August 26, 2010

Our Empire Addiction

It’s starting to feel like our economic problems are never going to end. Yes, I know Obama keeps insisting that things are improving, but the numbers tell a different story. Home sales are lower than they’ve been in over a decade. Unemployment is on the rise, as is our trade deficit.

The president maintains that we’ll be fine as long as we keep on spending. Sound financial advice there. You’re having money problems? You know what you need? More debt. Yes, spend, spend, spend—that’ll fix everything. What’s really needed, as more and more people are starting to realize, are spending cuts, drastic spending cuts. Nothing else has any chance of staving off the complete collapse of the dollar.

And with so many Americans still suffering, still losing their homes and unable to find work, I think we should begin with our $1 trillion a year defense budget. We could start by ending the war in Afghanistan, which is costing us a staggering $100 billion a year. And why wait until next August? Why wait until Petraeus’s end-of-year status report? Why not just bring our troops home now?

Of course, there’s the Taliban. Yes, I know what some of you are thinking: If we leave, aren’t the Taliban going to regain power? And the truth is that they might; it’s possible. But it’s hard to understand why American taxpayers should be forced to pay $100 billion a year to keep this from happening. The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11. The Taliban don’t pose a threat to us. Although they provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden before 9/11, it’s hard to imagine that they’d be dumb enough to make that same mistake a second time. And even if they did, as Richard Haass writes, “[s]uch situations call for more modest and focused policies of counterterrorism along the lines of those being applied in Yemen and Somalia, rather than a full-fledged counterinsurgency effort.”

And if our leaders insist on keeping the Taliban out of power, there are other, far cheaper ways to accomplish this. As Selig S. Harrison points out, none of Afghanistan’s neighbors, save Pakistan, want the Taliban back:

Iran, Russia, India, and Tajikistan all played a key role in helping U.S. forces dislodge the Taliban in 2001. More importantly, all of them, together with China and Uzbekistan, fear that a resurrected Taliban regime would foment Islamist insurgencies within their own borders. Russia faces nascent Islamist forces in its Muslim south. India worries that Taliban control in Kabul would lead to an upsurge in Pakistan-based terrorism. The Shiite theocracy in Iran fears that a Taliban regime would help the Sunni Jundullah separatist movement in Iranian Baluchistan and Salafi extremists in other regions. Tajikistan faces Sunni extremist groups led by Hizb ut-Tahrir and is increasingly unsettled by an influx of Afghan refugees, which could grow if the Taliban were to return to power. China is beset by Islamist Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.

Harrison goes on to argue that the U.S. should make “a diplomatic push to mobilize the support of neighboring states,” all of which, as Henry Kissinger has stated, would be threatened “more than we are by the emergence of [an Afghan] base for international terrorism.” Of course, in order to get these other nations involved, the U.S. would need to get out, as these nations “have no desire to legitimate an enduring U.S. presence in the country—particularly with regards to the U.S. air bases now being used for intelligence surveillance missions in areas of Afghanistan bordering Russia, China, and Iran.”

Unfortunately, it seems that we don’t actually intend to leave Afghanistan, not now, not ever. As the Washington Post reported last Monday:

Three $100 million air base expansions in southern and northern Afghanistan illustrate Pentagon plans to continue building multimillion-dollar facilities in that country to support increased U.S. military operations well into the future…

None of the three projects in southern and northern Afghanistan is expected to be completed until the latter half of 2011. All of them are for use by U.S. forces rather than by their Afghan counterparts.

Overall, requests for $1.3 billion in additional fiscal 2011 funds for multiyear construction of military facilities in Afghanistan are pending before Congress.

So the problem seems clear enough. The Afghanistan War isn’t about our national security. It’s about our empire. Put another way, we have an empire addiction, and because of this addiction we’re acting against our own best interests. Though it’s obvious that these trillion-dollar deficits are destroying our economy and, along with it, our future, not to mention our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, our leaders just can’t quit the empire.

