Skip to content

Posts from the ‘United States’ Category

Messaging, Not Cost

By Taylor Marvin

At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison refutes the notion — argued by the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson* — that cuts in US military spending will significantly restrain American leaders’ interventionist tendencies. ” The decision to intervene in other countries’ conflicts and internal affairs is not necessarily prevented by a relative lack of resources,” Larison writes, noting that “the [US] military interventions of the last twenty years have been almost entirely optional.”

I agree with Larison, and think the entire question is largely irrelevant. US military resources will never be a constraint on potential military interventions, because the advocates of strategically-unnecessary wars have every incentive to downplay their expected force requirements and costs. Interventions are inevitably framed by their proponents as low-cost ventures and wars’ expected costs, when they are offered at all, are equally inevitably reliant on optimistic best-case assumptions. The invasion and initial occupation of Iraq was benchmarked around Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks belief, passed on to the wider Bush administration, that small numbers of highly-mobile troops were sufficient to occupy the country and nation-building would be unnecessary; a fantastic assumption. In turn this expected light-footprint informed — or, for the cynical, was mandated by — Dick Cheney’s assertion that Iraq’s oil wealth would pay for the war. Even if the United States spent significantly less on defense war advocates still would have been capable of justifying the invasion on their best-case assumptions.

The same is true for other potential US interventions. Advocates for military interventions will never offer reasonable and measured assessments of conflicts’ likely costs and benefits. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate bias: while advocates of intervention are obviously informed by the need for good public relations, Iraq hawks seemed to genuinely believed that a lengthy occupation was unlikely. Drawing the wrong conclusions from the Gulf War and 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and their own post-Vietnam distaste for counterinsurgency, these advocates refused to consider the possibility that the coming war wouldn’t conform to their neatly drawn assumptions.

This remains true today. When Senator Lindsey Graham claims he “doesn’t care what it takes” to contain Syrian chemical weapons, he likely isn’t referencing the assessment that it would take over 75,000 troops to secure Syrian chemical sites. Instead, he’s simply following the Iraq playbook, offering a worst-case take on the costs of inaction and nebulous-at-best consideration for potential costs. Of course Graham’s enthusiasm for intervention in Syria has little practical effect on US policy, which remains unlikely to turn towards entry into the conflict. But Graham’s attitude does illustrate this dynamic. The practical constraints that govern US entry into overseas conflicts isn’t practical resource or cost concerns. Instead, it’s simply the ability of war advocates to message their cause in the most urgent and least objectionable terms possible.

*Gerson uses the phrase “Shiite bomb” as a self-evident explanation for why the Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable, which is pretty damn unconvincing.

The Path-Dependency of Foreign Policy Resolve

DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

By Taylor Marvin

Why did members of the Republican Party so bitterly oppose the Obama administration’s decision to nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary? After Hagel’s confirmation this ultimately-pointless intransigence appears to have been a poor strategic decision, but this assessment isn’t plain solely in hindsight. Executives are generally recognized to have broad latitude in selecting their own cabinet, and Republicans’ decision to filibuster Hagel’s nomination was simply a terrible PR decision — not only did it come off as overreaching and excessively partisan, it simply looks petulant.

If the effort to block Hagel’s nomination was never that likely to succeed, why did Republicans push so hard for it? This is particularly puzzling because the Hagel nomination could have conceivably been spun as a victory for Republicans. At a time when the Republican party is acutely concerned that it is losing its historical advantage on national security issues to the Democrats, the perception that Obama had to look in the Republican camp for a competent defense secretary could surely be valuable.

One explanation for the Republican vitriol towards Hagel is precisely his Republican history, which fed a palpable sense of betrayal among conservatives, in particular Senator McCain. But partisan anger doesn’t explain the full extent of the quixotic and self-harming Republican fight against the nomination. Conor Friedersdorf recently attributed this opposition to the information gap between dedicated conservative commentary and the rest of the media establishment. Because conservative media is largely an entertainment, rather than informatory, good, it has a business incentive to create unrealistic expectations among grassroots conservatives, who then send these demands up the chain to Republican lawmakers. “Hagel’s opponents in conservative media weren’t just misinforming their readers,” Daniel Larison writes, reflecting on Friedersdorf’s argument. “They were immersing themselves in misinformation and congratulating themselves on their keen insights into reality.” To conservative agenda-setters Hagel wasn’t a fairly run-of-the-mill conservative realist; instead, he was a radical whose nomination could and should have been blocked at all costs.

Going further, Robert Farley explains the fight as an internal sorting process between the neoconservative and realist foreign policy wings of the Republican party. Though out-of-power Republicans aren’t able to directly set American foreign policy now, this internal sorting process matters because today’s reputation gains through demonstrations of partisan resolve help the neoconservatives ensure that they, not realists intellectually aligned with Hagel, will be the ascendent group in the next Republican administration. Farley writes:

“The cultural story runs as follows; one of the central planks of neoconservative foreign policy thinking is the important of resolve. Resolve aids both deterrence and compellence; throwing a country against the wall now and again enhances U.S. power and prestige. If resolve works on the international level, it probably works on the domestic level. The Hagel fight represented a cheap opportunity to display resolve; even in a hopeless fight, the neocons show that they’re willing to push beyond all reasonable means to carry on the struggle.”

