actually have the requisite strength. It’s not an argument that’s politically correct for politicians to make – in fact, women in combat is probably a subject Santorum should strive to avoid altogether – but it’s an objective fact that plays much more of a role than male emotions do.

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What Diplomats Can Learn from the Military

I’m spending the week in frigid Wiesbaden, where the V Corps is preparing to take over the mission in Afghanistan. As is often the case, there is much more learning outside the classroom than inside it. Indeed, there are few organizations in government as dedicated to learning as the U.S. military. The State Department may have its Foreign Service Institute where diplomats can take classes to prepare for new jobs, but in embassies and the State Department, learning does not occur on a day-to-day basis as it does in the military.

Before any exercise, for example, soldiers and sailors study precedents. After -action reviews often take longer than exercises or missions themselves. Non-Commissioned Officers take their roles seriously to ensure that soldiers recognize mistakes and more importantly, learn from them; they have no equivalent in the Foreign Service.

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I’m spending the week in frigid Wiesbaden, where the V Corps is preparing to take over the mission in Afghanistan. As is often the case, there is much more learning outside the classroom than inside it. Indeed, there are few organizations in government as dedicated to learning as the U.S. military. The State Department may have its Foreign Service Institute where diplomats can take classes to prepare for new jobs, but in embassies and the State Department, learning does not occur on a day-to-day basis as it does in the military.

Before any exercise, for example, soldiers and sailors study precedents. After -action reviews often take longer than exercises or missions themselves. Non-Commissioned Officers take their roles seriously to ensure that soldiers recognize mistakes and more importantly, learn from them; they have no equivalent in the Foreign Service.

It’s no secret the State Department is poor at negotiations. In recent years, the North Koreans, Russians, and Iranians have outmaneuvered their American counterparts to the detriment of U.S. national security. Top-level negotiators edit junior diplomats’ cables and memorandums of conversation to substitute what was said with what they wished they had said. Seldom do ambassadors tolerate independent process observers.

Perhaps the State Department should take a lesson from their comrades in uniform. After every negotiating session, officials should identify what they won, what they lost, what they might have done better, and be merciless in identifying pivotal mistakes. Any new diplomat entering a region should be required to read and drill in the detail of the negotiations and their after-action reports, rather than simply taking the last agreement as a starting point.

Take the efforts to negotiate with the Taliban: While these negotiations have become the central pillar for Obama’s efforts to extricate America from Afghanistan, they are hardly new, yet there has never been a State Department effort to review their previous, unsuccessful negotiations, to determine what went wrong. I wrote about the 1995-2000 Taliban talks for COMMENTARY, but I was glad to see Karl Inderfurth, a participant in those earlier negotiations, revisit his experience in Foreign Policy. He counseled better preparation for negotiations:

“Several probing questions need to be asked of Taliban representatives,” he wrote:

  • Do the Taliban accept a political solution to the Afghanistan conflict, and what is their vision of it?
  • Do the Taliban have a political and economic plan for the future of Afghanistan?
  • Will they accept the international instruments to which Afghanistan has acceded, particularly with regard to human rights?
  • Will they honor and enforce the rights of women, minorities and ethnic groups?
  • Will they respect the role of shuras (tribal councils): local, provincial and national?
  • Are they willing to support and abide by internationally acceptable mechanisms of legitimization, like elections, referendums or tribal consensus?

None of these questions, he related, could be answered affirmatively in the 1990s. “Can they be [answered affirmatively] today?” he asked.

Without undertaking extensive reviews of lessons learned, regular role-playing exercises—the diplomatic equivalent of war games with seasoned experts playing adversaries—and preparing extensively ahead of meetings, American diplomats, no matter how capable they might be, will get played.

Diplomacy can’t be done off the cuff, and failed episodes should never be forgotten. Inderfurth concludes his article by quoting Winston Churchill’s famous quip that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” There’s a reason, however, why the United States has the most powerful military in the world, but at present lags behind in effective diplomacy.

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Americans Support Strike on Iran Facilities

According to the latest poll by The Hill, nearly half of Americans favor U.S. military action against Iran in order to prevent the regime from building nuclear weapons:

Nearly half of likely voters think the United States should be willing to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to this week’s The Hill Poll.

