Max Boot is Unamerican! OK, that might be pushing it a bit too much, but it never ceases to amaze me how weak these so-called hawks think the United States is. Any strategic restraint is a French surrender, and every minor budget cut is a disaster. This blog post could be written about Max Boot just about anytime, but I was particularly inspired to write something today because Boot is at it again. This time it’s ‘weak’ Republicans who are in his sights–Republicans who are considering making substantive, though far from brutal, cuts to defense spending over the next ten years. The amount flouted in the press is $700 billion. This seems like a lot, but when you spread it out over ten years, it seems smaller. It seems even smaller when you factor in that this might be savings on PROJECTED spending. That means the Pentagon has decided it is going to spend X amount of dollars the next few years, and this current proposal, and many other proposals before it, readjusts those projections. In other words, the Pentagon will continue to spend a lot of money, but the yearly increase will be smaller than projected. It might even be smaller than defense spending today, though it is seriously doubtful the reduction will be more than miniscule.
There are a lot of things wrong with Boot’s recent op-ed/analysis/musings, but one thing that struck me as particularly mindboggling is the paragraph on missions. Defense spending has to be linked to missions. In other words, whatever you tell the military to do, you have to give them enough funds to actually accomplish these tasks. Boot gets this, which puts him ahead of a surprisingly large amount of people, but not much more. Where he falters is describing the necessary missions today. These are the missions the U.S. military are performing today that are vital to U.S. interests, according to Boot:
Perhaps we should stop fighting pirates off the coast of Africa? Stop fighting in Libya so that arch-terrorist Muammar Qaddafi can claim a victory over the West? Stop targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere? Stop deterring China, North Korea, or Iran? Stop patrolling the Persian Gulf through which much of the world’s oil flows? Stop fighting cyberattacks emanating from China and Russia? Stop developing missile defenses to protect the American homeland? Stop supporting Mexico and Colombia in their fights against narcotraffickers? Stop holding military exercises with friendly armed forces from Egypt to the Philippines—exercises that allow us to exert soft power at low cost?
Piracy is a genuine problem, but not exclusively a U.S. problem. In fact, combating piracy, especially in the Gulf of Aden, has become a rallying point of international cooperation. There are some serious challenges left, such as capacity building in the countries whose shores are being exploited, but the piracy problems shows that the international community can and should work together to solve threats to the commons. While the United States would have to commit some resources to this mission, it is hardly a resource-draining mission for a fleet of 287 ships, including 11 carriers.
As for Libya, so what? There are real humanitarian arguments for being involved in the Libya operation, but Boot seems to insinuate that a withdrawal would somehow hurt the United States by signaling weakness. This is preposterous. Gaddafi might think less of the United States should it withdraw, but his opinion on anything is rather inconsequential to U.S. security. As for actual competitors, it seems rather doubtful that China’s calculation of U.S. capabilities and intent would change noticeably, if at all, by what happens in Libya. Everyone knows, except maybe Boot, that the Libya operation is of marginal concern to the Obama administration and seen more as an obligation than part of a grand strategy. If anything, the United States’ intransigent inability to disengage from conflicts (e.g. Vietnam) is probably seen as a bigger strategic weakness than being able to reevaluate, and possibly change, current policy.
Going down the list, few, if any, proponents of defense budget cuts are suggesting an end to counterterrorism efforts. In fact, both the Sustainable Defense Task Force and the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force acknowledge the need for counterterrorism capabilities, but stress that this is not expensive. Boot here seems to confuse COIN and state building with a small, concentrated effort to root out terrorists hiding in sovereign nations. The former requires a lot of forces, resources and risk, but the latter is a relatively small mission. It also relies heavily on intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, not tanks and army battalions.