Writing at the Daily BeastPeter Beinart independently expands this argument. Bitter opposition to Hagel isn’t simply about furthering the perception that neoconservatives and not realists are the natural intellectual drivers of Republican foreign policy, it’s about defending their signature accomplishment, the Bush Doctrine. “The right’s core problem with Hagel was that he had challenged the Bush doctrine,” Beinart writes. “But by reminding Americans of the potential costs of preventive war, Hagel was implying that containment and deterrence might be preferable,” an unacceptable admission of the limits of American global influence and challenge to the neoconservative enshrinement of resolve.

What’s so fascinating about this dynamic is how obviously fantastical the Bush Doctrine — which Beinart defines as the rejection of containment and deterrence as acceptable foreign policy tools — has always been, and the obviousness of this core deficiency. For over a decade neoconservatives have loudly insisted that an Iranian nuclear capability is absolutely unacceptable, yet despite stressing the acute dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation quietly accepted North Korea’s ascension to the nuclear club during the same period. “Resolve” aside, this inconsistency should be lost on no one. After all, Bush’s 2002 State of the Union clearly qualified the North Korean regime equally “evil” as Iran’s, and presumably as resistant to containment.

The lesson was clear: despite declarations that the modern world made containment and deterrence unacceptably dangerous strategic concepts, neoconservatives weren’t prepared to follow their own rhetoric to its logical conclusions when it was inconvenient to do so. The American public could be convinced to support an invasion of Iraq when the Bush administration wanted to demonstrate that Donald Rumsfeld’s revitalized Defense Department was capable of replacing inconvenient foreign regimes at minimal costs. Americans would have reacted much less favorably to calls for an invasion of a possibly nuclear-armed North Korea, even if it posed a much greater threat than Saddam Hussein.

Neoconservatives’ practical inconsistency was always obvious to perceptive observers. Of the three axis of evil states, the Bush administration elected to invade the one farthest from nuclear capability simply because Iraq was armed with a decrepit military and its flat geography was amenable to armored invasion. Even before the disastrous occupation of Iraq laid bare its limitations, the Bush Doctrine was alway more about strongman posturing than a consistant worldview.

Yet despite these very obvious limitations, neoconservatism remains the driver of Republican foreign policy thought. While today’s neoconservatives haven’t attained another policy victory on the scale of the Iraq War, they largely haven’t moderated their philosophy in the last decade. When Lindsey Graham says containing a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, he isn’t staking out a realistic policy position — as the US reaction to North Korea’s successful nuclear ambitions should make obvious. But if the Bush Doctrine, and neoconservative thinking in general, is unworkable, why has it persisted?

The problem is once individual politicians have invested themselves in resolve-heavy neoconservative doctrine, it’s very difficult for them to extract themselves from it while retaining political credibility. Unlike realism — or, to a much lesser extent, liberalism — neoconservative thought by definition stresses consistency regardless of external conditions. Placing value on consistant expressions of resolve makes neoconservatism itself an incredibly path-dependent framework: once credibility has been invested in expressions of resolve, subsequent rhetoric can only escalate these expressions without sacrificing credibility. In this self-reinforcing positive feedback loop it’s very difficult for individual lawmakers and pundits moderate their policy positions. The target of neoconservative resolve can change — as today’s focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions while North Korea’s are comparatively ignored — but the level of resolve must at least remain constant. Until neoconservative politicians figure out how to untangle previous expressions of resolve and their future credibility — or retire — neoconservatism will remain a significant constraint on the shape of US foreign policy.

Plan for What You’ll Get, Not What You Prefer

By Taylor Marvin

USAF photo by Capt. Edward Schmitt.

USAF photo by Capt. Edward Schmitt.

One of the main criticism of the Pentagon’s massive F-35 fighter acquisition effort is the aircraft’s limited agility. Detractors of the program claim this limitation is a fatal flaw, while supporters dismiss maneuverability as an antiquated consideration with little relevance to modern air warfare.

Limited maneuverability is a fundamental product of the F-35’s joint nature. The F-35 is a product of compromise; most obviously, the decision to benchmark the aircraft’s three variants around the F-35B’s STOVL airframe. The demands of STOVL design mandated that the F-35 feature a single engine, reducing its inherent survivability and contributing to the F-35’s alleged arial combat deficiencies against competing, twin-engined aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon. But supporters of the program argue that this isn’t a problem. In modern arial warfare — or at least the warfare they deem most likely, as no one really knows what “modern” air-to-air combat looks like in practice — maneuverability doesn’t matter. Instead, in future conflicts fighters will function primarily as networked sensor platforms and missile trucks, engaging each other at beyond visual range (BVR). If maneuverability contributes little to survivability, F-35 advocates argue, it isn’t worth pursuing at the cost of more practical traits like low observability or airframe jointness.

But there’s a key fault in this assumption: just because BVR combat is technically possibile doesn’t mean politically-mandated Rules of Engagement (ROEs) will allow it. At The Diplomat Robert Farley highlights this possibility:

“Perhaps more importantly, rules of engagement are inherently political.  Civilian leaders, and their politically attuned senior military counterparts, will draw up guidelines for combat in context of political, not military, necessity. If the F-35 can only operate successfully in BVR context (and to be sure the networking capability of the F-35 make ‘BVR’ a different proposition than with past aircraft), and if the civilians restrict the ability of the aircraft to operate under such conditions, then the utility of the fighter comes into grave question.  This question is hardly academic, as potential peer competitors of the U.S. (including Russia and China) will undoubtedly take political steps to limit the ability of the F-35 to fight at full capability.”