Forty-nine percent said military force should be used, while 31 percent said it should not and 20 percent were not sure.

Sixty-two percent of likely voters said they were somewhat or very concerned about Iran making a terrorist strike on the United States, while 37 percent said they were not very concerned or not at all concerned about it.

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According to the latest poll by The Hill, nearly half of Americans favor U.S. military action against Iran in order to prevent the regime from building nuclear weapons:

Nearly half of likely voters think the United States should be willing to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to this week’s The Hill Poll.

Forty-nine percent said military force should be used, while 31 percent said it should not and 20 percent were not sure.

Sixty-two percent of likely voters said they were somewhat or very concerned about Iran making a terrorist strike on the United States, while 37 percent said they were not very concerned or not at all concerned about it.

Nearly 70 percent of Republicans back the idea, along with 41 percent (a narrow plurality) of Democrats. The political complications for Obama stem from the fact that 42 percent of liberals oppose a military attack on Iran, while just 32 support it. But while liberals would be up in arms if Obama okayed an attack, they don’t really have any alternative candidates to vote for (unless you count Roseanne Barr). When it comes down to it, Obama may be less constrained by his base than previously thought.

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Operations in Afghanistan Can’t End Early

The Obama administration seems to think it can stop American combat operations a year earlier than expected—in 2013—while also downsizing the Afghan Security Forces and still strike a peace deal with the Taliban. Only in some alternative universe is this a winning strategy. In the world we actually inhabit it is a recipe for a slow-motion—or maybe not so slow—catastrophe.

It is hard to know exactly what the announcement that the U.S. is ending combat operations in 2013 means because the dividing line between “combat” and “advising” can be thin to the point of non-existent. But at the very least it signals some pull back of the American commitment. And before long I suspect we are going to hear that the number of U.S. troops—already insufficient—will be cut back some more so as to allow President Obama to run for reelection claiming to have ended one war and to be on his way to ending another. The Afghan Security Forces will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack, because they will need extensive training and support for years to come. The only way they will have any chance of success is if the U.S. maintains a substantial force in Afghanistan after 2014—say at least 40,000 troops. But that is highly unlikely if Obama stays in office. He seems determined to downsize as fast as possible.

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The Obama administration seems to think it can stop American combat operations a year earlier than expected—in 2013—while also downsizing the Afghan Security Forces and still strike a peace deal with the Taliban. Only in some alternative universe is this a winning strategy. In the world we actually inhabit it is a recipe for a slow-motion—or maybe not so slow—catastrophe.

It is hard to know exactly what the announcement that the U.S. is ending combat operations in 2013 means because the dividing line between “combat” and “advising” can be thin to the point of non-existent. But at the very least it signals some pull back of the American commitment. And before long I suspect we are going to hear that the number of U.S. troops—already insufficient—will be cut back some more so as to allow President Obama to run for reelection claiming to have ended one war and to be on his way to ending another. The Afghan Security Forces will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack, because they will need extensive training and support for years to come. The only way they will have any chance of success is if the U.S. maintains a substantial force in Afghanistan after 2014—say at least 40,000 troops. But that is highly unlikely if Obama stays in office. He seems determined to downsize as fast as possible.

The specifics of the downsizing matter less than the signal it sends—a signal of American irresolution. Already housing prices are falling in Kabul and Afghans who are able to do so are moving their assets offshore. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters interrogated by the coalition are confident of victory after 2014. In this climate there is little to no chance peace talks will succeed at doing anything except providing a Nixonian fig leaf covering the American abandonment of an embattled ally.

Obama may claim he is ending the war, but he is actually widening it by making much more likely a resumption of the large-scale civil war that tore Afghanistan apart and led to the rise of the Taliban, which, for all the mindless chatter about their supposed “moderation,” remains as closely linked as ever to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Having begun his administration with a buildup in Afghanistan, the president is now busy dismantling that strategy and substituting for it—what? A policy of hope and sleight-of-hand whose bankruptcy is likely to be brutally revealed in the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 

 

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Obama’s Defense Budget: Broken Promises

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.

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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.

