Monthly Archives: November 2011

Clinton’s Burma Gambit

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Burma (Myanmar) on the first such visit by a high U.S. official in fifty years. As Burma embarks on reforms, the United States wants to encourage progress and perhaps pry Burma away from China a bit. But after decades of a repressive military regime there, the U.S. attitude is what one official called “deeply realistic.”

Several issues of concern are on the agenda. Most important is the beginning of democratic reforms in Burma, symbolized by the release of hundreds of political prisoners and of the longstanding opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of house arrest. She is planning to participate in upcoming elections, and Clinton is to have a private dinner with her, which is kind of a big deal. (The fact that the two most important people in this story are women is also a sign of the times.) Burma’s new president seems to be genuinely reform-minded, though it’s hard to know how far or fast the process will proceed.

The United States is concerned about reports that Burma has been buying missiles from North Korea. And there is also still a little civil war going on in the north of the country, between the government and ethnic rebels who want more autonomy. The ethnic groups close to several of Burma’s borders have waged decades of low-level war, and there are tens of thousands of refugees as a result. But the government has recently negotiated on cease-fire deals with two of them. This video gives the feel of the fighting still going on in the north:

Another subtext of the trip is China. The United States has been openly stating that its focus is pivoting to the Asia-Pacific region, and its actions resemble a “containment” strategy aimed at China. The Chinese certainly see the U.S. opening to Burma in that light.

Strong U.S. economic sanctions on Burma remain in place, but historically they have followed the lead of Suu Kyi, who might call for their relaxation as a reward for the government’s thaw (she is astute in the uses of reciprocity). So I predict an easing of the U.S. sanctions fairly soon (not right away because this will require U.S. Congressional action), contrary to the statements of U.S. officials that nothing will change soon.

As Woody Allen once said, eighty percent of life is just showing up. If that’s so, then Hillary Clinton has already achieved most of what this trip can accomplish.

Congo’s Good-Enough Election

DRC election postersMonday is election day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the presidency and parliament to be decided. These will be Congo’s second democratic elections after decades of dictatorship and war (the first was in 2006). There is plenty to criticize in the elections but they are an important step forward for the impoverished country of 70 million people.

President Joseph Kabila is expected to win re-election (with the opposition squawking that it’s unfair), while in the Parliamentary election 19,000 candidates are competing for 500 seats. The 2006 election was organized by the UN, but this one the Congolese government is running by itself, with just a smallish monitoring mission from the EU as outside help. Logistical problems are a challenge in the very large country with few decent roads — ballots were held up when bad weather delayed flights to remote locations.

Clashes between supporters and opponents of the president, and security forces, reportedly killed eight people in the capital. Yesterday the main opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi returned to Congo from South Africa, and his supporters flocked to the airport to greet him. But police would not let him proceed for eight hours. EU observers criticized the police action as a “serious breach of the right to campaign.” For his part, Tshisekedi a few weeks ago declared himself already president, which is not a helpful style of campaigning. The government responded by shutting down the radio station that aired the interview. Today the government cancelled all political rallies to head off violence (and maybe to keep the opposition from gaining ground).

One indicted war criminal being held in the Hague is running for president, and another, indicted for mass rapes in eastern Congo but at large, is running for a seat in parliament. So there’s plenty to criticize in the conduct of the elections.

But, as I always like to say, compared to what? In this case the answer is not compared to a perfect democracy, not even compared to the USA (ahem, Bush v. Gore), but compared to what came before — 70 years of colonialism, 30 years of dictatorship, and a decade of horrific war, all against a backdrop of absolutely wrenching poverty.

Many people criticize the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo, because atrocities still occur in some eastern provinces, including the ever newsworthy mass rapes. Poverty and corruption are still rampant and yes, the elections are imperfect. But when the UN arrived a little over a decade ago, there were six foreign armies fighting “Africa’s first world war” in the Congo. The economy was in reverse, mortality was rising dramatically, sexual violence was widespread, and democracy was not even a remote possibility. Most of these problems have not been 100% solved in a decade — surprise — but most of them have been moving in the right direction. Considering the size and funding of the UN mission compared to the size and challenges of the country, the peacekeepers have made fabulous progress. Their work isn’t done, but maybe we should think about giving them more resources to do a better job, not just complain that they are a failure.

