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August 21, 2012

Paul Ryan Tries To Clear a Few Things Up
Posted by James Lamond

Ryan-thumbs-up-smallSince Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as running mate, many commentators have pointed out that the GOP ticket has no experience on foreign policy or national security. Michael has a very good take in his FP column. While this is, quite obviously, an election based on the economy, the foreign policy and national security portfolio easily takes up half of the president’s time. It is also the area where the president has the most freedom to operate, independently of Congress. Needless to say, it is important.

Paul Ryan recently sought to address these concerns about a deficit in experience. However, on the issues discussed, there is even less clarity on his views: 


 When asked what’s wrong with the President’s policy on Syria, Ryan responded back, “I think he was late to it… late to speak forcefully and pronounce our values… late to helping the opposition do what they need to do to get this dictator out of there.” There are a number of interesting components of this statement. First, the U.S. policy is much more than “pronouncing our values.” As I outlined in a recent post, there are a number of active policies approaches across issue silos including security, humanitarian, and political interests. Second, it would be fair to imply from these remarks, that Ryan thinks the current policy is correct, Preisdent Obama was simply "late" to the decision. This differs from Mitt Romney’s position on Syria, which while avoiding specifics, has been quite critical of President Obama’s policy.


Theportion of these remarks that has received the most amount of attention have been those on Iraq. Ryan points to his voting record in Congress to explain his foreign policy experience, specifically refering to the 2002 vote for the Iraq War. He stated, “I’ve been in Congress for a number of years. That’s more experience than President Obama had when he came into office. Now, I’ve voted to send people to war.”

Fair enough, as a member of the House of Representatives he was involved in the Iraq War debate and voted for the war. However, support for a war that is widely considered to have been a  blunder, does not automatically qualify you as a foreign policy expert.  Even former Bush administration officials have spoken on how the Iraq expereince should inform thinking on national security. Bob Gates famously told West Point cadets, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Voting for a war is clearly a serious important duty for a Member of Congress. However, if Rep. Ryan is using this decision as his primary qualification to be ready to be Commander in Chief, it is worth questioning him further on his decision and how that fits into his views on how and when to use force.

Russia and the Reset

My personal favorite is on the Russia reset.  In line with general conservative criticism over the “reset,” Ryan declared the approach a failure. However, he states, “The Russia reset was a failure… our relationship with Russia is weaker not stronger.”  This statement needs to be dissected in two ways. First, the facts: He states that our relationship with Russia is weaker, not stronger. This is simply wrong. The reset came following the post-Cold War nadir of U.S.-Russia relations in 2008. The United States and Russia were barely on speaking terms following the Russia-Georgia War. While the relationship is hardly warm and fuzzy, the U.S. has received a number deliverables important to U.S. national interests. This includes,  the agreement on the Northern Distribution Network to transport troops and materiel across Russia to Afghanistan; securing cooperation on Iran, including the most comprehensive sanctions to date and confirming that  Russia would not deliver S-300 missiles to Iran; and signing and ratifying the New START treaty. These are only a few of the concrete deliverables.

But more surprisingly, this statement actually accepts the premise of and reasoning behind the reset. Many conservatives have labeled the reset as “appeasement,” arguing that Russia is an adversary and America needs to be “tougher” in its approach. However, the idea behind the reset was to prevent disagreements  from getting in the way of the U.S. and Russia working together toward shared interests. This would require a “strong” relationship, rather than a "weak" one – just as Ryan says we need and was the entire purpose behind the reset. While Mitt Romney thinks about the U.S.-Russian relationship as one of “geopolitical foes,” Ryan thinks about it - or at least talks about it – as one where we need to work together and develop a pragmatic relationship.


Perhaps it is unfair to read too much into this single interview. These were remarks given in an interview on Fox News. They were not part of a major foreign speech or position paper. However, with such speeches and papers few and far between – and frankly full of platitudes and criticisms without alternatives - this is all there is to work off of. 