I’m reminded of those meth commercials. It’s like our future is looking up at us, all cut and bruised, pleading, “Don’t do it.” But I can’t imagine our leaders doing the right thing. No matter who wins this November, I can’t see anything changing—for they’re all essentially the same. So if you care about your future, if you want to do something for yourself, don’t waste your time trusting in politicians; invest in China.

August 19, 2010

Flanders Does Islam

Why does just about every Evangelical blogger on the planet think he’s an expert on Islam? Have you ever noticed that? Any mention of Islam in the news and they’ll go off on the Qur’an and all the evil things it supposedly teaches. What’s so crazy about this is that these people can’t even agree about their own scriptures. Just get a group of them together and ask what the Bible says about, say, baptism or eschatology, and you’ll be amazed at all the fights that erupt. And yet they think they have credibility when telling us, with the utmost of confidence of course, that they understand the Qur’an?

Now I myself have never read the Qur’an. I’d like to. Just as I’d like to one day read Finnegan’s Wake. But you know how it is: too much to read, too little time.

Nonetheless, I have a suspicion that most of what these Evangelicals say is total crap. More than anything else, I base this suspicion on the way I’ve seen them butcher their own holy book. Prooftext, prooftext, prooftext—’tis the mantra of most Christians today. Never mind understanding a passage’s historical context. Never mind trying to get at the author’s original intent. Your average Evangelical can twist almost any verse of Scripture to justify pretty much anything he desires.

Now I know the Qur’an has some problem passages. But so does the Bible. In the Old Testament, for instance, Yahweh repeatedly commands his people to commit genocide, sometimes even demanding that they slaughter innocent children. And in the New Testament, we find Jesus commanding his followers to hate their parents and spouses and children. And we find the Apostle Paul telling women to submit themselves to their husbands. Yet these Evangelical bloggers, with all the chutzpah humanly possible, claim that it is Islam, not Christianity, that is the religion of violence, hatred, and injustice.

I’m not trying to impugn Christianity. And I’m not suggesting that there aren’t adequate explanations for the above passages. But, for crying out loud, why don’t these Christians extend the same charity to Muslim apologists that they would like for themselves? Why all the energy spent slandering Islam? It’s not like discrediting Islam will somehow prove Christianity.

If these Evangelicals want to see their numbers increase, if they want to lead others to Jesus, then they should try showing a little restraint, exercising a little humility. Because, when you get down to it, people join religious communities, not because of dogmas, not because of arguments, but because those communities make them feel loved and accepted. And this, it seems to me, is why so many young people are turned off of Christianity and why church attendance continues to fall.

[Originally published August 25, 2009]

August 11, 2010

Losing the War, Looking for Scapegoats

I’ve seen the future, and Marc Thiessen’s fingerprints are all over it. Yes, scary thought, I know, but as I read his latest Washington Post column I couldn’t escape this conclusion. In it, Thiessen has provided what will surely become a popular excuse for our inevitable defeat in Afghanistan: It’s WikiLeaks’ fault, it’s all WikiLeaks’ fault. As Thiessen writes:

[Julian] Assange’s illegal disclosures are helping the Taliban to undermine Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy before it has a chance to work.

The documents Assange made public exposed the identities of at least 100 Afghans who were informing on the Taliban—in some cases including the names of their villages, family members, the Taliban commanders on whom they were informing, and even GPS coordinates where they could be found. The Taliban quickly announced that it was combing the WikiLeaks Web site for information to use to punish these Afghans.

Now certainly Assange should have redacted the names of the informers, and certainly these documents aren’t going to bolster Afghan trust in American troops—partly for the reason Thiessen states and partly because the documents reveal “how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents.” But it’s absurd for Thiessen to suggest that WikiLeaks has dealt a “devastating blow to the surge in Afghanistan.” It’s not like the American effort had been going oh-so-swimmingly before WikiLeaks came along.