An official with the Carter Center says Congo’s electoral commission has “gotten through a relatively successful campaign period. Yes, there have been some major incidents and some deaths, but these I don’t think have resulted in a mass, public rejection of the electoral process. Far from it.”

So let’s give two cheers for a modestly successful election tomorrow in the Congo, and refocus on helping the troubled country move forward step by step.


Yemen’s President Resigns!

In a long-awaited and much-delayed milestone of the Arab Spring, Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has signed the peace agreement that removes him from office. He signed on in Saudi Arabia today and has told the UN secretary-general that he plans to travel to New York for medical treatment.

Saleh’s resignation comes after nine months of street protests against him, violent repressed by his government. Parts of the military also defected from his side, creating a threat of civil war. And al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in the south of the country took advantage of the chaos to seize territory (although several of their key leaders have been killed by U.S. drone attacks this fall). Just today three Red Cross workers were kidnapped in southern Yemen.

Several times earlier this year Saleh promised to sign the deal, brokered by nearby Gulf states, only to back away. Saleh was almost killed by a bomb in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, but recovered and returned to Yemen. He seemed to be the cat with nine lives, but today those lives finally expired.

Under the peace deal, power will be transferred to vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and presidential elections will take place within 90 days. Saleh will get immunity from prosecution. For two years a national unity government will hold power and work on revisions to the constitution.

The street protesters are not content with Saleh’s departure, as they want broader political changes and an end to corruption. Nonetheless, the ouster of the fourth Arab leader by the Arab Spring protests this year — following those in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya — stands as an important marker of the change that has swept the Middle East this year.

Yemen matters to the United States because it is the poorest Arab country and a hotbed of Islamic militancy, including plots directed against the United States (such as the “underwear bomber” and printer-cartridge plots). It also sits next to the Hormuz Straits through which Persian Gulf oil must pass en route to Western markets.

Roundup — Pace of Events Picks Up

Whether it’s a coincidence or a pre-holiday frenzy, the pace of activity in the world’s hotspots picked up this weekend going into what will be an important week.

Egypt Tahrir square protestLet’s start with the Arab Spring countries. In Egypt, protesters staged the largest demonstration in Tahrir Square since Mubarak’s ouster. Islamists and liberals are back together, and they want the military government to speed the transition to democracy. Until now, the military continues to hold power tightly and to arrest opponents at will. Government forces assaulted the protesters, killing at least 11 people, but protesters took back the square and the clash continues. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in a week (Nov. 28), the first step in a prolonged, slow process of building a democracy in Egypt.

In Libya, the government has captured Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif and, the next day, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief.  Both have been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, which wants them sent to the Hague for trial. The new government, however, plans to try them in Libya. Presumably they will get more of a due process than Gaddafi himself, who was shot in the head shortly after being captured.

In Syria, the Arab League’s deadline to end the violent crackdown on protesters passed this weekend, and the League rejected Syria’s efforts to modify a plan to send in League monitors. This week the League will consider economic sanctions and other measures against Syria, a sign of the striking isolation of the Assad regime internationally. Not only has armed resistance against the government begun to pick up recently, but so has sectarian violence among armed gangs of Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians who make up the ethnic mix of the country. Russia expressed concern the country was sliding into civil war.

Meanwhile in Europe the euro crisis continues. Although Italy installed its new technocrat prime minister and passed an economic austerity bill, new riots erupted in Greece in response to cutbacks there. In Spain, conservatives won a big election victory this weekend, taking power from the socialists and promising economic reforms. But markets had already spoken, pushing up Spain’s borrowing costs to the 7 percent level. Even France — let’s just say almost everyone but Germany — is facing high borrowing costs and a crisis of confidence. The solution of having the European Central Bank inject money into the troubled eurozone economies is opposed by Germany. And while Germany wants to respond by deepening European economic integration, Britain wants to go the other direction. The mess will play out this week at an ever more knuckle-biting pace.