This Week In Fear-Mongering: The Problem With Ferguson and Frum
Posted by Michael Cohen



As all of you know Niall Ferguson has written an execrable piece of right-wing clap-trap for Newsweek on why President Obama doesn't deserve a second term. 

Others have written about the many issues of fact and analysis in Ferguson's piece, but I want to hit on one point that is not receiving enough attention. In his section on Obama's "failed foreign policy" Ferguson makes the following assertion:

Meanwhile, the fiscal train wreck has already initiated a process of steep cuts in the defense budget, at a time when it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place—least of all in the Middle East.

There are a couple of problems here. First "initiated a process of steep cuts" is a mouthful of a sentence that really should be interpreted as "hasn't happened yet and likely won't." Moreover, the sequestration cuts that Ferguson bemoans were initiated by the same group of House Republicans whose leader, Paul Ryan, Feguson extols as a serious fiscal conservative. It is important to remember that every single time a conservative criticizes President Obama for presiding over cuts to the Pentagon's budget that those potential cuts were signed into law wholly because of the debt limit showdown from last summer, which was initiated by House Republicans. If Ferguson thinks steep defense cuts are a problem - why is he blaming Barack Obama and not Eric Cantor?

The larger issue here, however, is the argument that "it is very far from clear that the world has become a safer place." In fact, it is quite clear that the world is a safer place. As the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the most recent Human Security Report indicate; inter-state wars are on a historic decline, the number of violent conflicts, in general, are falling, civilians are far less likely to die in armed conflict (in fact the first decade of this century witnessed fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century); and there hasn't been a great power conflict in 60 years, “the longest period of major power peace in centuries,” as the Human Security Report puts it. 

In addition, the potential for nuclear conflict - a dominant feature of mid-20th century global politics -- is now almost impossible to imagine. As for terrorism, that too is on the decline. According to the State Department, between 2006 and 2010 the number of deaths caused by terrorism fell by 35 percent - and attacks were down 20 percent. 

Now one is more than welcome to argue that the world is actually quite dangerous, but considering that the empirical evidence points in only one direction - toward a safer world - it is incumbent upon those who make such an argument to explain why the data is hiding an actual dangerous future. Ferguson, not surprisingly, doesn't do that. 

Instead, he makes the insinuation that cuts to the defense budget - which have not yet gone into effect - are risky because of this stated, but unexplored dangerous world. This is of course one of those short-hand cause and effect relationship that is taken as conventional wisdom in Washington. But Ferguson never really explains how cuts to a defense budget that is currently larger than the next 14 countries' defense budgets combined imperils US safety. Or how a defense budget simply being reduced to FY 2007 levels will make America unsafe. Again, it's quite possible that these cuts will put America at risk, but you don't get to just say that without explaining how.

Along these lines comes David Frum, who attempts to defend Ferguson's argument that China will soon pass the United States in total GDP. According to Frum, "The prospect of the U.S. as number 2 is a threat and challenge. So long as China remains a repressive authoritarian oligarchy, the prospect of a world reordered to meet Chinese imperatives is an ugly one. If the outcome cannot wholly be averted, postponing it for another generation ought to be a supreme task for national policy making. And shrugging off Ferguson's grim warning with self assurances about higher U.S. consumer welfare utterly misses the mark: those who have power can take wealth from those who possess wealth, but lose power."

Here's the problem - nowhere does Frum explain how China might actually be a threat to the United States.  One can certainly argue that China poses an economic challenge to the United States, but how is a country that spends one-ninth what the United States spends on its military a threat to America? Considering that the US is a global hegemon and even with planned  defense cuts would almost certainly remain one; and considering that China's power projection is pretty much restricted to the geographical areas near its borders how exactly will Beijing be able to reorder the word to "meet Chinese imperatives"? Moreover, how and why would the Chinese take wealth from the US - and why would they want to? China is a rather large exporter of goods - don't they benefit from a US that is prosperous and wealthy? Indeed one might argue that a wealthier China, more integrated into the larger global economic system, would lessen the opportunity for future conflict. So from that perspective a steadily more prosperous China is not something to fear - but rather to welcome.

