Voice

All Guns, No Butter

What the debt ceiling deal tells us about the Tea Party's grim vision of American power.

I have been trying, and failing, to think of a period when Americans seemed as eager as they are now to shed their global burden -- while at the same time insisting on depleting the national treasury to pay for the military. During past periods of national self-absorption, including the generation before the civil war and the decades after World War I, standing armies and military expenditures shrank or remained modest. No longer: At a moment when many Americans want to reduce the role of government at home and especially abroad, the debt deal just concluded is likely to preserve the country's hypertrophied defense budget -- at least if congressional Republicans get their way. One is left asking: What do you want to do with all that money?

Step back for a moment and think about the terms of the deal that emerged from the debt ceiling debate this week. The first installment of cuts, totaling about $900 billion, is to be achieved through across-the-board cuts to the budget, including the Pentagon; the second tranche, of at least $1.2 trillion, will be decided by a bipartisan congressional commission. In order to ensure Republican compliance with the commission's recommendations, a budgetary sword of Damocles has been positioned over the one form of expenditure the party holds most dear: the defense budget, which will bear half the cuts should the commission fail to agree on a formula, or should Congress ignore its proposal.

Actually, it's worse than that: The GOP won a concession that the cuts would come out of "security" rather than only "defense" spending. Since "security" includes diplomacy and foreign aid (as well as homeland security), the party could thus eliminate the traditional tools of foreign policy in order to reduce the cuts to the military. And there's no reason to doubt that they would do so, since Republican legislators have sought to virtually get rid of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to gut development assistance, and to block increases in spending on the State Department. The United States would be left with a colossal military and a Ruritanian diplomatic corps.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Republicans knew why the United States needed to maintain its "position of unparalleled military strength," as President George W. Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy put it: to fight the "terrorists of global reach" who had launched an unprecedented attack on American soil. The fight required the United States to be prepared to respond at a moment's notice to terrorist threats, but also to "extend the benefits of freedom across the globe," whether through regime change, diplomacy, or the strategic use of foreign aid.

Ten years after the terrorist attack, both the fear of a sequel, and the faith in America's capacity to shape a better world, have ebbed. Or perhaps that's an overly analytical way of describing a national mood of sullen disillusionment with America's imperial role. The killing of Osama bin Laden has licensed a widespread desire to escape from the swamp of Afghanistan, to bring the boys home as they are already coming home from Iraq. Large majorities of Americans now say that the U.S. "should not be involved" in Afghanistan, or that they oppose the war there. The number of Americans who believe that promoting democracy abroad -- the heart of the Bush Doctrine -- should be a "top long-range priority" is minute, and shrinking fast.

President Barack Obama acknowledged the spirit of fatigue when he declared in his June 22 speech charting the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan that "it is time to focus on nation-building here at home." But while the president conceded that "this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America's engagement around the world," he admonished his listeners that "we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events." It is precisely this obligation, however, that many Americans now want to dispose of like a boom-era mansion with a hopelessly underwater mortgage.

We no longer accept the obligation, but we're still prepared -- or at least the GOP is still prepared -- to bankrupt ourselves in order to keep up payments on the mansion, currently running to $529 billion a year. It feels more like a reflex than a policy. Moreover, how can a party so deeply persuaded that government is bad, and government spending the enemy of the free market, make so immense an exception for a bureaucracy as vast and as deeply entrenched as the Pentagon? Of course those hundreds of billions create powerful economic interests which perpetuate spending; but so do farm supports, and even they seem more endangered than Raytheon contracts these days.

I understand the position of the remaining "greatness conservatives" -- Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, William Kristol or David Brooks -- who still believe deeply in America's singular role in the world, and are prepared to pay for it. That wing of the GOP and its constituency actually believes in government, if limited government. The new breed of Republican does not. Of course Tea Party conservatives like Michele Bachmann are aggressive exponents of "American exceptionalism," but they see the state not as an instrument of American greatness but as an impediment to it. American people are good; American government is bad. Except for defense spending, of course.