Two important UN reports came out this month. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran appears to be making substantial progress toward building a nuclear weapon. Now the United States, Britain, and Canada are preparing new sanctions on Iran in response. Meanwhile the scientific body, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that climate change is likely tied to destructive weather events that seem to be on the rise. Look for more heat waves, droughts, and heavy rains in the coming years, though it’s not clear whether hurricanes will be affected. Negotiations to reduce carbon emissions are at a virtual standstill.

In Asia, the new reform-minded president of Burma (Myanmar) has loosened the military’s grip a bit and opened up elections to the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the longstanding leader of the nonviolent opposition. ASEAN has rewarded Burmese reforms by scheduling the country to host the next summit of the regional group, and President Obama recognized the changes by sending Hillary Clinton for a visit that could lead eventually to a normalization of relations after many years of sanctions.

Obama himself returned home this weekend after his Asia trip, where China was the ever-present subtext. (Harvard professor Stephen Walt makes the case for containing a rising China, which I recently argued against.  I share the NY Times editorial assessment that pivoting to Asia must not stand in the way of defense spending cuts.) The big challenge, writes Fareed Zakaria, is China’s:

People keep saying that America needs a new China strategy. But I think if you see how many countries are wondering about Beijing, the truth is that China needs a new China strategy. Beijing needs to recognize that it has become a world power, that its every move is now deeply analyzed, and that it is expected to play by the rules – indeed, it is expected to help maintain the rules. Will it? That’s one of the big questions of this new century.

Obama may wish he stayed in Asia when he gets back to dealing with Congress. In a striking example of the importance of domestic politics to foreign policy, the Congressional “super committee” must decide by Monday how to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget deficit, or face automatic across-the-board cuts. Republicans (who oppose increasing taxes as part of the deal) have claimed the automatic cuts would destroy our defense establishment, but I’m not convinced. (The levels of cuts are perfectly manageable, though it would be better to plan them rationally.)

By Sunday night, everyone seemed to agree the talks would fail, but I would caution that this is clearly a Chicken game, and in Chicken there is never any deal until the last possible moment. Indeed, it is only the prospect of imminent disaster that induces a deal. Unfortunately that means a minor miscalculation or unexpected event can lead to a disaster for everyone. Failure to reach a deficit deal could, furthermore, put a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating back in play.

The combination of a possible eurozone meltdown and a possible deadlock on the U.S. deficit could make this an international economic week to remember. Fasten your selt belts, everyone. We might hit a few bumps.

Pivoting to the Pacific

Thursday’s ASEAN summit in Indonesia will feature an unprecented  addition — an American president. Fresh off an Asia-Pacific summit in Hawaii and a visit to Australia, President Obama will drop in to underscore the new Asia-Pacific focus of U.S. foreign policy.

You might have thought that America’s direction is homeward as our wars wind down. But the administration has the idea of stepping sideways from the Middle East to the Pacific region. They call it the “pivot.” If done well, it could be a good idea to keep the United States engaged and deepen trade and cooperation. If done badly, it could needlessly antagonize China and lead to wasteful military spending, or even stupid wars.

Hillary Clinton lays out the strategy in the first paragraph of her article “America’s Pacific Century” in the current Foreign Affairs:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. … One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment — diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise — in the Asia-Pacific region.

After criticizing the “misguided” calls for “a downsizing of our foreign engagement in favor of our pressing domestic priorities,” Clinton defines the “fulcrum” for the pivot as the U.S. treaties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And the “cornerstone” of Asian stability, she writes, is the U.S.-Japanese alliance. On the current trip, she and Obama have spoken repeatedly about the importance of U.S. engagement in Asia.

One concern about the “pivot” was articulated in a Washington Post editorial yesterday, which argued that the pivot to Asia is fine but should not fool the administration into thinking it can leave the Middle East behind. “The Arab Spring — with its potential to transform the world’s most troubled lands — is the most dynamic and important opportunity Mr. Obama now has in foreign affairs. ”  Foreign policy is one arena where the ability to multitask is a must.