 

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Candidates Agree on Hot-Button Issue of Immigration

Amid the increasingly pointed criticism being leveled by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich against each other, a point of agreement between them is worth noting and celebrating–especially when it comes on the hot-button issue of immigration. In the Tampa debate on Jan. 23, they were asked about the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that would allow immigrants who did not enter the country legally to become permanent, legal residents and ultimately citizens by meeting certain conditions–either attending college for two years or serving in the military for two years and staying out of trouble. Here is what Gingrich had to say:

I would work to get a signable version which would be the military component. I think any young person living in the United States who happened to have been brought here by their parents when they were young should have the same opportunity to join the American military and earn citizenship which they would have had from back home.

We have a clear provision that if you live in a foreign country, and you are prepared to join the American military, you can, in fact, earn the right to citizenship by serving the United States and taking real risk on behalf of the United States. That part of the Dream Act I would support. I would not support the part that simply says everybody who goes to college is automatically waived for having broken the law.

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Amid the increasingly pointed criticism being leveled by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich against each other, a point of agreement between them is worth noting and celebrating–especially when it comes on the hot-button issue of immigration. In the Tampa debate on Jan. 23, they were asked about the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that would allow immigrants who did not enter the country legally to become permanent, legal residents and ultimately citizens by meeting certain conditions–either attending college for two years or serving in the military for two years and staying out of trouble. Here is what Gingrich had to say:

I would work to get a signable version which would be the military component. I think any young person living in the United States who happened to have been brought here by their parents when they were young should have the same opportunity to join the American military and earn citizenship which they would have had from back home.

We have a clear provision that if you live in a foreign country, and you are prepared to join the American military, you can, in fact, earn the right to citizenship by serving the United States and taking real risk on behalf of the United States. That part of the Dream Act I would support. I would not support the part that simply says everybody who goes to college is automatically waived for having broken the law.

Romney added: “That`s the same position that I have, and that is that I would not sign the Dream Act as it currently exists, but I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service.”

This position is causing predictable consternation in anti-immigrant circles (see, e.g., this National Review Online column:) but it is absolutely the right position to take. What better way for anyone to earn American citizenship than through military service?

Gingrich hinted at going even further than the Dream Act–his remarks suggest he may be sympathetic to a revival of the MAVNI program (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest) which was launched in 2009 to recruit non-citizens who have  important linguistic or other skills that are in short supply in the armed forces. As the New York Times noted, the program was “highly successful”: “Recruiting officials said it had attracted a large number of unusually qualified candidates, including doctors, dentists and native speakers of Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Korean and other languages from strategic regions where United States forces are operating.” An army recruiter said: “We don’t see this normally; the quality for this population is off the charts.”

But then the program was suspended in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings, which were committed by Major Nidal Malik Hassan, even though Hassan was born in the United States and had nothing to do with the program. Nevertheless, the shooting somehow cast a pall on the idea of recruiting immigrants. It would be great progress if either President Obama or his Republican challengers were to announce their commitment to restarting the recruitment of these valuable immigrants.

 

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Obama Cites Military’s Many Virtues, But It’s Not a Model for Society

That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.

But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”

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That was a very curious State of the Union address President Obama delivered, at least as it relates to our armed forces. Instead of beginning, as one would expect, with domestic issues, he began with a tribute to the armed forces and used that to segue to his domestic agenda. His words of praise for the armed forces were obviously heartfelt and eloquent: He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.” To which, one can only say: Amen.

But then his remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.” In other words, the civilian population should emulate the military. There is something seductive in this appeal, which is why even many on the right (perhaps especially on the right) favor some form of “national service” requirement. And there is virtually universal nostalgia for the days of the Greatest Generation which won World War II and returned to build postwar America. Obama himself tapped into this nostalgic vein when he said: “We can do this. I know we can, because we’ve done it before. At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known. My grandfather, a veteran of Patton’s Army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.”

But nostalgia should not mask the fact that the “Mad Men” world is not one most of us would like to live in today. It was, after all, a world where big institutions–whether big government, big media, big business or big unions–had far more power than they do today. The downside of this arrangement was captured in numerous contemporary critiques such as “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and “The Organization Man” and “The Lonely Crowd” that were a touchstone for Baby Boomers rebelling against the conformism of the 1950s.

