It's on the record. President Barack Obama's administration wants to pivot U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward East Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent Foreign Policyarticle exemplified this thinking. "The future of the United States is intimately intertwined with the future of the Asia-Pacific," Clinton wrote, touting Washington's "irreplaceable role in the Pacific."
The desire to focus on the Asia-Pacific is sound, but the administration's policies there are not. The impulse to reassure America's Asian allies that the U.S. commitment to their security is rock solid perversely makes it likely that they will continue to free-ride on America's exertions -- in an era when Washington has less and less money to spend.
Both Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, during their tenures as U.S. defense secretaries, have traveled to Europe to hector allies there for not spending enough on their militaries. This is not a new phenomenon in Europe -- even during the Cold War, America's European partners were only supporting actors in the drama between Washington and Moscow. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disparity has grown worse: Only four of the 27 non-U.S. NATO militaries spend the agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP on defense.
The reason these NATO allies have shirked on their defense commitments is because they are smart. They know that if they fail to provide for their own defense, Uncle Sam will do it for them. This has allowed the Europeans to spend their resources on a variety of goods other than defense, from expansive welfare states to impressive infrastructure programs. U.S. taxpayers -- and now their creditors -- are left footing the bill for Europe's defense.
As far back as the 1960s, U.S. policymakers puzzled over the low levels of defense spending among the European members of NATO. In a 1966 article, economists Mancur Olson Jr. and Richard Zeckhauser showed that in the provision of collective goods (like security) in organizations (like alliances), the largest members will tend to bear a "disproportionately large share of the common burden." When a group declares something a common interest, it is rational for the poorer members to shirk and allow the wealthier members to carry a disproportionate portion of the load.
What happened in Europe is now happening in Asia. Countries in the region have expressed considerable anxiety about China's growing power -- and have stirred diplomatic waters in response. In September, in the wake of Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, the leaders of the Philippines and Japan issued a joint statement marking a new "Strategic Partnership" and expressing "common strategic interests" such as "ensuring the safety of sea lines of communication." More recently, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that Japan's security environment had grown "increasingly murky due to China's stepped-up activities in local waters and its rapid military expansion."
These diplomatic developments are welcome, but the problem is that the most critical U.S. allies in the region are not paying their share of the bill. Japan spends a paltry 1 percent of its GDP on defense, and South Korea spends less than 3 percent, despite its much closer proximity to both China and North Korea. Taiwan, which faces one of the worst threat environments on Earth, also spends less than 3 percent of its GDP on defense. Absent the assumption of U.S. protection, these countries would be doing much more for themselves.
Instead, the United States, with the benefit of geographic isolation and a massive nuclear arsenal, spends nearly 5 percent of its national income on its military. Unless one believes that robust economic growth, sizable cuts in Medicare and Social Security, or large tax increases are right around the corner, the country's fiscal dilemma -- and with it, pressure to cut military spending -- will only continue to grow.
Washington policymakers in both parties seem to think that reassuring America's Asian allies is the best way to defend U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. But instead of seeking to assuage their partners' anxiety, America ought to sow doubt about its commitment to their security. Only then will they be forced to take up their share of the burden of hedging against Chinese expansionism. Otherwise, U.S. defense secretaries may soon be complaining that their Asian partners, like the Europeans before them, won't get off the dole.
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
This weekend, I sat down on my dining room table and
prepared to set the Middle East aflame. I was
Incursion, a board game of a hypothetical Israeli air campaign to destroy
Iran's nuclear facilities. Or, at least so far it's hypothetical. On Tuesday,
Nov. 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report
suggesting that Iran has continued to build up its nuclear weapons program. And
with Israel making serious noises about dropping bombs before Iran develops The
Bomb, fiction could soon become reality. I set about seeing which side would
Persian Incursion is a paper war game, one of those
fascinating yet complex beasts that appeals to armchair generals -- it combines
the fun of a strategy game like Risk with the intellectual stimulation of
reading contemporary nonfiction. The game was co-designed by techno-thriller
writer Larry Bond, best known for co-authoring Red Storm Rising with Tom
Clancy. (Clancy actually tested the plot for another bestselling book, The Hunt
for Red October, on Bond's Harpoon naval war game.) But Persian
Incursion isn't a novel -- it's a reference library inside a game. The
background information included is staggering. Besides the rules book, there is
a target folder and a briefing booklet listing the precise dimensions of
Iranian nuclear facilities down to the meter, as well as air defenses (all of
which Bond swears he obtained from unclassified sources).