In its own right, though, there seem to be three elements in the U.S. “pivot” and the current trip. The first is straightforward enough, and benign. The Asian economies are growing and the United States wants to export to them and create American jobs. This is generally the first rationale Obama lists for his work in the region, such as during his press conference in Hawaii Monday. The Hawaii summit moved forward a developing Pacific free-trade area, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that includes Chile, New Zealand, Brunei, and Singapore, with the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru in line to join, and Canada, Mexico, and Japan expressing interest. China is not part of it.

The second element is a worthwhile, though delicate, effort to bring China’s economic policies more in line with the global “rules of the road,” or to “level the playing field” (both metaphors Obama uses). In Hawaii, Obama articulated this goal by noting that a couple of decades ago, China was not big and important enough to upset things if it violated economic rules and norms, but “now they’ve grown up, and so they’re going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way.”

Two specific issues that leave Americans “frustrated” as Obama put it, are China’s currency and its violation of intellectual property rights. The currency does not float freely like other major world currencies, and is widely considered to be undervalued, making China’s exports cheaper and U.S. exports to China more expensive. China’s tolerance of piracy of software, movies, and the like — which Obama pointed out are areas of U.S. competitive advantage in the world economy — also has become much more frustrating as China’s economy has grown.

The third element, and the most problematic, is a strategic concept of pivoting U.S. military forces to beef up a presence in the Asian neighborhood in order to counteract a perceived expansion of China’s military power in the region. To this end, Obama today announced that 2,500 U.S. marines would be stationed in northern Australia and available to support allies in Asia. China’s foreign ministry noted politely that the move “may not be quite appropriate.” A communist-party Chinese newspaper less politely warned that “Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. … If Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire.”

When Obama was asked at the Hawaii press conference about Republican candidates’ drumbeat of China-bashing, he did not contradict the Republicans but rather said that he had told Chinese leaders that all Americans are concerned about the level-playing-field issues. He did not take on the military/strategic issues directly. But the whole tenor of his Asia trip seems shaded with an anti-China thrust, generally cast as beefing up U.S. support for regional countries that feel threatened by China’s assertiveness.

Often lost in the panic about China’s rise are several key facts that the U.S. administration would do well to keep in mind. China is modernizing its antiquated military but is in no way a match for U.S. military power and won’t be for the foreseeable future. China has not fought a single military battle in the last 25 years, and follows a self-declared “peaceful rise” strategy that avoids military conflict. That strategy is crucial to the Chinese leaders’ legitimacy, which is based on delivering prosperity and growth, not militaristic bombast. The United States is a hugely important trade partner for China (and vice versa) — a basis for the U.S.-Chinese Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And China is well aware of the lessons of others’ failures — notably, (1) Japan’s efforts in the 1930s to use military conquest to obtain natural resources; and (2) America’s recent waste of massive economic resources on out-of-control military spending and unwise military adventures.

Strategically, the United States has nothing to gain from clumsy moves to “contain” China. It has everything to gain from a cooperative partnership with the rising power and economic success that is China today. If the “pivot” to Asia were recast as a new focus on improving the U.S.-China relationship as a bedrock of the region’s security architecture, it could be a great idea. If it evolves as a new Cold War directed at a country that is not even an enemy, then it does not belong in the present century.

Syria Shifting Slightly

The stalemate in Syria remains fundamentally unchanged, yet the balance has been shifting incrementally against President Bashar al-Assad. He seems to have just one play in his playbook — violent repression of protesters and military destruction of cities and neighborhoods that oppose him — but the play isn’t working.

On Saturday, the 22-member Arab League voted overwhelmingly to suspend Syria from the group, giving it four more days to change course before the suspension takes effect. Only Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria itself voted against the resolution. Arab leaders are understandably annoyed that Syria reached a deal with the Arab League recently to pull back military forces from cities and stop killing civilians, then went right ahead doing just that.