From our standpoint today, there are some good aspects of the 1950s–the hard work, the sense of common purpose–but also much that we would reject, especially the pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes–not to mention the pervasive drinking, smoking, and other bad habits. America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies.

On the whole this is a positive development–it is what has made possible the dynamism of an information age economy symbolized by Apple’s staggering earnings. We would all be poorer–literally–if we went back to more of a top-down command economy, which is what Obama seems to be pining for. Indeed per capita income in 1950 was $1,500 (which, adjusted for inflation, works out to around $10,000 today) compared with almost $40,000 today.

Make no mistake: the military works well. But that’s because it’s comprised of volunteers with a mission–defending America. Members of the armed forces are willing to accept privations and hardships, and respond unquestioningly to orders, in a way that civilians will not and should not. Let’s temper our admiration of the military: For all its virtues, it is not a model for the rest of society.

 

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Politifact’s Pants on Fire

I wouldn’t normally respond to a piece by PolitiFact, but because I’m quoted as a source for a recent piece on Mitt Romney, I think it’s worthwhile offering a bit of context. On Tuesday, I got the same email Tom Busciano received from Louis Jacobson at PolitiFact, asking my take on Romney’s recent debate claim the U.S. Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917, and the U.S. Air Force is smaller and older than it’s been since 1947. What struck me about Jacobson’s message was it asked if Romney’s statement was “technically true” and “what context does this ignore,” which carried the clear implication – as I warned Jacobson in my reply – that he’d already decided what he was going to write.

Jacobson responded that he “didn’t mean to look biased; I was simply trying to elicit critical thinking.” Sadly, my trust was misplaced. Jacobson’s piece is critical indeed: full of overheated rhetoric, uncomprehending of basic points, and carrying a “pants on fire” rating. Jacobson sums up Romney’s contention as being: “The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.” Since the Truman Doctrine of 1947 is as good a marker as any of the moment when the U.S. assumed the global security responsibilities that formerly belonged to Britain, the fact that our Air Force is smaller and older than it has been at any point since that date might give immediately give cause for concern.

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I wouldn’t normally respond to a piece by PolitiFact, but because I’m quoted as a source for a recent piece on Mitt Romney, I think it’s worthwhile offering a bit of context. On Tuesday, I got the same email Tom Busciano received from Louis Jacobson at PolitiFact, asking my take on Romney’s recent debate claim the U.S. Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917, and the U.S. Air Force is smaller and older than it’s been since 1947. What struck me about Jacobson’s message was it asked if Romney’s statement was “technically true” and “what context does this ignore,” which carried the clear implication – as I warned Jacobson in my reply – that he’d already decided what he was going to write.

Jacobson responded that he “didn’t mean to look biased; I was simply trying to elicit critical thinking.” Sadly, my trust was misplaced. Jacobson’s piece is critical indeed: full of overheated rhetoric, uncomprehending of basic points, and carrying a “pants on fire” rating. Jacobson sums up Romney’s contention as being: “The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.” Since the Truman Doctrine of 1947 is as good a marker as any of the moment when the U.S. assumed the global security responsibilities that formerly belonged to Britain, the fact that our Air Force is smaller and older than it has been at any point since that date might give immediately give cause for concern.

But the obvious point of Romney’s statement was not that the U.S. military of today would lose a war to the U.S. military of 1917 or 1947. It was that the margin of U.S. “military superiority” – i.e., its relative strength versus potential and actual adversaries – is at risk if defense spending declines, as President Obama plans for it to do. The question is not whether the U.S.’s “military posture is in any way similar to that of its predecessors in 1917 or 1947”: it is whether the U.S.’s margin of superiority over other actors, taking contextual factors into account, is better or worse than it was in previous eras.

Misunderstanding what the phrase “military superiority” means, Jacobson spends half his piece comparing the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force and Navy today to their capabilities of decades ago. Well, sure, I’d rather have an F-35 than a P-51 Mustang. But unfortunately, we don’t get to fight our 50-year-old selves. And even more unfortunately, our adversaries now don’t have ME-109s or MiG-17s. Some of them have MiG-35s, or, soon, J-20s.