Persian Incursion is basically two games in one. There is a
highly detailed military game of a seven-day Israeli air offensive in which
Israel plans and executes its strikes while the Iranian air defenses try to
stop them. But there is also a political game that unlocks the military aspect.
Persian Incursion assumes that an Israeli attack is only possible if one of
Iran's neighbors -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or a U.S.-influenced Iraq -- either
publicly or tacitly allows Israeli entry into its airspace for the strike on
Iran. (The rules state that though Israel could chance an initial airstrike
without an agreement, it would need permission for follow-up attacks.) With
that in mind, the game comes with various starting scenarios, such as a
super-radical Iran that scares its neighbors into allowing Israeli access, or Turkish
support for an Israeli strike (note that the game came out in 2010, before the
current Israeli-Turkish spat). So I choose the "Saudi Connection"
scenario, in which the Saudis permit Israel to do the dirty work of taking down
their Shiite archnemesis. I play the Israeli side, while my good friend Colonel
Noob plays the Iranians.
As U.S. history has demonstrated for the last 65 years,
before you blunder into a war, it's best to figure out exactly how you're going
to win. Although Persian Incursion is a war game, destroying or protecting Iran's
nuclear sites is only a means to victory -- not victory itself. The real prize
is political. If Israel or Iran can knock down the other's morale enough through
military or political action, it wins. Part of the goal, then, is to score
points on "political tracks," which measure public opinion and
morale. But it's not just Israel and Iran that have political tracks; the game
simulates the pressure and acquiescence of other countries that have a dog in
this fight, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Russia,
China, Jordan, and the United Nations (representing Europe and the rest of the
world). Basically, the more supportive a country is toward Israel or Iran, the
more political, intelligence, and military points it will provide to that
belligerent. And these points are the currency of Persian Incursion; most every
Israeli or Iranian action, from airstrikes to missile launches to terrorist attacks,
requires them. Think of it as the Monopoly money you need to build your hotel
To add to the unpredictability, Persian Incursion gives each
player a chance before the game to purchase extra goodies. Iran's Colonel Noob
buys GPS jammers to frustrate Israeli guided weapons, plus a couple of Chinese
HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. And knowing that missiles will
soon be headed Israel's way, I choose a third Arrow 2 anti-missile battalion,
plus extra tanker aircraft for longer bombing sorties. The political tracks
begin with Saudi Arabia somewhat supportive of my Israeli attack and with the
United States, Turkey, and the United Nations offering lukewarm endorsement. On the other side, Russia is somewhat
supportive of Iran, while China is a full-on ally. This situation is tenuous
and fraught with danger for both players. If the Saudi political track shifts
more toward Israel, Saudi aircraft could join in the fun. ("Oops, sorry
Tehran! We were trying to attack the Jews' aircraft, but we accidentally bombed
your reactor. Our king is most distraught.") On the other hand, China's
support for Iran could mean
an emergency airlift of Chinese weapons.
And so it begins. Colonel Noob sets up a potpourri of
Soviet- and Chinese-made SAM batteries and stations the Iranians' jet-fighter
interceptor squadrons on various air bases around Iran. I've got some tough
decisions to make. I can knock down Iranian morale by destroying nuclear sites
or battering its oil infrastructure (the premise being that either would induce
Tehran to abandon its nuclear program). Oil sites are less heavily defended,
and they're closer to the Israeli flight path over Saudi
Arabia, which means my planes can carry more bombs and
less fuel. But oil installations can absorb an awful lot of damage before going
offline, and attacking the world's petrol supply could trigger an international
backlash. Oh, hell, I finally decide: If I'm not going after Iranian nukes,
what's the point? For starters, I pick the Natanz and Isfahan atomic sites,
which are closer to the Saudi border.