“Stop deterring China, North Korea, or Iran?” I’m not really sure what Boot is talking about here. U.S. military presence in Japan, South Korea, or Arabian peninsula? For the sake of the argument, and this being the most logical explanation, let’s go with that. Boot is right that U.S. presence in these countries has a deterring effect, but it is doubtful that effect is very big. In fact, it might even have a net negative effect, as the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia after Desert Storm provoked anti-Americanism within Saudi Arabia and just recently the issue of U.S. bases in Japan destabilized the political system there. But back to the issue of deterrence. Both Japan and South Korea are under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, offering probably the largest deterrent possible. And should that fail, the United States has unrivaled power projection capabilities (e.g. carrier battle groups and long-range bombers) that can swiftly retaliate against any aggression. These two countries are also building up their own militaries, partly because of encouragement from Washington, and should be able to defend themselves better than a few thousand U.S. troops. As for Saudi Arabia, it is not under the nuclear umbrella, but gets substantial military aid from the United States, meaning it spends roughly twice as much as Iran on its military, according to the 2010 IISS Military Balance book. Iran has, arguably, better military capabilities, but rising Saudi capabilities and U.S. presence in the Gulf should provide plenty of deterrence against direct Iranian aggression.
Moving away from the issue of deterrence, it is highly doubtful that China, North Korea, or Iran will go to, much less want to risk, open conflict. In the case of China and Iran, there are enormous economic and political disincentives to belligerence, and North Korea has China keeping it from going off the reservation. That means that even if the United States is not capable or willing to militarily defend these countries, there are still substantial costs associated with offensive actions, if not invasion and occupation.
When mentioning patrolling the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), Boot is throwing up a false dichotomy not too uncommon with neoconservatives: if the United States doesn’t shoulder the entire burden, chaos will ensue. Again, and this is a common theme amongst neoconservatives, Boot is saying that the United States, and the United States alone, is capable of protecting the world from nefarious forces. Here is one issue where certain parts of the defense cut proponents differ. Some, such as the folks over at the Cato Institute, think such large-scale U.S. presence is wasteful, since there are few threats to SLOCs, and other countries, especially the oil-providing countries, have their own interest in keeping them safe. In other words, other countries are freeriding on U.S. security. Personally, I lean towards maintaining a presence, but encouraging/cajoling other friendly allies to take a larger share of the security burden. This should not be difficult, given the substantial navy investments being undertaken by India, South Korea, Japan and others.
On to cyberspace (boy, Boot sure knows how to employ rhetorical shock and awe!) As with counterterrorism, no one is arguing that the U.S. military should build down its cyberwarfare capabilities. In fact, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force recommended that cybersecurity should receive high priority. Perhaps if Boot was a little less preoccupied with setting up straw men, he might see that.
The War on Drugs has now lasted for 40 years, since President Richard M. Nixon (!), and like a lot of U.S. wars shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Yet, Boot is scared of what might happen if the United States stops subsidizing Latin American countries with arms. The security implications of billion-dollar drug cartels are significant, but it remains doubtful that this is a problem with a military solution. Portugal has shown that you can tackle the problem of drug abuse by decriminalizing it and offering up treatment instead of imprisonment. In the end, the drug problem is one of supply and demand. If you take away the demand, you take away the economic base of the cartels’ power. Drug prohibition is ensuring that criminal organizations maintain their source of revenue, making them capable of killing innocents indiscriminately and tearing down the state structure through corruption.
I’m not sure if Boot put joint military exercises at the end because it is the least persuasive argument of all his straw man arguments, but if he really wants to maintain U.S. soft power, his time might be better spent advocating bigger budgets for the State department. Exercising with and training foreign military forces do not guarantee sympathetic views. The glaringly obvious example of this is the Pakistani army. For decades top Pakistani officers have received training in the United States, with absolutely no positive effect. In fact, the Pakistani army officer corps is blatantly hostile to the United States.
To sum up, Boot is using straw man arguments and questionable strategic assumptions to justify profligate spending at the Pentagon. As he illustrates all too clearly, the problem with the neoconservatives is that they want the military to do everything, all the time, eliminating every conceivable threat, real or imaginary, all in the name of responsible stewardship of the world. A more responsible approach would be a thorough assessment of what the United States can and should do to maintain its own security. By attempting to fix everything, you achieve nothing and risk a whole lot.