Syria had a couple of responses. On Monday the foreign minister blasted the Arab League as conspirators and lackeys of Zionism and colonialism — you know the script. It didn’t seem to convince anyone. More unwisely, the government turned out pro-Assad demonstrators, whom it can still mobilize in some force, to the streets where they promptly attacked embassies and consulates of Turkey (which evacuated its staff), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and France. I say “unwisely” because attacking embassies violates international law and is not a very good way to gain more friends when one is isolated internationally.

Today China came out in support of the Arab League action, an important sign of Syria’s growing isolation. Last month China had joined Russia in bl0cking a UN Security Council resolution against Assad. Europe today moved to impose new sanctions on Syria. And today in a BBC interview, Jordan’s King Hussein became the first Arab leader to openly call for Assad to step down. Russia is the last important player that still backs the Syrian regime.

The Arab League was the critical player in the Libyan crisis earlier in the year, when it called for a no-fly zone there. The powers-that-be took the Arab League’s call for action to the UN Security Council and obtained a resolution for a no-fly zone and protection of civilians. That resolution was the basis for the NATO intervention — the bombing campaign that turned the tide of Libya’s war and ultimately overthrew the Gaddafi regime.

This time, both the Arab League and the Russians are being very clear that the opposition to Assad should not result in a similar UN authorization. Given Russia’s veto power, that means it won’t. And NATO is being very clear that nobody is going to intervene militarily in Syria without such authorization. So that leaves Syria’s internal stalemate fundamentally unchanged. Defections from the government’s military and security forces are not at a level to pose a real threat, and if they reached that level and a civil war broke out, it is unlikely the opposition could win such a war anyway. That leaves the civilian protesters showing incredible determination to continue protesting, and the government showing incredible brutality to keep shooting them in cold blood.

The UN now estimates that at least 3,500 people have been killed this year in the Syrian unrest, the vast majority of them unarmed protesters shot by government forces. Unfortunately, it appears the total will continue to rise while an ever-more-isolated Syrian regime lashes out at its critics.

The Upside of Financial Crises

What do Indonesia’s General Suharto and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi have in common? Both were corrupt national leaders who stayed in office too long and finally lost power as a result of financial crises. These kinds of crises are ugly and painful, but often bring about overdue reforms and lead to positive long-term outcomes. As you might have heard your doctor say, “this might hurt a little.” But do you run out of the doctor’s office, or take the pain to get the gain?

In the middle of a financial crisis, things look pretty alarming. Earlier this week, Dan Drezner referred to “the collapse of the euro and maybe the entire global economic system.” But the pain and fear are what catalyzes change. The “creative destruction” of capitalist crashes, described by economist Joseph Schumpeter, has its political equivalent. Barack Obama owes his presidency in no small part to an economic collapse caused by the previous administration’s unwise policies (like going to war while cutting taxes). Others have also found openings for change and reform when things fall apart.

Consider the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which tore through Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea like an unstoppable tsunami. In Indonesia the collapse of the currency led directly to inflation, and thus popular unrest, that unseated the dictator Suharto after more than 30 years in power. Since then East Timor became independent, a peace agreement ended the secessionist war in Aceh province, and Indonesia has developed a pretty robust democracy and solid economy that survived the global recession in good shape and has resumed 6 percent growth.

In 1997, South Korea, still in transition after decades of military dictatorship, had a terrible economic setback. The currency fell dramatically, economic growth reversed and went negative, and people across the country suffered. But in short order the country elected a new reformist president, opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, and got onto a better path. Look back at the graph of South Korea’s economic growth now, 15 years later, and you see just a short drop and a return, four years later, to the same impressively steep growth rate that made South Korea an economic miracle. (GDP per person has grown from about $6,000 to $25,000 in the last 30 years.)

Remember Argentina in 2001-02? It had a massive debt crisis, so big that experts feared it might default and send the world’s financial system into a meltdown. Well, it did default on $132 billion in sovereign debt, but the global capitalist system took it in stride. In 2003, Nestor Kirchner took over as president and has presided over an impressive period of recovery and growth. The banks got screwed — in 2005 they were offered a take-it-or-leave-it deal for less than 30 cents on the dollar for Argentina’s debt, and most took it. But am I crying big tears for the poor banks? Nope.