Some of us, on the other hand, have a view of American singularity -- if not "greatness," a word with too much breast-beating in it -- in which the state plays an indispensable role. Americans are neither better nor worse than other people, but at various time in its history the United States, as a national entity, has acted as a force for good in the world. The American military came to Europe's rescue twice in the 20th century and contained the threat of Russian aggression for half of it. The world takes shelter under the American nuclear umbrella. But much of the good the United States has done over the last several generations has involved diplomacy and statecraft, rather than force. In the progressive internationalist view that Obama seems to share, the nation's willingness to diminish its own power after World War II by pooling it into global institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund is the clearest sign of American exceptionalism. Such institutions are rightly known as "global goods."

The United States is entering a grim period of national diminution -- not, chiefly, because such contraction is being forced upon us by events, but rather because we no longer believe in the institutions and instruments through which American leaders have acted in the past. The national sense of purpose has been diminished as well. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asserted that the central purpose of his party was to unseat the incumbent president, he was admitting as much; the mere fact that he was willing to say so shows how little store McConnell puts in nonpartisanship. The two leading impulses of today's GOP are partisan pettiness and theological grandiosity. The steely gaze of this basilisk has paralyzed the Democrats.

The two parties will spend the next 15 months feverishly catering to a hostile electorate by competing over formulae to shrink the state. At least there may be some spectator sport in watching the Republicans make the awful choice between accepting the modest revenue increases Democratic members of the commission are likely to demand, and protecting the sacred defense budget. In the meanwhile, sleep safely, children, for nothing is likely to stop the Pentagon from spending $300 billion on the new F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft.

CHRISTINA M. SHAW/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Less Is More

Cutting U.S. military aid to Pakistan might be just what the world's most frustrating alliance needs.

I accompanied Sen. John Kerry on a trip to Pakistan two weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Outrage over the revelation that bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight not far from Islamabad had prompted pundits and congressmen to call for an end to funding this supremely problematic ally. Kerry told me what he told Pakistan's military and civilian leaders: His colleagues were "overwhelmingly negative about aspects of the relationship" and "needed to see which way Pakistan was really going to go." The Pakistanis heard him out respectfully and promised a stepped-up commitment. Kerry was followed to Islamabad by a parade of senior American officials who offered a similar mix of blandishments and threats. And then -- surprise! -- the Pakistanis changed their minds. Or maybe they had never meant it.

The last straw came in mid-June, when U.S. officials asked the Pakistanis to close down factories making bombs to be used against NATO forces in Afghanistan -- and CIA drones then captured images of militants fleeing with their equipment. The Pakistani soldiers arrived on the scene only when the targets were long gone. Barack Obama's administration, pushed beyond all patience, suspended $800 million in payments, both for counterterrorism operations and for training troops, which in any case had become moot because Pakistan was refusing to issue visas for the trainers, drawn from the U.S. Special Forces. And Kerry's colleagues, as he predicted, have thrown down the gauntlet, in the form of House of Representatives legislation that would suspend virtually all civilian assistance should Pakistan fail to comply with a series of security-related demands.

Cutting off civilian aid would almost certainly do more harm than good. But so, too, does the endless drama of American demands and outraged Pakistani responses. The time has come to ask less of Pakistan, to expect less, and to offer less.

In Afghanistan, too, the United States has run up sharply against the limits of its influence, despite spending $120 billion a year, not to mention the presence of 100,000 troops. The Obama administration's effort to bring good governance to Afghanistan -- central to its counterinsurgency strategy -- has failed, and the White House has largely stopped trying, and stopped lecturing Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the subject. That's in part because the United States has concluded that Afghanistan no longer poses a grave threat to its national security. Pakistan, however, does. The bulk of the extremists allied with al Qaeda live on the Pakistani side of the border. And Pakistan is a giant, turbulent country with 180 million people -- and nuclear weapons. The relationship is thus governed by the premise that the United States can't walk away. Pakistan has a gift for making itself appear indispensable.

Until now, Obama has favored the carrot over the stick. With the fierce prodding of Richard Holbrooke, the United States' late special representative for the region, the "transactional relationship" maintained under President George W. Bush -- we pay you to let us kill bad guys on your soil -- was promoted to a "special partnership" bringing senior officials from both sides together to discuss the wide range of issues shared by actual allies: economic development, regional diplomacy, energy policy, and the like.