I’d take this farther. The most famous instance of restrictive rules of engagement limiting BVR air-to-air combat is the Vietnam War. These restrictions, combined with the early-sixties belief that BVR missiles would dominate future air-to-air combat (early versions of the legendary American F-4 featured no gun, only missiles), frustrated US airmen and empowered North Vietnamese pilots flying maneuverable, gun-armed fighters that excelled in visual range combat. But officials had good reason for requiring American pilots to visually identify their targets before firing. The overwhelming majority of aircraft over Vietnam were American. Restrictive ROEs aided the North Vietnamese, but letting American airmen fire visually confirming targets were actually hostile likely would have resulted in far more friendly fire incidents. Given the primitive identification friend of foe (IFF) technology of the era, it’s difficult to argue that these restrictions were unjustified.

Quickly achieving air superiority is a lynchpin of all American war planning. In any future conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary, the US Air Force and Navy will seek deny the sky to opposing forces — resulting in an airspace that, while contested, is saturated with friendly aircraft. This means that the exact same conditions that justified restricting BVR combat over Vietnam are an inherent product of the total air dominance US forces take for granted. Yes, IFF technology has massively improved since Vietnam. But in a situation where the vast majority of aircraft in theater are friendly, it’s unreasonable to imagine that BVR engagement won’t be limited by self, as well as adversary, imposed political restrictions.

These two preferences — for air dominance and BVR air-to-air combat — are inherently conflicting. This makes benchmarking the F-35 around BVR combat problematic. Sure, US war planners would prefer to fight under BVR conditions, which favor highly networked American forces. But these same strategists should recognize that total air dominance — a fixture of US military planning since World War II — practically insures restrictive ROEs.

How America Strengthens al Qaeda’s Brand

By Taylor Marvin

Stephen Walt raises an interesting, if uncontroversial, point about international terrorism:

Uncontroversial, because this is a widely-appreciated and mourned fact of US foreign policy decisionmaking. The American public rightly associates the name “al Qaeda” with the specter of 9/11, and an inherent threat of devastating violence. This is, of course, understandable. There are at any moment dozens of violent organizations that oppose the United States, and it’s unreasonable to expect the non-professional electorate to keep the goals and relative capabilities of these various groups straight. Al Qaeda, a instantly recognizable name, will always stand out among alien-named jihadi organizations — while a only small percentage of American know how to pronounce “the base” in Arabic, I’d wager more do than any other Arabic phrase.

But just because this association is understandable doesn’t mean mean it isn’t an overreaction. As is frequently noted, modern al Qaeda represents a loose ideological association of regional affiliates rather than an single operationally-unified organization. “If you’re focusing just on North Africa, al Qaeda is a brand name as much as an organization,” then-Secretary Clinton said in testimony last month regarding the September 2012 Benghazi attack. This is certainly true — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the rebranded Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, does not share the al Qaeda of 2001’s global reach, demonstrated operational capabilities, and ideological determination to strike US targets. While it is unclear if AQIM possesses the operational requirements to mount attacks inside the US, it is certainly less motivated to do so than bin Laden’s al Qaeda, which was ideologically driven by bin Laden’s opposition to US military basing in Saudi Arabia. In a late January press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated he was “unaware of any specific or credible information at this time that points to an AQIM threat against the homeland,” but made certain to reemphasize that the US considers this admittedly unlikely threat significant, noting “we take al Qaeda wherever they are very seriously.” This is an implicit admission that AQIM is viewed as a serious terrorist threat because of its al Qaeda moniker, rather than any operational aspect of the organization itself.

Jihadi groups that share a broad ideological link with bin Laden’s organization adopt the al Qaeda moniker because it is respected and legitimizing. Around the world the al Qaeda name is associated with both demonstrated lethality and ideological devotion, and, despite the last decade’s damage to the al Qaeda brand among Muslims, Islamist groups that co-opt the name gain a veneer of dangerous efficacy. To recruitment-minded jihadi groups this legitimizing veneer is operationally valuable.

But the legitimizing power of the al Qaeda brand is partially due to the US’ determination to eliminate it. Among groups that oppose the US — even tangentially, like AQIM — strong opposition from the US is an important signaling device. “See,” it says, “we’re so real the US really wants us dead.” Among Islamist or Islamist-aligned violent groups, the legitimizing effect of determined, public US opposition is an important marker of ideological and operational seriousness.

But it’s important to understand these two effects — jihadis adopt the al Qaeda name because the US fears it, Americans see al Qaeda everywhere and thus fear it more — feed off each other. The name al Qaeda will be a legitimizing force co-opted by violent Islamist groups as long as Americans perceive the term in any context as a grave threat. As long as Americans perceive the spread of the al Qaeda name as evidence the organization is growing more lethal, rather than simply geographically and ideologically disseminated, they will continue to fear it.

Copycat jihadi organizations won’t drop the name al Qaeda precisely because “our perception of the terrorist threat” is tied to its prevalence. As long as US policymakers are unable to publicly distinguish between different brands of al Qaeda in a way digestible by the American electorate the cycle will continue.