While the goal of the Petraeus-McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy [.pdf] has been to win over the local population, to turn them against the insurgency and towards the Afghan government, even the Pentagon has implicitly conceded that coalition forces are failing to achieve this end. According to an April report given to Congress, although the Afghan population does not support the government in any of the country’s 121 “key districts,” it supports the Taliban in 8 key districts; and although the population “sympathizes with” the Afghan government in 29 key districts (24%), it sympathizes with the Taliban in 40 districts (33%).

During one of his last briefings, about a month before WikiLeaks released those 76,000 documents, General McChrystal admitted that the American effort had been hampered by an “ineffective or discredited” Afghan government and a “resilient and growing insurgency” and that there was no reason to believe things would get any better within the next six months.

And yet Marc Thiessen is preparing to blame WikiLeaks for our defeat. “[J]ust four days after the WikiLeaks documents were published,” he writes, “death threats began arriving at the homes of Afghan tribal leaders. A few days later, one such leader was dragged from his home and executed.” Of course, there’s no evidence that this man’s identity was compromised by the WikiLeaks documents, as even Thiessen admits. And it’s not like insurgents have just started killing suspected collaborators. During the first six months of this year, McClatchy recently reported, “Taliban assassins killed an average of one pro-government Afghan a day.”

But Thiessen continues blasting WikiLeaks, claiming that “WikiLeaks just made the Taliban’s job a lot easier. Indeed, the Taliban could not have come up with a better plan to defeat Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy.” He goes on to ask: “How can Petraeus persuade Afghans to join the fight against the Taliban when WikiLeaks has demonstrated that America cannot protect their identities?” Valid though this question may be, it misses a more important point, which is that our counterinsurgency operation was never going to succeed.

This latter point is underscored by a 2008 RAND study which, after surveying 89 different insurgencies which have occurred over the past 60 years, concluded [.pdf] that “there is no empirical basis for expecting successful COIN in conjunction with large-scale foreign military intervention.” In fact, a foreign military presence actually tends to strengthen an insurgency. Iraq is a prime example of this: while the US captured or killed 70,000 Iraqi insurgents from 2004-2006, the total number of insurgents during that time period increased from 5,000 to 25,000. “Although the Sunni insurgency may have begun receding in 2007,” the study noted, “the so-called ‘Tribal Awakening’ has had more to do with this than U.S. forces have.”

In order to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan, the study suggested that the US should “assume a smaller military footprint.” “The principal role of U.S. forces should be to enable the local state to provide security by building high-quality security services and providing critical operational support.” Needless to say, we haven’t accomplished this, mostly because Afghanistan’s security forces have proven to be so grossly inept.

So WikiLeaks isn’t the problem. The problem is that numerous factors in Afghanistan have made it all but impossible for the US to implement a successful counterinsurgency. The answer, then, is not to follow Marc Thiessen’s advice and “bring Assange to justice and put his criminal syndicate out of business.” The answer is to start listening to people like Richard Haass and Andrew Bacevich and to finally end this senseless, stupid war.

August 3, 2010

We Can’t Afford an Empire

It seems that everyone these days agrees that we need to cut defense spending. Even Robert Gates—you know, the secretary of defense—thinks so. Given “America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition,” Gates has ordered the Defense Department to cut its budget by 2 to 3 percent. The defense budget, he notes, has become unnecessarily bloated:

For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?

So, as I was saying, everyone these days, even the secretary of defense, agrees that we need to cut defense spending. Well, almost everyone agrees. After all, we can’t forget about Max Boot. Writing in the Washington Post, Boot claims that cutting defense spending—“letting our guard down”—could have horrible—no, devastating—no, horribly devastating—unspeakably, unimaginably horribly devastating—consequences.

As proof, he gives us a history lesson:

After World War I, our armed forces shrank from 2.9 million men in 1918 to 250,000 in 1928. The result? World War II became more likely and its early battles more costly. Imagine how Hitler might have acted in 1939 had several hundred thousand American troops been stationed in France and Poland. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful he would ever have launched his blitzkrieg. Likewise, Japanese leaders might have thought twice about attacking Pearl Harbor if their homeland had been in imminent danger of being pulverized by thousands of American bombers and their fleet sunk by dozens of American aircraft carriers.