But of course I could be wrong and a rising China is a threat and a challenge to the United States. But again if you're going to make this argument then you have to explain how.

Indeed, this is how fear-mongering works - vague fears of foreign threats are raised (a growing Chinese economy, instability in the Middle East, potential defense cuts etc.) but rarely is the connection made between these alleged threats and the intentions and capabilities of so-called enemies and adversaries. Republicans like to warn of the perils of Iran getting a nuclear bomb; what they find harder to do is make the connection between an Iranian nuke and US national security. Why does an Iranian bomb place Americans at risk? How will defense cuts put America in danger? How will a rising China imperil the United States? How does instability in the Middle East make America more unsafe? 

Just saying it's so doesn't make it true.

August 15, 2012

The Deficit of Strategic Thinking and the Ryan Plan
Posted by Bill R. French

294968003_6N9HX-LFor a campaign that was initially assertive on foreign policy, Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan for vice-presidential running mate comes as a surprise. Not only does Ryan lack any foreign policy experience but the defense policy put forward in the so-called Ryan Plan actively undermines Romney’s national security platform.

Perhaps more importantly, however, a glance at the Ryan Plan sheds light on the second deficit facing our country: the deficit of real strategic thinking.

The Ryan Plan and the Romney Campaign

At the core of this trouble is an apparent incompatibility between the Ryan Plan and Romney’s defense policy.  In his high-profile budget plan, Ryan proposed increasing Pentagon expenditures by $599 billion over the next decade. However, for the Romney-Ryan ticket, the problem is that this is $1.51 trillion less than is called for under Romney’s plan to peg Pentagon spending to 4% of GDP annually.

There is a significant difference in the underlying logics of each plan. In principle, Ryan recognizes the trade-off between failing “to put our budget on a sustainable path” – in which case “we are choosing decline as a world power” – and Pentagon spending, or at least his threat-perception that drives his proposed Pentagon spending. Ryan, no doubt, believes his budget strikes such a balance between deficit reduction and responsible Pentagon financing, however controversial that alleged balance may be. Crucially, that balance appears to be disregarded by Romney’s proposal to inundate the Department of Defense with cash, perhaps risking, in Ryan’s terminology, American “decline as a world power.”

While the GOP will surely develop some narrative to explain away these differences, even the most genuine, effective attempts will come at a high political cost. Consider that 41% of Americans believe the nation spends “too much” on defense and 52% believe cuts to reduce the deficit should come from the military (Medicare came in 2nd at 15%).

Then, of course, if tapping Ryan for VP was intended to provide Romney with conservative credentials and fiscal bona fides, the $1.51 trillion difference between their respective Pentagon plans undermines that attempt.

And just how much does $1.51 trillion buy for the Pentagon? Well, as illustrative examples, that sum could purchase around 122 Ford Class aircraft carriers or about 9,000 F-35s.

Yet, upon Ryan joining the campaign, the Romney Pentagon plan became the Romney-Ryan Pentagon plan. Certainly there were no overnight changes in the strategic environment or in the nation’s fiscal situation to explain Ryan's upward shift of $1.51 trillion from his previous proposal.

Instead, the overnight change, as Ryan explains, was that now he’s “on the Romney ticket.”  In other words: politics. And that’s a problem.

The Deficit of Strategic Thinking

At a moment in history in which the United States faces rapid changes in the international system, the country needs a defense policy driven by strategic thinking, not politicking. The failure of political leaders to think strategically about defense constitutes the nation’s other, much less discussed deficit: the strategic deficit.