He goes on to claim Romney “appears to be throwing blame on Obama, which is problematic because military buildups and draw-down these days take years to run their course.” True: we have today’s military because of decisions made during the past 20 years (which does include three years of Obama, by the way). But Romney’s statement is forward-looking: he points out the president is cutting the defense budget, which he opposes because he’s concerned at the size and age of our forces as they stand, and a smaller defense budget will only make this problem worse. In other words, in 20 years we’ll have the military Obama’s buying now, and that’s not good.

I’m not sure if this piece was written out of malice, or if it is simply a complete misfire. I’ve worked with PolitiFact before, and while I’ve not agreed with previous pieces, they were at least defensible. What it comes down to is that Romney’s claim is factually correct, but assessing the context would require a book-length analysis that would be subject to a wide amount of legitimate dispute over many factors, some of them fundamentally unknowable. Even if applied earnestly and knowledgeably, fact-checking is terrible at assessing this kind of context, precisely because the facts are not known: it’s why Churchill described strategic leadership as an art, not a science. Fact-checkers would have a better sense of their potential contributions and limits if they kept Churchill’s wisdom in mind, and recognized that checking facts is not the same thing as criticizing art.

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Obama to Share Secrets with Russia

While Michael McFaul’s confirmation to be U.S. ambassador to Russia has now passed the Senate, the reason for the holdup remains: The Obama administration appears intent to provide Russia with missile defense secrets. As the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz notes:

In the president’s signing statement issued Saturday in passing into law the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, Mr. Obama said restrictions aimed at protecting top-secret technical data on U.S. Standard Missile-3 velocity burnout parameters might impinge on his constitutional foreign policy authority. As first disclosed in this space several weeks ago, U.S. officials are planning to provide Moscow with the SM-3 data, despite reservations from security officials who say that doing so could compromise the effectiveness of the system by allowing Russian weapons technicians to counter the missile. The weapons are considered some of the most effective high-speed interceptors in the U.S. missile defense arsenal.

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While Michael McFaul’s confirmation to be U.S. ambassador to Russia has now passed the Senate, the reason for the holdup remains: The Obama administration appears intent to provide Russia with missile defense secrets. As the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz notes:

In the president’s signing statement issued Saturday in passing into law the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill, Mr. Obama said restrictions aimed at protecting top-secret technical data on U.S. Standard Missile-3 velocity burnout parameters might impinge on his constitutional foreign policy authority. As first disclosed in this space several weeks ago, U.S. officials are planning to provide Moscow with the SM-3 data, despite reservations from security officials who say that doing so could compromise the effectiveness of the system by allowing Russian weapons technicians to counter the missile. The weapons are considered some of the most effective high-speed interceptors in the U.S. missile defense arsenal.

The impetus for the SM-3 information deal appears to be from Ellen Tauscher, a former left-of-center congresswoman who, as Obama’s undersecretary of state for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, has proven adept at self-promotion, but when it has come to the substance of her job, she distinguished herself as a poor negotiator, repeatedly getting bowled over by American adversaries.

President Obama may believe defense cuts are necessary. Cutting defense capabilities is dangerous. The president’s plan reverses a bipartisan consensus about the reach of the U.S. military which dates back to the Roosevelt administration. Providing U.S. adversaries with defense secrets they can exploit—and export to other enemies—is simply foolhardy. It is a formula not for parity but for defeat.

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The Defense Budget and America’s Decline

There are many salient points to make about President Obama’s terribly unwise plan to cut $500 billion in defense spending during the next decade. But I want to focus on what I think it reveals about the worldview of America’s 44th president.

The one unequivocal area in which the federal government should be involved in is national defense. And our military is the one area which Gallup reports Americans trust more than any other American institution. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of those polled say they have a great deal of confidence in the U.S. military (versus 12 percent for Congress). And that trust is well-earned; the military has performed its tasks with extraordinary skill. And yet it is the military, more than any area in the federal government, that is now being asked to absorb the brunt of budget cuts – even though we’re still a nation at war. It is a striking thing to witness.

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There are many salient points to make about President Obama’s terribly unwise plan to cut $500 billion in defense spending during the next decade. But I want to focus on what I think it reveals about the worldview of America’s 44th president.