Another Decade of Labor Underutilization

By Saad Asad

Unemployment continues to drift downward, but at a slow pace. The average job growth for 2012 was 153,000 jobs, unchanged from 2011. At this rate, we will not attain pre-recession employment levels until after 2025. (Click through the chart to enlarge.)

Labor Underutilization Dec-12

Progressive Taxation or Punishment?

By Saad Asad

The American Taxpayer Relief Act, passed to divert the recent fiscal cliff, distributes most of the prescribed tax hikes towards the wealthy, though the lower class taxpayers do not go by unscathed. Due to the capital gains and dividends tax increases, in particular, the top 1% alone will be subject to over 40% of the increases. Because of the lapse of the payroll tax cut, middle class families will also face a tax increase in 2013 as well. I used data provided by the Tax Policy Center to illustrate the tax change from 2012 to 2013 in chart form. By dividing up the top quintile, we can see that the top 1% pay most of the increased burden compared to the other 19% in the top quintile. Depending on one’s political beliefs, this is a move towards progressive taxation or punishment for the rich.



Small Arms and America’s “First Freedom”

By Taylor Marvin

The recent massacre in Connecticut has once again opened America’s gun laws to public debate, to the chagrin of gun rights advocates. While the NRA and other defenders of gun rights have many arguments in favor of relatively unrestricted access to firearms, one particularly noxious reasoning is that the American citizenry must be well-armed as a defense against government tyranny.

This implicit justification for the 2nd amendment is widespread. In a recent post at Democracy in America, author J.F. recalled Charlton Heston’s famous statement that the second amendment is America’s “first freedom” that guarantees all others, through the credible threat of violence.rem-ad In a Remington print ad highlighted by Mother Jonesthe company warns politicians that the owners of it’s over 5,000,000 bolt action rifles sold constitute “the world’s largest army”. Most dramaticallygun rights advocates frequently attribute the brutal extent of the Holocaust to the Nazi disarmament of European Jews, an argument recently demolished by Michael Moynihan.

At the judicial level, the Supreme Court concluded in District of Columbia v. Heller that in the original 18th century context the right to “bear arms” was “unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia,” and the right to own firearms is not dependent on membership in the modern understanding of a militia.  Later in the opinion, this right is explicitly tied to the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government: “There are many reasons why the militia was thought to be ‘necessary to the security of a free state’… When the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.”

Following this reasoning, civilian access to firearms prevents the state from holding a monopoly on violence, ensuring a politically free society. This is an understandable argument — after all, the Revolutionary War was fought with civilian muzzle-loading muskets broadly indistinguishable from the military small arms of the time. But as a dictate of public policy this argument fails on two levels: armed mass rebellions are an uncommon source of regime change, and individual small arms alone are not an effective weapon of modern war. This is by no means an original argument on my part, but bear with me.

The notion that a violent, extralegal change in the any government will come in the form of a mass rebellion where civilian arms play any role is unlikely. Coups are far more likely to result in a successful regime change: in the 1950-2010 period regional coup success rates ranged from 33 to 55 percent. A civil war is particularly unlikely in the United States. America is a very rich country, and civil wars are uncommon in prosperous societies. This logic is governed by the twin”greed and grievance” motivations for violent challenges to state authority — citizens of rich countries are, on average, prosperous enough that greed is not sufficient motivation to motivate violent action, and the prosperity of existing society reduces perceived grievances. As fighting a civil war requires mobilizing comparatively large social and military resources in opposition to the state, the prosperity and durable representative structure of US government makes another unlikely.

The United States is unlikely to repeat a civil war for other, non-economic reasons, as well. As James Fearson notes, “the most common form of civil war in the post-World War II period has been a stalemated guerrilla war confined to a rural periphery of a low-income, post-colonial state.” Obviously, the United States does not fit this criteria. It’s also worthwhile to remember that the United States has already fought a civil war, one where an organized state military, rather than irregular civilians, was the instrument of secessionist military force.

More importantly, arguing that a well-armed citizenry is a credible threat to state power ignores the realities of modern warfare. Irregular forces armed with small arms and lacking external backing are unlikely to be an effective counter to state power. Michael Moynihan ably notes this capability differential in the context of the Holocaust, writing that even if European Jews were heavily armed “it is optimistic to think that revolt from poorly armed, poorly trained, and undermanned citizens against the mighty German military would have substantially altered the fate of German or Eastern European Jews.” This unfortunate logic held in the case of Western European Resistance fighters as well, who were unable to force the German occupiers out despite some degree of external backing. Worldwide, irregulars restricted to only small arms are unlikely to successfully oppose a capable modern military.

No matter what gun control legislation the US adopts, military weapons like squad machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, and armored military vehicles will always be illegal. This distinction between civilian and military weapons was less pronounced during the Revolutionary War — the benchmark for gun rights advocates’ “resisting tyranny” precedent — when civilian and military personal arms were largely identical. It is doubtful that any modern-day irregular insurgency could mount an effective resistance to the US military without these weapons. Imagining otherwise is a fantasy. District of Columbia v. Heller notes this implausibility:

“It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.”

This may be true for a judicial standpoint. But it does not make the argument at hand — that civilian firearms are a bulwark against tyranny — less silly.