After World War II, our armed forces shrank from 12 million men in 1945 to 1.4 million in 1950. (The Army went from 8.3 million soldiers to 593,000.) The result was that ill-trained, ill-armed draftees were almost pushed off the Korean Peninsula by the North Korean invasion. Kim Il Sung was probably emboldened to aggression in the first place by the rapid dissolution of America's wartime strength and indications from parsimonious policymakers that South Korea was outside our “defense perimeter.”

Boot continues in this manner, telling us how our poor performance in Vietnam could have been averted had we maintained our troop levels after Korea, how the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could have been averted had we maintained our troop levels after Vietnam, and so on.

Needless to say, his rendering of history is, well, incomplete. It’s not as though maintaining high troop levels would have been the only way to avoid the above conflicts. For instance, had the Allies not so severely humiliated and punished Germany after World War I, Hitler probably wouldn’t have ever come to power in the first place, and had FDR not imposed such harsh, deliberately provocative, economic sanctions on Japan, it’s doubtful that it would have attacked Pearl Harbor.

But Boot has never been interested in finding non-imperial ways to solve our problems. Right after 9/11, he advocated that we do some nation-building, not just in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, which he suggested could be accomplished with barely a hiccup. After all, we would probably “have plenty of help from Iraqis.” After deposing Saddam, we would “impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad,” which would soon restore our credibility and earn us “fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists, who [would] show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.”

Boot freely admitted that he wanted the US to invade “many of the same lands where generations of British colonial soldiers went on campaigns.” “Afghanistan and other troubled lands,” he wrote, “today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” Never mind what happened to those self-confident Englishmen. Never mind that such imperial overstretch ultimately destroyed the British Empire. America, Boot suggested, is somehow different than the empires that went before it, somehow immune to the plights that befell them.

And to this date, he remains as optimistic—read: as arrogant—as ever, arguing, for example, that we need to bulk up our navy so it’s better able to “fight Somali pirates, police the Persian Gulf and deter Chinese expansionism in the Western Pacific.” Of course, our most recent imperial projects aren’t exactly going so well. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re not going to win the war in Afghanistan, as the people there continue turning against both us and the corrupt, illegitimate government we’ve installed. And we’re no more loved by Iraqis, whose government, for the first time in several decades, has allied itself with Iran. And yet Boot has his sights on Somali pirates and the Chinese.

It’s because of such thinking that America has gone broke. Last time I checked, we were something like $13 trillion in debt. Which, of course, means that the future isn’t looking so bright. To avoid the complete collapse of our currency, we’re going to have to cut spending. And with millions of Americans still suffering, still losing their homes, still unable to find work, I kind of think we should start with our truly gargantuan defense budget. Boot, of course, sees things differently, claiming that it’s not the defense budget that’s bankrupting us:

Defense spending is less than 4 percent of gross domestic product and less than 20 percent of the federal budget. That means our armed forces are much less costly in relative terms than they were throughout much of the 20th century. Even at roughly $549 billion, our core defense budget is eminently affordable. It is, in fact, a bargain considering the historic consequences of letting our guard down.

Not surprisingly, his numbers here are entirely misleading. First, while the Department of Defense’s “base budget” is $549 billion, when you add other expenses, such as the $254 billion it spends on “overseas contingency operations,” the actual Defense budget swells to $719 billion.

Second, as economist Robert Higgs points out, the government hides much of its defense-related spending in other departments. So, for example, our nuclear weapons program is funded by the Department of Energy, veterans' benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Military Retirement Fund by the Department of Treasury. When you add all this together, it turns out that we’re spending over $1 trillion a year on national defense.

Let me repeat that. We’re spending over $1 trillion—$1,000,000,000,000—per year on defense. Which means that we’re spending nearly as much on defense as the entire rest of the world combined. This might not be enough to maintain an empire, but if the point of the military is to defend American borders and protect American citizens, then we could certainly get by on a lot less.