The one unequivocal area in which the federal government should be involved in is national defense. And our military is the one area which Gallup reports Americans trust more than any other American institution. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of those polled say they have a great deal of confidence in the U.S. military (versus 12 percent for Congress). And that trust is well-earned; the military has performed its tasks with extraordinary skill. And yet it is the military, more than any area in the federal government, that is now being asked to absorb the brunt of budget cuts – even though we’re still a nation at war. It is a striking thing to witness.

I’ve argued before that the Obama presidency, animated by a progressive impulse, wants to punish success. Rewarding human excellence is in many respects an alien concept to this president (see his repeated attacks on wealth creators). It’s therefore not surprising the president would decide to target the military when it comes to budget cuts. Its achievements have earned it a reduction in its budget, much like bad schools are rewarded with more money (the theory being that their failures are due to parsimony).

And then there is the point made by the estimable Charles Krauthammer, who said on Fox News last night that Obama’s budget strategy “is a roadmap of American decline.” I quite agree, and I would simply add that it’s intentional. For those who dissent from this judgment, I would point them to an important article by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker that includes this paragraph:

Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the president’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

Declining power, a reviled reputation, modesty, and leading from behind: Obama sees his task as shepherding what he deems to be this deeply imperfect nation – one he repeatedly apologized for during the early months of his presidency — through its inevitable descent.

Unfortunately for us, with Obama at the helm, America’s decline is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. You need look no further than the defense budget for confirmation of that.

 

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Upcoming Election Will Determine America’s Standing as a Superpower

In the new COMMENTARY, I write that the coming election will determine the future of America’s defense spending–and hence of our standing as a great power able to shape events around the world in ways conducive to our security interests. Today’s press conference at the Pentagon only makes the choice even more stark. President Obama unveiled a strategy documents whose title I can only assume is ironic: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” In fact, the $450 billion worth of cuts that will be spelled out in the coming weeks pose a serious threat to America’s ability to sustain our global leadership; if an extra $600 billion or so of cuts is added, as a result of the failure of the sequestration process, then America’s days as a superpower truly will be numbered.

Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country.

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In the new COMMENTARY, I write that the coming election will determine the future of America’s defense spending–and hence of our standing as a great power able to shape events around the world in ways conducive to our security interests. Today’s press conference at the Pentagon only makes the choice even more stark. President Obama unveiled a strategy documents whose title I can only assume is ironic: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” In fact, the $450 billion worth of cuts that will be spelled out in the coming weeks pose a serious threat to America’s ability to sustain our global leadership; if an extra $600 billion or so of cuts is added, as a result of the failure of the sequestration process, then America’s days as a superpower truly will be numbered.

Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country.

The details of what this strategy document will mean for the armed services will emerge slowly, but already one piece of news has suffered–the army, currently at 569,000 active-duty personnel, will fall to 490,000. This was entirely predictable–the ground forces are being sacrificed to maintain air and naval forces to operate in the Pacific even though the major aircraft that will sustain American deterrence in the 21st century, the F-35, is also slated for cutbacks.

No doubt the president will argue–and the army leadership will faithfully repeat–the line that the army will still be a bit bigger than it was pre-9/11 when the active-duty strength was 480,000. That is hardly reassuring, however, because after 9/11 we quickly discovered the army was much too small to fight the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. The lack of force size made it almost impossible to stabilize those countries after the deposal of their dictators and practically guaranteed that soldiers and Marines would pay a heavy price to regain lost momentum. Is this really the model we want to follow in the future?

Apparently so, because of the fantastical belief current in Washington today that somehow we will not have to fight another major ground war ever again. The same illusion was popular before almost every one of our major wars–and each time we paid heavily in the early battles for our unreadiness. Today, looking around the world at hotspots from North Korea to Pakistan, Iran to Somalia and Yemen, who can confidently predict we will not face a situation that will necessitate the dispatch of substantial ground forces? Indeed, by not having sufficient forces at the ready we make another ground war more, not less, likely.