The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan provide an interesting test case. In both conflicts, attacks against coalition forces by IEDs and other explosive devices gradually replaced small arms fire as insurgents’ weapon of choice over the course of the conflict. Insurgents also invested considerable energy in developing more potent IEDs, and in defeating countermeasures. This suggest that even Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, which had ready access to military firearms including squad support weapons, found asymmetrical, indirect attacks with IEDs to be a more effective strategy than small arms fire. Small arms alone are not sufficient to wage modern irregular war, and the prospect of middle-aged men armed with civilian small arms facing a modern military is not an effective political deterrence.

Of course, it is possible that gun rights advocates only mean that a well-armed citizenry can deter political tyranny by retaining a credible threat to assassinate errant leaders, rather than fight a guerilla war. It is certainly true that American presidents face a real threat of assassination — distressingly, four presidents have been murdered in office. But there is little evidence that the fear of assassination in any way influences American political leaders, and in the modern era killing a well-guarded president is a difficult task. Anyway, this is a meaningless debate — if gun rights advocates do think assassination capability is a valid reason to oppose gun control, they are rightly afraid to voice this reasoning in the public sphere.

What’s on the Second Term Foreign Policy Agenda?

By Taylor Marvin

Congratulations rural Pakistanis! Not to worry, the drone strike that just killed you was ordered by a Democratic president!

That’s not to say Barack Obama’s reelection isn’t worth celebrating, even from a strict foreign policy perspective. Mitt Romney’s inability to complete routine feel-good foreign tours without pissing off entire host countries and overwhelming unpopularity abroad hinted a Romney administration’s relations with allies would be rocky, and his fundamentally hawkish worldview suggested that he would be more likely to, intentionally or inadvertently, lead the US into a costly war. Barack Obama is also more open to rational defense cuts than Romney, who insisted on growing military spending for no reason beyond ill-defined ideals of “strength” — and Virginia Electoral College votes.

While it is a mistake to insist that there is no difference between an Obama and Romney administrations’ foreign policy, they, of course, share the same broad political philosophy: both favor American intervention into foreign conflicts while shying away from unpopular, electorally-damaging boots-on-the-ground wars; both judge the immediate benefits of counter-terror drone strikes to be worth their long-term perception costs; and both have expressed an inability to concede to the end of American global hegemony, especially in the Western Pacific. Of course, blaming the candidates — or parties — for this shared consensus is putting the cart before the horse; the Democrats and Republicans share the same broad national security platform because it is popular. In the aftermath of Iraq most voters may shy away from blatant neoconservative talk, but as the Obama administration’s war in Libya shows, interventions are palatable to the public, if they come at low enough direct cost. For all the protests of libertarians drone strikes are popular, because Americans fear terrorism and really don’t care about civilian casualties abroad.

So the drone strikes and broad interpretation of the American military’s role in the world are here to stay. This shouldn’t be a shock, and isn’t a reason to support a third party. American third parties on the left are deeply amateurish, and libertarians are worse: Conor Friedersdorf’s protest vote for Gary Johnson on civil liberties only illustrates that he cares more about hundreds of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes than the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths repealing Obamacare and an austerity-driven recession would cause among his own country’s poor. Foreign policy rarely changes in meaningful ways between administrations not because “both parties are the same”, but because their consensus is popular, to the extent that the electorate cares. This isn’t to say bold policymakers can’t dramatically shift US foreign policy, but the path dependency and electoral considerations that guide their actions are very limiting.

But what does this mean for Obama’s second term? The administration will be unlikely to meaningfully deviate from the course set during Obama’s first term: drone strikes will continue, and the administration may pursue a low-cost intervention — think Libya, not Syria — if the opportunity presents itself. But a second term does offer Obama the opportunity to devote more time to foreign policy issues. Second term presidents usually focus on foreign affairs more than during their first term, when their domestic agenda dominates. This will be especially true for Obama. Barring a conservative come to God moment, Republicans in Congress will likely double down on obstructionism, a tactic that conservatives will perceive to be validated by expected low turnout midterm election gains in 2014. Given this obstructionism, the Obama administration is unlikely to successfully pursue any major domestic goals, like a comprehensive climate change package that included a carbon tax.

So where could the Obama administration turn its attention? An Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is a non-starter; the division in the Palestinian government, Israel’s move to the right, and the US’ deteriorating ability to position itself as an ‘honest broker’ make progress unlikely. Obama gives every indication of ignoring Latin America in his second term as much as he did during his first; to be fair, it’s not clear what real good an increased US presence in the region would bring. US-Russian relations are chilly, but unlikely to improve. Worse, Obama is also unlikely to meaningfully alter America’s policy towards China; the administration’s largely meaningless Asia Pivot means that the mixed strategy of both engagement and containment — with all of its problems — will continue. This is a major disappointment, and positive action by Obama towards China would be a pleasant surprise.

One rational goal for Obama’s second term would be pursuing an accord with Iran. Obama is better positioned than any recent president to successfully improve the US-Iranian relationship.  George W. Bush sacrificed the prospect of any worthwhile diplomacy with his pointless “Axis of Evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq, and Clinton’s dual containment policy, while justified by Iran’s support for terrorism, only maintained the status quo. Domestically, Obama’s record of brutal sanctions buys him political cover to offer a real carrot to the Iranian regime, which is a required part of any successful deal. Though I believe that these sanctions are ultimately damaging to the prospect of favorable long-term change within Iranian society, they are also another potential carrot.