I begin with a special-forces operation that puts spotters
on the ground to improve the accuracy of my airstrikes. Iran responds with a "propaganda
barrage" and dice roll to see if it can get Saudi support for Israel to
decline -- fortunately, for me, the gods decree otherwise. Israel executes its
first airstrike. Combat basically involves Israeli aircraft progressing through
successive "nodes" of Iranian interceptors and anti-aircraft weapons.
I get lucky again: Iranian interceptors, outdated and often short of spare
parts, can't hit worth a damn, and Israeli radar-jamming prowess helps
neutralize Iranian surface-to-air missiles. Then, one of my F-16s is shot down,
which means a hit on Israeli public opinion. But I've heavily damaged the Isfahan uranium conversion facility, and Iranian
morale takes a hit.
The first game turn continues as Iran responds with missile
strikes on Israeli cities, designed to lower Israeli morale. But one missile
blows up on the launch pad, and another is shot down by my Arrow missiles. Of
the two remaining missiles, one hit is a dud, but the other inflicts "major
damage," which hurts my political track. Colonel Noob's turn is done.
The game continues like this in a tit-for-tat fashion.
Despite several Iranian attempts to sway Saudi Arabia,the kingdom
continues to open its airspace to Israeli jets. I lose only two aircraft to
Iranian defenses, but on the other hand, the heavily reinforced structures at
Natanz prove difficult to damage. Iran's missiles continue to land on Israel,
but public morale proves resilient. In the end, Israel squeaks by with a
victory. Several Iranian nuclear sites have been damaged (thank you,
bunker-buster bombs), but the cost is captured Israeli pilots paraded on
Iranian TV and Israeli kids spending their days in bomb shelters.
So is Persian Incursion actually useful for understanding
how an Israeli strike on Iran might unfold? No and yes. My first reaction is
that it's a lovely game set in an alternate universe where Turkey is still an
Israeli ally and the Arab Spring is still winter. But to be fair, we are
talking about the Middle East; any game would be obsolete three months after it
hit the shelves.
Militarily, the game demonstrates that Iran has as much
chance of stopping an Israeli strike as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does
of becoming an ayatollah, but then again, Iran doesn't need to shoot down many
Israeli planes. Every F-16 burning in the desert reaps Tehran a rich political
harvest. Think Gilad Shalit multiplied by nine or 10 captured Israeli airmen.
The game does allow for some surprise events, such as a "press
leak" or "anti-war riots," that influence the political tracks.
And there are unpleasant surprises, like an "industrial accident" in
Iran that damages a nuclear site or an "intifada" against Israel.
But there's also the glaring omission of Iran's proxy force,
Hezbollah. Bond, the game's creator, told methat the Lebanese
organization would not have time to react to an Israeli air campaign. This
seems a bizarre oversight: Clearly, Hezbollah would have military as well as
political roles in the conflict. Ten minutes after the first bombs fell on Iran
and well before Israel launched any follow-up strikes, southern Lebanese skies
would be milky with Katyusha rocket trails, and the swarm of Israeli Air Force
drones on the border would fill the air with the buzz of propellers.
Additionally, the game doesn't allow for an Iranian military
response on any country but Israel. If Saudi Arabia allows Israeli jets to
transit its airspace, might not Iran respond with military action against it (which
in turn could drag in the United States)? Persian Incursion cries out for some
rule updates. But that's the beauty of an old-fashioned board game versus a
video game. No need to wait months for a software patch. With just a few
strokes of a pen, you can add your own rules to simulate the effects of
Hezbollah or the Arab Spring.
Despite its flaws, I learned a lot from this game. It
managed to capture the essence of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, which is that
both sides would wage war by very different means. I focused on the nuts and
bolts of conducting a complex and difficult Israeli air campaign, while Colonel
Noob had to be more patient and subtle, compensating for Israeli military
superiority by judiciously striking at public opinion with missiles and terrorist
attacks, seeking to politically isolate Israel and deny it allies.
The real question of this
exercise, however, is whether an Israeli strike on Iran is a good or bad idea.
Persian Incursion's answer is an unqualified "maybe." Israel can't
stop Iran from retaliating with missile attacks and terrorism. But it also can't
guarantee complete destruction of Iran's nuclear program. Perhaps most
importantly, the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war.
So was it fun? Sure, but let's just hope it stays a game.