It is hardly reassuring to learn that in giving up our ability to fight two wars we will still retain the capability to win one war while acting as a “spoiler” in another. The new administration strategy states: “Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” “Denying objectives”? “Imposing unacceptable costs”? Whatever happened to Douglas MacArthur’s famous dictum that in war there is “no substitute for victory”? The Obama Pentagon seems to be substituting like mad–and in ways that are unlikely to be convincing or deterring to potential adversaries.

Beyond the long-term consequences for American power, today’s announcement will have concrete consequences for the men and women who have served on the front lines for the past decade. We are going to reward years of sacrifice by throwing 80,000 soldiers out of work at a time when the unemployment rate is 8.6 percent. Some thanks for these distinguished veterans.

It bears repeating, however, that there is nothing foreordained about these deep, debilitating cuts. They are certainly not mandated by the debt crisis which was caused, and can only be resolved by, cuts in entitlement spending.

Mitt Romney, for one, is offering a different path. He pledges (full disclosure: I serve as a defense policy adviser to his campaign) to reverse the $450 billion in cuts along with another $70 billion that already came out of the budget almost a year ago. His commitment is to maintain defense spending at a minimum of at least 4 percent of GDP–which, in an economy of $14.5 trillion, means the budget would be higher than it is today. Whether he can make good on that pledge remains to be seen; but at least it is a level of commitment that was lacking in the current White House which acquiesced in a congressional deal this summer and is resulting in the steady evisceration of our hard-won military capabilities.

I do not by any stretch blame Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the dismaying spectacle that unfolded today and will unfold during the next few weeks as specific programs are targeted for cuts and elimination. He was, by all accounts, a staunch defender of the armed forcs, but he was undercut by a lack of presidential leadership–something that can be corrected in November.

 

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U.S. Carriers Surging Toward Gulf

The USS John C. Stennis is back in the news as Iran threatens to block its passage back through the Strait of Hormuz, an international waterway through which more than one-third of the world’s oil tankers pass.

For reasons I explain here, Iran’s threats are more bluster than bite. I spent about two weeks aboard the Stennis earlier this year, and there is not an abler ship or admiral. Meanwhile, while Iran perceives weakness in the Oval Office, they should be very careful about what they attempt. After all, not far behind the Stennis is the USS Carl Vinson—last in the headlines after the disposal of Bin Laden’s corpse—which turned around in near record time. The USS Abraham Lincoln is also heading to the Fifth Fleet area of operations. While there is normally only an aircraft carrier or two in the Persian Gulf or Sea of Oman, it seems there is a mini-naval surge ongoing. If Iran wants to pick a fight, they should think twice and then think again.

The USS John C. Stennis is back in the news as Iran threatens to block its passage back through the Strait of Hormuz, an international waterway through which more than one-third of the world’s oil tankers pass.

For reasons I explain here, Iran’s threats are more bluster than bite. I spent about two weeks aboard the Stennis earlier this year, and there is not an abler ship or admiral. Meanwhile, while Iran perceives weakness in the Oval Office, they should be very careful about what they attempt. After all, not far behind the Stennis is the USS Carl Vinson—last in the headlines after the disposal of Bin Laden’s corpse—which turned around in near record time. The USS Abraham Lincoln is also heading to the Fifth Fleet area of operations. While there is normally only an aircraft carrier or two in the Persian Gulf or Sea of Oman, it seems there is a mini-naval surge ongoing. If Iran wants to pick a fight, they should think twice and then think again.

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Best Option to Stop Nukes? The Military.

Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly served as a special adviser on Iran policy in the Defense Department, has an excellent article in Foreign Affairs on why a U.S. attack on Iran is the least bad of the available options. Kroenig lays out a detailed argument for why military action is feasible, why it’s preferable to a nuclear Iran and what the U.S. could do to minimize the inevitable fallout, and I sincerely hope Washington policy makers are reading it.

But there’s another argument that’s worth adding to Kroenig’s list: the relative track records of military versus nonmilitary efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

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Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly served as a special adviser on Iran policy in the Defense Department, has an excellent article in Foreign Affairs on why a U.S. attack on Iran is the least bad of the available options. Kroenig lays out a detailed argument for why military action is feasible, why it’s preferable to a nuclear Iran and what the U.S. could do to minimize the inevitable fallout, and I sincerely hope Washington policy makers are reading it.