Continue reading "The Deficit of Strategic Thinking and the Ryan Plan " »

August 14, 2012

Foreign Policy Conservatives - Just So Naive
Posted by David Shorr

465px-George_W._Bush_walks_with_Ryan_Phillips_to_Navy_One (1)You have to give the Cold War nostalgists at least some credit: what they lack in practicality, they make up for in bluster and pure tenacity. Reading conservative critiques of President Obama on national security like Henry Nau's new National Review Online piece is like going through the looking glass, where success is failure and failure is success. 

Nau's argument about the relationship between military forces and diplomatic objectives is worth dissecting --if only because it typifies all the weaknesses of conservatives' case. But I'll start with two quick points on Iran that by themselves kick the legs out from under the GOP platform. One, President Obama's policies and diplomatic efforts have put Iran under stricter sanctions and greater pressure than it's ever been. Again, the international banking and energy sanctions spearheaded by the Obama administration are more stringent than any previous sets of sanctions. 

And speaking of President Bush, would conservatives please give their assessment of his effectiveness in keeping the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs from progressing? Didn't Iran and North Korea get closer to the bomb on Bush's watch, while he was using the exact approach of getting tough, standing pat, and showing resolve that Republicans are still advocating? Wait, I've got that wrong. North Korea didn't just get closer; they actually got the bomb.

The cornerstone of Nau's argument is the same magical thinking and belief in the Resolve FairyTM we so often hear from the Right. Their theory says America can whip other nations into line through a combination of military muscle, thick-skinned disregard for others' interests or concerns, and stubborn insistence on getting our way. In Nau's case, he especially emphasizes the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, defense budget cuts (planned and supported by the military itself, mind you), and other Obama policies that somehow make it easier for Russia, China, and Iran to defy American wishes. It's a new twist on an old proverb: build a more bullheaded foreign policy and the world will beat a path to lay down and be your doormat. 

If the world really worked that way, it would certainly simplify the entire practice of foreign policy. For instance, would our conservative friends please tell us what level of military spending would intimidate China, Russia, and Iran into docile submission? $600 billion? $800 billion? 4% of GDP? And how long must US troops stay in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what would you do about Iraqi insistence on our withdrawal? Oh, and can we please get your guarantee of Russian and Chinese non-resistance in writing? Remind me again which side of the foreign policy debate is supposed to be naive.

Then there's the lack of self-awareness or sense of irony. Here's Nau's indictment of Obama over withdrawing from Iraq: 

He withdraws U.S. troops entirely from Iraq, even though a residual U.S. force in that country might have done more to draw the line on Iran’s nuclear-based foreign-policy ambitions than sanctions and negotiations can.

Hey, know what would give Iran more room for its foreign policy ambitions? Removing its major regional rival, Saddam Freaking Hussein. Besides, for anyone who paying any attention during the whole Iraq debacle there was a pretty important lesson in the difference between the changes achievable through kinetic action (e.g. overthrowing Saddam) and the greater difficulty of reaching particular political outcomes. Flinty resolve and military strength -- by the way does defense budget trimming really raise doubt about the capability of the world's sole superpower -- just don't have the magical powers the right wing believes.

Sorry for the civility lapse. It's just that we spent years watching the right wing ideology wreck American international credibility and arouse widespread suspicion, and all this BS now that progressives have worked to regain cooperation and support is hard to take. To reiterate: the most stringent set of international sanctions ever. And with Prof. Nau's broad brushstrokes of Chinese defiance, he neglects to mention that China went along with the sanctions by sharply cutting its imports of Iranian oil. In terms of hegemonic Chinese moves in the South China Seas and Korean Peninsula, Nau also fails to mention the Obama administration's diplomatic and military pushback against both.

Plus there's an essential piece of cooperation with Russia that Prof. Nau leaves out of his article: the vital supply route Russia has let NATO use for the Afghanistan operation. As Sam Charap has highlighted, the Russian route might have been critical to enable President Obama to mount the raid on Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Given the sensitivities of and fragile relations with the Pakistanis, the lack of an alternative to the Pakistani supply route could have constrained Obama.