The prospect of progress on the Iranian side is less certain. Openness to dialog on the Iranian side is not enough: after all, in the late 1990s Khatami was open to reforming the US-Iranian relationship, but was unable to overcome conservative opposition within the Iranian regime and ended his tenure with little influence. Today it’s unclear if there is anyone within the regime willing to pursue a Grand Bargain, or if they can outmaneuver conservatives. However, the tensions between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, as well as Ahmadinejad’s impending departure, suggest that the situation within the Iranian government is more fluid than any time since the 2009 election. Whether this is a positive sign remains to be seen.

Also important is Obama’s perceived opposition to military strikes. Barack Obama is less likely to initiate strikes than a Romney presidency would have been, and less likely to cooperate with an Israeli attempt to coerce the US by launching a military strike unilaterally, and then calling for US assistance. It is likely that hardliners within the Iranian regime prefer strikes to very damaging sanctions, as military strikes would mobilize Iranian opposition to the US and Israel and strengthen their position within the regime. If strikes are perceived as less likely in an Obama second term, the potential domestic political payoff from refusing a negotiated settlement are lower. Since the Iranians know the US will not attempt to overthrow the regime a war is survivable, and the prospect of strikes less of a stick than US hawks suggest.

While these signs aren’t favorable per se, there’s no reason the Obama administration shouldn’t devote a major part of their foreign policy agenda during their second term towards Iran. Sanctions impose an enormous, ongoing human cost, and should be ended as soon as possible. The nuclear issue is in desperate need of a resolution  and the the US-Iranian conflict is a resource-sink that should be resolved, if possible. Obama’s second term is as good an opportunity as any.

I Read the Green Party’s Foreign Policy Platform

By Taylor Marvin

At Salon, Matt Stoller has a deliberately provocative piece outlining what he calls “the progressive case against Obama”. Stoller lists the left’s arguments with the Obama presidency, and concludes that voters who don’t live in swing states and have little influence on the presidential election should support a third party protest vote. In Stoller’s eyes this act of liberal protest is important, because “saying no to evil in 2012 will help us understand who is willing to say no to evil when it really matters.” I won’t get into the practical arguments against encouraging progressives to support alternative candidates, even with Stoller’s unconvincing cavet that only those outside of swing states throw away their vote. But third parties’ policies beyond a few pet issues are generally myopically idealistic, at best. While this doesn’t dismiss the very real problems with the common Democratic and Republican policy consensus, it makes them difficult to take seriously.

Stoller’s criticism of the Obama presidency’s “evil” focuses on domestic policy; the only foreign policy issue Stoller mentions is the counter-terrorism drone campaign. But Stoller’s lucky to not highlight foreign policy, because the foreign policy platform of the left’s leading alternative to the Democratic Party is an incoherent confusion. I’m talking, of course, about the Green Party.

The Green Party’s platform is problematic for numerous reasons, but perhaps worse is the insistence on reducing complex problems down to idealized solutions with a clear delineation between good and evil. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t allow for such idealism or moral clarity. Notably, the Green Party foreign policy platform endorses the UN’s right to “intervene in a nation-state engaged in genocidal acts or in its persistent violation and denial of the human rights of an ethnic or religious group within its boundaries, and the right to protect the victims of such acts.” But five items down, the platform rejects the US’ right to “pre-emptive invasion of another country on the grounds that the other country harbors, trains, equips and funds a terrorist cell.” See the problem here? Foreign military intervention motivated by the desire to remove or coerce a terrorist-supporting regime is no different from military intervention to prevent genocide. For all the ideological space between the typically liberal defenders of the Responsibility to Protect and conservatives in favor of a hawkish anti-terrorism agenda, military interventions are risky and costly strategies whatever the motivation. Genocides and human rights violations are often popular with non-targeted social groups and regime supporters; these groups are likely to violently resist a outsider’s attempt to remove their privileges. As Erica Chenoweth noted today, contrary to common knowledge genocides most often take place within civil wars. Halting the genocide means taking a side in an ongoing civil war and terminating the conflict by winning it, likely not what the Green Party’s supporters have in mind. When outsiders have successfully halted genocide it typically requires an extensive ground invasion, like in World War II or the 1978 Cambodian-Vietnamese War. Interestingly  in spite of its insistance that the US has a right, through the UN, to invade human rights abusing states, the document does not mention the word “Syria”. (Or course, the Republican platform’s mild call for a “transition” to a post-Assad government is just as bad.)

How to “intervene in a nation-state engaged in genocidal acts”. Cambodian-Vietnamese war, via Wikimedia.

The Green Party’s inability to recognize that the ideals of a “just war” to prevent genocide do not magic away the intractable problems of escalation and post-conflict governance is a major blind spot, and one that severely damages their purported non-interventionist credibility. As analyst Andrew Exum noted when discussing liberal interventionist calls for intervention in Syria, “when it comes to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, most liberal interventionists are no better than most neoconservatives.” It’s possible to argue that the horrors of genocide and massive human rights violation warrant risky and violent military actions to stop them. But insisting on the meaningless distinction that military intervention is right when targeting human rights violators and wrong when tackling terrorism sponsors is no attempt to engage this difficult argument.