But there’s another argument that’s worth adding to Kroenig’s list: the relative track records of military versus nonmilitary efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

In an article in the New York Times last week, another former U.S. official intimately involved in nuclear policy — Robert Gallucci, who served as chief negotiator with North Korea during President Bill Clinton’s administration — criticized the Bush administration for not taking a hard line on Pyongyang’s transfer of nuclear technology to Damascus. Syria, he noted dryly, might well have nuclear weapons today “had it not been for Israel’s version of a nonproliferation policy — aerial bombardment of the site.” And while Gallucci didn’t mention it, the same is true of Iraq.

In fact, Syria and Iraq are the only two countries where military action has ever been tried to halt a nuclear program. And so far, both are nuke-free. Moreover, in both cases, military action spared the world a nightmare. The current unrest in Syria would create a real danger of terrorist groups obtaining nuclear materiel had Israel not destroyed Syria’s reactor in 2007. And by bombing Iraq’s reactor in 1981, Israel made it possible for a U.S.-led coalition to go to war to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait – an invasion that, had it gone unchecked, would have destabilized the entire vital oil-producing Gulf region, but which the world would have had to swallow had Iraq had nukes by then.

By contrast, consider the track record in places where military action wasn’t tried, like Pakistan and North Korea. Both not only have the bomb, but have merrily proliferated ever since to some of the world’s worst regimes. And in Pakistan’s case, there’s the added fear that radical Islamists will someday take over the unstable country, along with its nukes.

In fact, nonmilitary sanctions have never persuaded any country to abandon a nuclear program: The few countries that have scrapped such programs did so not in response to sanctions, but to domestic developments (regime change in South Africa) or to fear of military action (Libya after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003).

So far, the same is proving true in Iran, where years of nonmilitary sanctions have slowed its nuclear development, but have utterly failed to halt it, or to alter its leaders’ determination to pursue it. That confronts America with a stark choice: stick to nonmilitary methods that have never succeeded in the past until Iran becomes the next North Korea, or switch to military methods, which have worked in the past.

For if history is any guide, there is no third option.

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U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Past 2014?

Gen. John Allen is absolutely right to raise the probability that U.S. troops will have to stay in Afghanistan past 2014. There is little likelihood the insurgency will have been defeated by then. The best we can hope for is to transfer lead responsibility to the Afghan security forces. But they will still require substantial assistance in the form of route clearance, medivac, fire support, logistics, intelligence and other “enablers” to get the job done. This will probably mean at least 30,000 U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Even if the insurgency is largely over by then (doubtful), U.S. troops would be required to stabilize a jittery postwar situation–just as they have been doing in Iraq, where we are seeing the price being paid in increased instability because of the premature pullout of U.S. forces. That’s a lesson that should be kept firmly in mind in Afghanistan. If we are to succeed, we will have to make a long-term commitment, just as we have in other places such as Germany and South Korea.

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Gen. John Allen is absolutely right to raise the probability that U.S. troops will have to stay in Afghanistan past 2014. There is little likelihood the insurgency will have been defeated by then. The best we can hope for is to transfer lead responsibility to the Afghan security forces. But they will still require substantial assistance in the form of route clearance, medivac, fire support, logistics, intelligence and other “enablers” to get the job done. This will probably mean at least 30,000 U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Even if the insurgency is largely over by then (doubtful), U.S. troops would be required to stabilize a jittery postwar situation–just as they have been doing in Iraq, where we are seeing the price being paid in increased instability because of the premature pullout of U.S. forces. That’s a lesson that should be kept firmly in mind in Afghanistan. If we are to succeed, we will have to make a long-term commitment, just as we have in other places such as Germany and South Korea.

Alas, there is little indication that this president will countenance such a long-term commitment. All indications are that in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, he is determined to draw down as swiftly as possible so he can brag to the voters he “ended” the war there. This puts military commanders on a collision course with their commander-in-chief–a disagreement they will certainly lose unless we have a new occupant in the Oval Office in January 2013. Much will turn on the outcome of the next election–including the fate of Afghanistan and by implication, of its neighbors.

 

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