Greece needed a new government and it got one. As prime minister, the technocrat Lucas Papademos this week replaces the old politico George Papandreou whose grandfather and father were prime minister before him. I mean, enough is enough. It was all high-drama politics, and a big mess, but look what came out of it — change.

Italy has needed a new government for quite a while, and it too will get one. And the European Union has needed a new way to deal with the contradiction at the heart of the euro currency — the crazy idea that sovereign states can control their individual fiscal policies (taxation and budgets) while merging their monetary policies (currency and inflation). I don’t know what solution is going to emerge, but I do know that it won’t happen without the kind of big crisis we’re in the middle of now.

Folks, this is the way the world works. Change is not incremental and it doesn’t happen when everything’s going smoothly. Small comfort, perhaps, if you’re unemployed or can’t afford spiraling prices, or just lost your savings in a stock market crash. But in the long run, it’s for the best — just ask the people in Indonesia or Argentina. In the short term, though, this might hurt a little.

The Wonder That Is Europe

The biggest story in International Relations currently is the European financial crisis. History’s most audacious financial experiment, the euro, is under threat. But I always bet on the European Union to muddle through to success, and I say they’ll do it again.

Up close and day-to-day, European governance often looks messy if not totally dysfunctional. But step back and look at the big picture. The EU has step-by-step transformed a continent divided by many languages and cultures, a place where the world’s most terrible wars occurred for centuries, into a zone of peace. Not a cease-fire type of peace, but a deep and lasting peace. It’s what the political scientist Karl Deutsch called a “security community,” in which wars among the participants become inconceivable. In historical perspective, this is such a monumental, gigantic accomplishment that one wonders how we all have come to take it for granted. Sure, Europe, where wars don’t happen. This is a really new concept.

Every new wave of challenges to this process has brought speculation that the integration of Europe had played out and reached the end. The expansion from six countries to fifteen, then to 27 after the Cold War ended. The deepening of economic integration from coal and steel to agriculture, industry, and free movement of goods and people. The dropping of all border crossings among the Schengen area countries. Constitutional revisions to make governance more workable. And that bold experiment in finance, the sharing of a single currency, the euro, among 11, or rather, make that now 17, countries.

National sovereignty has faded considerably over the years of European integration, to be replaced (in part) by continental-level governance and, perhaps more importantly, a continental identity. I remember seeing in Hungary a few years ago that the Hungarian flag on license plates was replaced by the European circle of stars. Now, in the Greek debt crisis, I heard on the radio a Greek citizen complaining bitterly that with German and international oversight of Greek finances, there would be a loss of sovereignty! Hello, were you asleep for the last 30 years since Greece joined the EU?

The reason the euro was such a big experiment is that the participating countries give up their monetary policy (to the European Central Bank), that is their ability to print money and control inflation, but retain their fiscal policy, the ability to tax and spend. Usually, when a country taxes too little and spends too much (like, um, the United States these days), it runs up debts in the short term and eventually suffers inflation to its currency. But in the euro zone, if Greece runs up debts, Germans would eventually suffer inflation.

To solve Greece’s debts, and head off similar troubles in the other poorer EU members (Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and in a worst-case scenario Italy), the answer is to put together a bailout to keep Greece from defaulting on its debts (though bankers would get only half their money back), while Greece puts in place budget cuts and new taxes to balance its budget. The alternative is for Greece to pull out of the euro zone and default on its debts.

eurozone map

Eurozone countries (blue); other EU members (red)

Will the crisis jump to other shaky EU economies? Will it bring down the euro as a “bridge too far” in European integration? Or, on the contrary, will it lead to greater centralization of fiscal policy, so that each country may not just go and spend itself into budget imbalance?  (Actually rules have been in place demanding this ever since the euro was created, and Greece flagrantly cheated on them at the outset, but got away with it because so many other countries also cheated, though to lesser degrees.)