Like the youthfully naive supporters of the Kony 2012 movement, Green’s idealism appears to blind them to the violent realities of the foreign interventions they do support. The Green Party platform calls for phasing out the majority of US military bases abroad, without recognizing that it is the US’ extensive network of overseas bases that allow it to quickly project military power — without these bases, you can’t fight wars to halt genocide.

Similarly, the platform’s nuclear policy is misinformed at best. Aside from calling for abolishing all US nuclear weapons, the Green Party calls for a US declaration of a no-first-use policy without recognizing that countries that do have a stated no-first-use policy — China, India, and North Korea — all lack robust second strike capability: no-first-use isn’t a statement of morality, but rather a purely diplomatic first-strike deterrence. The Greens also call for the US to “dismantle all nuclear warheads from their missiles”. This presumably requires phasing out ballistic missile submarines, which are by far the most stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. Arms control advocates should instead be calling for greater reliance on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and phasing out land-based ones: the Green Party has it precisely opposite.

There are parts of the domestic policy platform that have real appeal: the US should reduce its defense expenditures, and should end the Cuban embargo. But the Green Party, like other third parties, demolishes its appeal with a confused mix of ill-researched foreign policy prescriptions. Worst of all is the platform’s flirtation with 9/11 trutherism: the domestic security section begins with a call for a “complete, thorough, impartial, and independent investigation of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including the role of the administration of George W, Bush, various US based corporations and interests, and other nations and third parties.” Shame aside, pandering to conspiracy theorist dilutes the credibility of the Greens’ good ideas.

Even if there’s so much wrong with the Green Party’s foreign policy, are they worth a protest vote? The problem is that a protest vote is a single signal. It’s difficult for protest voters to only endorse only part of a third party’s platform, because this nuance is often lost when the signal reaches policymakers. Conor Friedersdorf may see his vote for Gary Johnson as a protest against the drone war and intervention in Libya, but it’s also a signal that his vote supports disastrous economic policy and mass unemployment. Friedersdorf may argue that Johnson’s economic libertarianism doesn’t matter, because, unlike foreign policy, domestic policy is largely dictated by Congress, not the president. But these two arenas aren’t so easily separable: if the protest of a protest vote means anything at all, it’s the signal that matters. Friedersdorf’s recognition of this signal is explicit in a followup post: “Causes are best advanced by signalling to politicians and their partisans that specific behavior will end up costing them winnable votes.” Daniel Larison, who also leans towards Johnson, makes a similar point: “The purpose of voting third party on foreign policy grounds is to register a protest against at least some aspects of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy”. But this attitude misunderstands signaling, and overestimates the receptiveness of its audience. For ever politician that reads Friedersdorf’s vote for Johnson as an incentive to oppose the drone war, another will see an electoral reward for gutting social services. Protest vote signals don’t allow for nuance, particularly if they aren’t cast by major columnists who can spend thousands of words explaining just what issue their third party vote is, in fact, protesting. If a protest vote for the Green Party is a signal towards politicians to move towards the left on vital but neglected issues like climate change, it’s also in favor of idealistic military interventions and bad nuclear policy.

Weighing a Dedicated Ballistic Missile Defense Class

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve previously discussed what I see as the deficiencies of Mitt Romney’s naval policy: Romney hasn’t made a compelling argument why the fleet should grow to 350 ships beyond vague notions of national strength, and hasn’t explained why he thinks even a marginally larger fleet will be an effective power projection force able to penetrate dangerous anti-access no-go zones. However, in a recent interview with Defense News Romney advisor John Lehman and his conflicts of interest made an interesting suggestion: building two new classes of ships, a frigate and a dedicated missile defense ship. The new frigate proposal is arguably a good one, as the impending retirement of the antiquated Oliver Hazard Perry class and small size and restricted range of the upcoming Littoral Combat Ship make it unsuitable for the routine sea policing and showing the flag missions frigates excel at.

San Antonio class, via Wikimedia.

More controversial is the proposal for a dedicated ballistic missile defense (BMD) ship. To reduce development costs, Lehman explains, the ship would be built on either the existing DDG-1000 (guided missile destroyer) or LPD 17 (San Antonio class amphibious transport dock) hull. Calling the proposal a missile defense “ship” rather than destroyer is important, Lehman explained, “because to have the kind of power aperture needed for the new radar, there is always a conflict between a deployable battle group ship and a missile defense ship. The latter is in elevated [readiness condition], tied to a specific area. It can’t deploy with the battle group.”

This is an interesting proposal. Offshore ballistic missile defense is a growing mission for the Navy, and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) like China’s formidable DF-21D system are a major threat to surface ships. A dedicated anti-ballistic missile (ABM) ship capable of targeting and destroying ballistic missiles would certainly increase the survivability of carrier strike groups, as well as serve in the region BMD role.

However, there are also numerous problems with this proposal, and it merits careful consideration. The greatest asset of the current fleet composition is its versatility. Destroyers contribute to carrier strike groups as well as perform solo sea policing, and are capable of anti-submarine, anti-air, and surface warfare roles. For all the talk about the demise of carriers, their power projection capability will remain reliable and unrivaled in anything but a major war, which is unlikely to occur in the future. As the United States is unable to predict what type of future conflicts it will involve itself in, versatility is paramount to cost effectiveness, especially as the cost of individual platforms grows.