Ah yes, Bin Laden. Almost forgot about him (not). Here's one of Nau's critiques of Obama's AfPak policy:

Simultaneously, America’s special-forces raids and drone attacks kill Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda terrorists but weaken Pakistan.

So what is Nau saying here, that Obama shouldn't be ordering the drone attacks? Maybe this sentence represents an outbreak of Obama derangement syndrome, but it's strange to see a national security expert highlight a policy trade-off but withhold his own thinking with regard to that trade-off.

I take some consolation in how the media has started to scrutinize this thumb-our-noses-at-everyone approach to foreign policy. One good example was Chuck Todd's grilling of Ed Gillespie, pressing the former RNC chair to say what would be achieved by a more confrontational stance toward Russia. This is the national security piece of a "choice election." And just like with domestic policy, the platform and ideas on offer from the Republicans are awfully thin. 

Photo: White House, Susan Sterner

August 11, 2012

Paul Ryan's "Evolving" Views on Pentagon Spending
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

When Paul Ryan introduced the first "Ryan budget" last year, the one that made him the Tom Cruise teen heartthrob of conservative circles, there was some quiet consternation about his Pentagon spending proposals. Bill Kristol's colleagues at the Foreign Policy Initiative thought the numbers could have been higher. Green-eyeshade types noted that Ryan's Pentagon proposals amounted to a reduction in the rate of growth over five years, not an actual cut -- though it did propose a level lower than what the White House had proposed for that year.

Who, like Goldilocks, thought Ryan's Pentagon spending was just about right? The Obama Administration, that's who. Because Ryan appeared to have adopted some of its key assumptions and arrived at very similar numbers.

By 2012, however, Ryan seemed to have changed his mind about the relationship between deficit and defense. His proposal this year was notable for plussing up Pentagon spending well beyond commander requests -- and taking more out of supports for seniors, students and the needy to do it.

Here's hoping a reporter asks him -- soon-- about his views on defense strategy, how they have evolved, and who is guiding his thinking. Also, it's worth recalling that his 2011 budget brought him conflict with HOuse Armed Serbices Chair Buck McKeon and 23 freshmen over its "low" Pentagon spending levels; this year's budget process, on the other hand, saw him accusing Pentagon uniformed leaders of not being honest with Congress by requesting too LITTLE, surely a first in the history of tension between Pentagon procurement and Congressional budget overseers.

So what does this tell us about Paul Ryan: that he is less a consistent budget maverick and more a creature of political pressure than his hagiography suggests; and that, lacking his own fully-formed views on the strategic requirements for US national security, he adopted a politically-expedient course. Both of which make him a great match for Governor Romney, whose national security policy makes up in rhetoric what it lacks in substance, or in differentiation from current policies that have won the support of military and public alike.

Note: this is my first attempt to blog from my iPhone3. Results are mixed. Links to citations and specific numbers are below:

August 10, 2012

Public Opinion on National Security and Iran
Posted by The Editors

The following is a guest post from NSN intern Ezra Dunkle Polier.

As civil war rages on in Syria, countries around the world remain suspicious about the Iranian nuclear program, and Egypt struggles with a new government, maintaining a firm grasp on foreign policy issues will be critical for the next president. Recent polling data shows that, try as he might, Mitt Romney cannot seem to gain an edge on President Obama when it comes to foreign policy credentials.

Fox News poll from last week showed that President Obama continues to lead Mitt Romney on foreign policy and national security issues. When asked which candidate they trust to do a better job on handling foreign policy, 51% of respondents selected Obama, compared to just 38% for Romney. The same polling question from June yielded a similar response, with 49% of respondents preferring Obama’s handling of foreign policy to only 38% for Romney’s.