I had always assumed that the special partnership was elaborate window dressing designed to flatter the Pakistanis into complying with American security goals. But Vali Nasr, who served as a senior advisor to Holbrooke before leaving office this year, argues persuasively that it offered the Pakistanis real benefits, which in turn induced very modest acts of compliance with American goals. The talks produced a commercial treaty with Afghanistan, plans for a Central Asian gas pipeline, and enhanced assistance during last year's terrible floods. In return, Nasr told me, the Pakistanis offered "sufficient cooperation for us to nab bin Laden," issuing visas for CIA agents and allowing them to operate inside the country. Nasr also believes that the strategic partnership "moved the needle" of public hostility toward the United States "by 5 or 10 degrees" in the right direction, and in turn produced a measurably, if modestly, greater willingness to take on the Taliban. The relationship, he says, "made manageable what otherwise would have been unmanageable."

Let us grant the Obama administration, and the late special representative, at least some of this credit. But first the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis, and then the raid on Abbottabad put an end to this brief era of semi-comity. Or maybe those were just accidents waiting to happen: A more plausible hypothesis is that no substantive relationship between two countries whose fundamental interests are so deeply in conflict could have survived for long. One side -- the United States -- believes that the enemy is violent extremists; the other side believes that the enemy is India, and the United States itself. Even Nasr concedes that "the strategic partnership has been scuttled." We are back in the grudging world of the transactional relationship; I recently heard a senior American diplomat say that Holbrooke had been far too optimistic about progress with Pakistan.

So where do we go from here? The transactional response is: The United States can still get what it needs from Pakistan -- tacit permission to launch drone strikes, as well as the use of the Khyber Pass to transport supplies into Afghanistan. There will be more crises, and more emergency diplomatic interventions, and more Pakistani hyperventilation about violations of national sovereignty. We're the grown-ups here; we can live with it. America may wish that it could do without Pakistan, but it can't. So keep the military and civilian funds flowing.

To which I would say, "Yes, but." The U.S. role in Pakistan plays into, and amplifies, the country's gross pathologies, and it always has. For 60 years, Pakistan's leaders have offered themselves to the West as a bulwark against encroaching evil -- first the Soviet Union, now terrorism. They have, as the scholar Stephen Cohen has put it, held a gun to their own heads. And the United States has bought the argument, with an intermission or two, underwriting a national security state in which the generals allow civilians to pretend to rule, and the civilians prove so feckless as to justify ongoing military control. And all the while, the country's hinterland remains firmly in the grip of feudal landlords, who dominate politics as well.

The Bush administration made no effort to help Pakistan confront its underlying problems; the Obama administration, through the strategic partnership and the $1.5 billion a year made available by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, has. But it won't help. Pakistan's civilian government has resisted calls for reform as effectively as the security apparatus has, despite threats by the International Monetary Fund to withhold loans if the country doesn't begin to collect taxes from more than 2 percent of the population, as it does now. Civilian assistance won't serve as a lever for reform, won't make Pakistanis like America more, and won't make them more compliant on security issues -- which is why the current legislation to tie aid to progress on security is more an expression of pique than a rational strategy.

I don't think the United States should end the civilian program, if only because doing so would empower the most anti-American elements -- though I do think that, as a recent report by the Center for Global Development proposes, the United States can do Pakistan far more good by opening its markets to Pakistani products than we can by sending aid. If anything, I would take the opposite view from the transactionalists: More engagement with civilians, less with the military and intelligence apparatus. Let's stop fighting over visas for U.S. Special Forces and intelligence agents. Let's quietly, without pique, reduce transfer payments to the Pakistani military. Let's put an end to the Pakistani psychodrama over sovereignty and American neocolonialism. Will the military respond by demanding an end to the drone strikes? I hope not; but it could loose that sword of Damocles whether or not the United States reduces military support. And Pakistan's leaders may be happier to see the United States kill the Taliban by remote control than they're prepared to publicly admit.

If we have learned anything over the last decade, it is that the United States has far less power to shape good outcomes in troubled places than we thought. On the contrary: The looming U.S. presence offers itself to autocrats and military leaders as a perfect distraction from painful home truths. The Pakistanis must save themselves, as people in the Arab world are now trying to do. If the country is ever to have its own revolutionary moment, America can help best by getting out of the way.

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images