This is a problem for a dedicated ABM ship. Whiled we can’t say much about what the capabilities of such a ship would be until an actual proposal is ironed out, it would certainly be tied to a single mission to a greater extent than other classes. But of course, this lack of versatility is the cost of excelling at a single mission. A dedicated ABM ship would have significant advantages over the Navy’s current ABM strategy, which relies on Aegis-equipped Ticonderoga class cruisers (four of which have been kept in service for their ABM capability after previously being slated for retirement) and Arleigh Burke class destroyers, as well as allies’ like Japan’s Aegis ABM-equipped destroyers. Starting in 2016 the Navy is scheduled to procure Flight III Burke class destroyers, which will mount the larger and more powerful Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) system to better perform the BMD mission. However, fitting these ships with the bulky mechanical equipment required for such a large sensor system means compromising their designs, and Flight III’s cost per unit has already risen to between $3 and $4 billion.

These ABM platforms suffer from various deficiencies due to their multirole design. But despite the limitations of BMD based on the Aegis system, these ships’ versatility is an enormous advantage. As Ronald O’Rourke notes:

“In conventional warfighting operations, Aegis ships could be called upon to perform a variety of non-BMD functions, including anti-air warfare, anti-surface warfare, strike warfare and naval surface fire support, and antisubmarine warfare. Locations that are good for performing BMD operations might not be good for performing non-BMD operations, and vice versa.”

Though important, the actual need for BMD is rare. Building a entire ship class dedicated to a rarely needed mission is problematic.

So the question is: do the advantages of a dedicated ABM class outweigh the limitations imposed on more versatile, multirole Aegis BMD ships? Possibly. A dedicated ABM ship would be able to better mount the AMDR system and would likely involve less design compromises. Additionally, utilizing the existing LPD 17 hull as Lehman suggests would likely free up a large amount of space for the Vertical Launch System (VLS) used to house missiles on modern warships, allowing for a dedicated ABM ship to carry more missiles. Most Burke class destroyers are fitted with 96 individual VLS cells; cruisers hold 122. As VLS cannot be reloaded at sea, during a major conflict ships could be forced to return to port to rearm, decreasing the amount of ships the US could keep in theater. Delegating the ballistic missile defense role to from surface combatants to a dedicated ABM ship would free up these ships’ VLS for other weapons. Depending on the flexibility of the design a dedicated ABM ship could also be loaded with non-ABM weaponry while not performing the BMD role.

Even if a Romney election victory leads to a larger, 350 ship fleet, there still is a zero-sum aspect to budgetary decisions — money that goes to a dedicated ABM class doesn’t go elsewhere. These costs are substantial; a dedicated ABM class would be expensive. For all Lehman’s talk of affordability, adapting an existing hull design for a new mission is not trivial, and the rising cost of the Flight III Burke class — in itself a simpler conversion than adapting a DDG 1000 or LDP 17 hull to the ABM role — are not a good omen. Lehman’s remark that the optimum power plant for a LDP 17-derived ABM ship “is not the one that’s in it” is also worrying, from an affordability standpoint. This affordability problem is confounded by a dedicated ABM class’ lack of flexibility, as there’s only so much the Navy can spend on a single mission. While the old arsenal ship idea calls for a large ship able to carry a large number of individual VLS cells is superficially similar to a dedicated ABM ship, the extensive sensors required for an ABM ship would negate the benefits of this “moderate cost, high benefit” proposal.

Worse, it’s not clear what benefit this class would provide. While ASBM are the by far the most dangerous threat facing surface ships, but they are not alone. US and allied forces in anti-access/area-denial environments face many threats beyond ballistic missiles, including cruise missiles, enemy aircraft, and for naval forces, submarines and mines; building a dedicated ABM ship is investing in an expensive class that cannot contribute to combating these threats. More troubling, as opponents of ballistic missile defense have noted for decades, ballistic missile defense is hard. BMD systems has performed poorly in combat — though admittedly modern systems have not had the dubious opportunity to prove their worth in wartime — and when successful in tests do so under carefully controlled conditions. If China really did want to sink a US supercarrier, they throw every anti-access weapons system they have against it: an attack by multiple ASBM warheads using decoys and jamming to degrade US countermeasures, combined with simultaneous cruise missile launches to overwhelm and distract defenders. This gets at the core problem with BMD: it will always be easier for an attacker to simply launch more missiles than the system can deal with. ASBM systems are difficult to build — it is not clear when China’s DF-21D will be an operational system — but are not particularly expensive by unit cost, and will certainly become both more common and proliferated in the future. It’s not clear if investing limited resources in a dedicated ship class is a good idea if an ABM ship would not actually be able to perform it’s mission, especially since fleet ballistic missile defense is not the “limited, unsophisticated strike” modern BMD advocates typically argue their systems are capable of defeating.

Of course if successful a dedicated ABM class would have real benefits. Notably, the ability to reliably to defeat intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase would allow the Navy to defend itself in a Western Pacific war without targeting missile launch sites in China. This is a core problem with the AirSea Battle concept: hitting missile launchers in China carries a dramatic potential to escalate a previously maritime conflict. Just as the British refrained from striking the Argentine mainland during the Falklands conflict, so should the US avoid potentially escalatory mainland strikes in a future war. Effective and reliable navla ABM ability could allow this. But this is a huge if, and it is very unclear if this uncertainty justifies an expensive new ship class.