Most striking has been data showing domestic support for Obama’s policies toward Iran compared to Romney’s proposals. The same Fox News poll found 43% of people trusting Obama to do a better job on “stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” while Romney only received 39% confidence in the same category. This difference comes despite Romney’s frequent criticism of Obama’s patience toward Iran and hawkish rhetoric in favor of potential military action. This poll comes on the heels of recent increase in sanctions against the Iranian regime, which 74% of respondents in an ABC News/Washington Post poll supported compared to only 41% who supported potential military action.

This public sentiment is nothing new, and demonstrates that Romney’s recent foreign policy trip to the U.K., Israel, and Poland did nothing to increase voter confidence in his national security credentials. In fact, according to recent polling data from Reuters/IPSOS, opinion of Obama’s foreign policy rose from 47-51%, while Romney’s remained at a static 35%.

When it comes to defending the United States from terrorism, Obama again holds a substantial lead. A survey from the beginning of July by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 50% of the respondents thought that President Obama would do the best job of defending the country from terrorist attacks, while Romney only received 38% of public support.

Though polling data only represents one measure by which to judge how the public feels about a candidate’s ability, it is a very clear one. During a time where stories of political conflict and civil war make front page headlines daily, it is paramount that we have a strong leader making decisions about our foreign policy strategies.

August 08, 2012

Just When I Thought I Was Out... They Pull Me Back In
Posted by James Lamond


It has been a while since I have posted here. But there is nothing like an op-ed by Sens. McCain, Graham and Lieberman to pull me back in.

In the column, the Senators called for greater action in Syria, saying the Obama administration’s “hands-off approach” is not working. Specifically they call for arming the opposition forces and carving out a safe-havens, including with U.S. airpower.

First, the idea that the U.S. is not doing anything because it has not engaged in military action needs to be addressed. There is a multipronged approach to the crisis that includes financial assistance, contact with opposition groups on the ground, international politicking, security contingency planning and humanitarian assistance. Last week the White House announced $12 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, bringing the total to $76 million while Secretary Panetta met Syria’s neighbors coordinating responses to refugee flows and delivery of humanitarian aid.

State announced last week that the U.S. increased funding for “non-lethal” assistance to the opposition groups as well as granting authorization for the Washington representatives of the FSA to conduct transactions on the groups’ behalf. Meanwhile, senior officials, including now-returned Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and his team at State are staying in close contact with the opposition groups while others are focusing on diplomatic strategies with regional powers and the external opposition.

The Pentagon has been “working overtime” on planning around concerns over chemical weapons, both their use and concerns about the stockpiles falling into the wrong hands. The Pentagon, on its own initiative, also developed a Crisis Asset Team, to prepare the U.S. military for any role it might have to take.

To say that the U.S. is “sit[ting] on our hands, hoping for the best,” is simply wrong. There are options other than military, and the U.S. is pursuing them and planning accordingly.

But more importantly McCain, Lieberman and Graham fail to address essential questions that must be answered when thinking about military action, which reflects a failure to learn some of the most important lessons of the past decade.

In in this excellent essay last month Brian Fishman points out that military action in Syria is not as simple as many suggest, and not necessarily a solution to the humanitarian crisis. One of the primary arguments against a plan such as that proposed by McCain, Lieberman and Graham (arming rebels while carving out safe zones) is the inherent path towards deeper involvement.  As Fishman says, "creating ‘safe zones’ is unlikely to resolve the humanitarian crisis… but it will signal a political commitment to military resolution of the conflict.” What is our objective and how far is the U.S. willing to go? What is the U.S. role in a post-Assad Syria, particualrly if violence continues? 

Further, there is no way to know that military intervention will prevent a humanitarian disaster. For example Iraq from saw incredible sectarian violence despite a large presence of U.S. forces on the ground. Is the military option the best way to achieve the stated objective of protecting civilian?