My answer is, none of the above. I doubt any big change will come out of the crisis. Rather the Europeans will once again muddle through, following the path of least resistance. The Greeks will grumble but sign on to the bailout plan, and their inept prime minister will resign. The euro zone will stay intact. No big reforms in fiscal policy will take effect. And the wonder-that-is-Europe will keep doing what it does — keeping hundreds of millions of people peaceful and prosperous.

Safer World, Now Cut Defense Spending

The wars in Iraq and Libya are over, and Afghanistan is winding down. As President Obama has repeated, “the tide of war is receding.” So why are we still spending one-third more on the military than the Cold War peak, double the level of the 1990s – some $9,000 a year per American household?

Budget graph

Federal discretionary spending (excluding Soc.Sec./Medicare)

Apparently, Americans believe that the post-9/11 world is more dangerous than ever, brimming with existential threats. This belief, however, is delusional. Hard evidence shows the opposite to be true.

First of all, the world’s big, uniformed national armies with all their heavy weapons are no longer fighting each other anywhere. Those head-to-head clashes have produced the deadliest and most destructive wars – India versus Pakistan, Iran versus Iraq. Today’s wars are smaller-scale insurgencies with different and less expensive military requirements.

Second, wars are confined to smaller areas of the world than in past decades, and the fighting is more localized. Whole regions consumed by war a decade or two ago, such as Central America, the Balkans, and West Africa, are now at peace. We don’t need to be everywhere all the time with 11 super-expensive aircraft carriers.

Third, when researchers count the world’s deaths from war violence, the numbers today are a third lower than during the Cold War. It doesn’t feel that way because war reporters are eager to tell us of the horrors of whatever wars remain, and some horrible ones do remain. Nevertheless, we live in a less violent world overal than any in memory.

While military spending must prepare us for future dangers, not just today’s situations, are those dangers really greater than 30 years ago? The Soviet Union is long gone. China has not fought a single military battle in 25 years, and its leaders depend on trade-based prosperity, not war, for their legitimacy. The world’s nuclear arsenals have been reduced by three-quarters in the past 30 years, and further cuts have been agreed upon.

And U.S. military commitments around the world have also shrunk. Over the past decade we’ve pulled out 30,000 troops from Europe, 25,000 from Japan and Korea, and 10,000 from Latin America. By the end of this year, 45,000 will come home from Iraq and next year, 33,000 will return from Afghanistan.

Are we spending so much to train our allies’ counter-terrorism units, to buy more drones, or to build up our special forces? No, those things are relatively cheap. Rather, we are spending huge amounts to prepare for a major state-to-state war using heavy formations in massive air, land, and sea operations. In other words, to stop the Soviet Red Army from invading West Germany or to fight land wars in Asia like Vietnam or the invasion of Iraq.

Last February, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that any American leader who would “again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” As Gates points out, the defense bureaucracy plans for “high-end conflicts” based on “what transpired in the last century.” Gates has also noted the “wasteful, excessive, and unneeded spending” that bloats today’s military budget. That’s a defense secretary speaking, not an Occupy Wall Street protester.

To adjust to our radically changed world, the diminishing threats we face, the end of our decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the changing nature of warfare, the military brass and politicians have a plan – 5 percent cuts from our current record-high spending. That would leave us way above Cold War levels, still matching the rest of the world combined.

What we need instead are deep cuts, phased in over some years in a well-planned process. Even returning the spending levels of the 1990s, half today’s total and one-third below the Cold War peak, would leave us with the world’s largest and most capable military force by far.

It’s true, military leaders can do their jobs best with unlimited resources – but so could teachers and firefighters whose budgets we are slashing in the face of massive deficits. In a country whose economic weakness is far more dangerous than any military threat, big cuts in defense spending simply must be on the table.

And don’t say that military spending creates jobs. Study after study has shown that the same money invested in education, infrastructure, or other productive activities creates far more jobs than military spending.

America’s wars are ending, and heavy tank formations cannot solve what ails this country. It’s time to end the delusion of a violent, threatening world and stop wasting money on forces we no longer need. Trimming by 5 percent just isn’t going to cut it.


[Note: This piece appeared Monday as my first Huffington Post blog.]