Finally, creating safe zones, is not as easy or risk-free as many of its proponents make it out to be. Syria’s military air defense system is strong, after significant  enhancements following the embarrassing 2007 Israeli airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor. As Fishman states:

“Even limited military goals in Syria will require a broad campaign to suppress Syrian air defense systems and, probably, surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missile systems capable of striking western assets. In densely populated Syria, striking those surface-to-air systems is likely to create a slew of unintended civilian casualties (not to mention the threat to U.S. pilots). Much of the world shuddered at the human cost of bombing Baghdad in 2003; do we expect the bombing of Damascus to be so much more precise? How many civilians is it acceptable to kill on a humanitarian mission?"

Can we achieve our objective with an acceptable amount of risk to our forces? What is the acceptable amount of risk to the civilian population? The Senators are concerned about goodwill and America’s moral standing in the region, but what are the strategic consequences of civilian casualties?

I realize that Senators McCain, Lieberman and Graham are not the only three to have made these recommendations without answering these important questions. However, these three have repeatedly ignored the lessons of the past decade while advocating for various military actions. I suppose it is somewhat ironic to hear from the some of the strongest advocates of the Iraq War that, “we are jeopardizing both our national security interests and our moral standing in the world,” by not engaging in military action in Syria.

August 06, 2012

More Effective and More Efficient: Increasing Military Power with Less Money
Posted by Bill R. French

ModularityLast week’s political torrent on the national security implications of sequester was predictably unconstructive, ranging from feuds over pink slips to McCain’s “sequester tour.”

At some point, though, Congress will hopefully do its job, likely by making a deal to avoid sequester that makes modest reductions in defense spending – as it should.  Arguments for reducing the defense budget tend to emphasize the numbers, like how even sequester size cuts of $55 billion per year would only return the Pentagon’s base budget to 2007 levels.

Those facts are important, but they’re only half the reason that the defense budget can be safely reduced. The other half is operational and strategic in nature: in part due to technological advances, the U.S. can employ more cost-efficient ways to develop and field its combat power directly. Moreover, many of these ways of doing more with less also better address emerging challenges.

The surface of this line of analysis has only begun to be scratched – most comprehensively by the ongoing Responsible Defense project at the Center for a New American Security. Yet, various corners of the national security community – including senior military officials – have proposed or begun to implement concepts for innovative, cost-efficient military power.

Below are four topline concepts that help to illustrate how the military can better meet future challenges while saving resources:

Continue reading "More Effective and More Efficient: Increasing Military Power with Less Money " »

New Blogger: Bill French
Posted by The Editors

Please welcome Bill French, our newest blogger at Democracy Arsenal. Bill recently joined NSN as a research associate and will be contributing to DA. He has written for the Huffington Post, Defense News, CAP and CNAS. We are excited to have him join the debate.

August 04, 2012

"Top-Down Economics" -- Why 2012 Should Be About Reason For, Not Level Of, Unemployment
Posted by David Shorr

Over_five_thousand_eager_job_seekers_attended_Congressman_Lacy_Clay's_7th_Annual_Career_FairWhat does it mean to say that this election will be about the economy? For some, it's a supposed causal link between the level of unemployment and President Obama's fate. "No president has ever been reelected, etc."

Lately, all the savviest political observers have been slamming the Romney campaign for letting the focus of the election fight move away from the sluggish recovery. Romney should have this thing in the bag, they say, if only he could keep the attention on the weak state of the economy.

Casting the election in these terms might give Romney his best shot at becoming president. But I'd like to pause and ask whether such a campaign would serve the country well, or our economy for that matter. Is the best way to hold an election "about the economy" really to make the president pay for our hardship? Republicans like House Speaker Boehner love to accuse President Obama of not understanding how the economy works -- contrasted with Governor Romney and all his private sector experience. Okay then, let's have a great debate about how the economy works. Holding that debate, though, will neuter many of the Republicans' favorite talking points and subject their economic platform to more scrutiny than it's been getting. 

Now why is a foreign policy blogger like me even writing about domestic and economic policy? Because the media and commentariat have, with certain exceptions, been doing such a bad job. Also because I believe in the crucial importance of reality-based discourse for our republic. As a foreign policy wonk / advocate, my professional trade has been to publicly debate the United States' actions in the world beyond our borders. Regular readers are familiar with some of the ideas from the far-Right that set off my BS detector -- e.g. the supposedly magical power of toughness and resolve to get others to do as we wish. Well the GOP economic platform is just as detached from reality and destructive in its consequences, yet it's still given a lot of credence because the media passively transmits instead of challenges it. In fact, economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research devotes an entire blog, Beat the Press, to highlighting shoddy reporting and commentary on the economy. 

According to Republican dogma (aka free market fundamentalism), prosperity comes from job-creating business owners in the private sector; the public sector's role in the economy is purely negative. Government regulation, spending, and taxation can only hinder economic growth. So that whole history of the New Deal, Great Depression, works projects, John Maynard Keynes, boosting demand and economic activity through spending? Never happened. We're living in a political moment of widespread Keynesian denialism that flies in the face of facts just as blatantly as climate change denial and evolution denial do.

The gaps between what passes for economic policy argument in 2012 and the hard empirical evidence are legion, so I'll just highlight a few of the most important. First, about those "job creators." Probably the single most important piece of commentary of this election season was by wealthy entrepreneur and investor Nick Hanauer, saying that despite having built successful businesses, he is not a job creator. The core passage is worth quoting at length:

I can start a business based on a great idea, and initially hire dozens or hundreds of people. But if no one can afford to buy what I have to sell, my business will soon fail and all those jobs will evaporate.

That’s why I can say with confidence that rich people don’t create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more employment is the feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion a virtuous cycle that allows companies to survive and thrive and business owners to hire. An ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than I ever have been or ever will be.

When businesspeople take credit for creating jobs, it is like squirrels taking credit for creating evolution. In fact, it’s the other way around.

It is unquestionably true that without entrepreneurs and investors, you can’t have a dynamic and growing capitalist economy. But it’s equally true that without consumers, you can’t have entrepreneurs and investors. And the more we have happy customers with lots of disposable income, the better our businesses will do.

This is exactly what President Obama is saying in his stump speech about prosperity being built from "the middle out" or "bottom up." And it isn't so much a philosophy or vision for America as how the economy really works. Which is why he also highlights the lack of a jobs explosion or widespread prosperity when the Bush administration pushed to get government off the private sector's back in the 2000s.

Two political writers in particular -- Greg Sargent who writes the WaPo's Plum Line blog and Ari Berman of The Nation -- have been incisive yet relatively lonely voices in talking about the substance that underlies the campaign rhetoric. I particularly recommend Greg's recent column on what the "didn't build that" debate is really about and Ari's piece explaining that President Obama has a jobs plan, and Romney really doesn't. When will the campaign discussion and coverage finally look at Romney's 59-point pland and Obama's American Jobs Act side-by-side? Do the Republicans just get to claim their approach will generate growth without any real plausible framework? Obamacare as a "job killer"? Seriously?

But the kicker is this: Romney himself doesn't believe all the nonsense. He knows just as well as President Obama the need for stimulative government spending to make up for weakness in the private sector. The real scandal of the 2012 economic debate and media coverage is the failure to note statements from the candidate directly contradicting the entire Republican argument about budget cuts leading to growth. This is what he said to Mark Halperin of Time magazine:

If you take a trillion dollars, for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5 per cent. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I’m not going to do that, of course. I don’t want to have us go into a recession in order to balance the budget.

How does this not make the GOP case against the Obama record hypocritical? Where does it leave "stimulus failed" critique? (For the fuller dossier on Mitt Romney, closet Keynesian, see this Nicholas Wapshott Politico op-ed.)

So the conventional wisdom has it backwards, every day we really talk about the economy is a good day for the Obama campaign.

Photo: Office of Congressman Lacy Clay

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