The Military-Political Complex

Why is Barack Obama standing to the right of conservatives when it comes to cutting the defense budget?

With the country's eyes turned to South Carolina this week, I have a peculiar tale to tell of the Palmetto State:

The story begins in November 2010, when Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney unseated John Spratt, a 14-term Democrat, in South Carolina's 5th District. Spratt, who sat on the House Armed Services Committee, was probably the last of a very long line of Democrats who had helped turn South Carolina into an archipelago of military bases. One of the biggest of them, Shaw Air Force Base, sits in the 5th District. But Mick Mulvaney didn't think he had been elected to bring home more military bacon. So last summer, he outraged his hawkish colleagues by introducing an amendment to freeze current defense spending at 2011 levels. (The measure was trounced.)

This past fall, I went to talk to Mulvaney in his office. He told me with great pride that he had compiled the second-most conservative voting record in Congress. He was a small-government conservative, down the line. So defense spending, to him, was simply spending, and he had no intention of going along as his predecessors had. "We have ended up," Mulvaney said, "in the situation which Eisenhower warned us against, that we are so beholden to the military-industrial complex that neither party is willing to make the tough decisions." As he spoke, I thought I heard the late Sen. John Stennis -- he of the eponymous aircraft carrier -- spinning in his grave. Mulvaney said that at town-hall events he often cites the words of Adm. Mike Mullen, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, "The most significant threat to our national security is our debt." I asked whether any of the military veterans in the crowd came after him. Nope, said Mulvaney.

I later spent some time in the 5th District talking to Mulvaney's constituents. My favorite interview was with Jim Vinyard, a Vietnam War vet who had turned the upstairs of his home into a shrine to the Marines. Vinyard told me that "political correctness" was eating away at America's vitals, and he was extremely rough on Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and liberals generally. He said, however, that he had no problem with Mulvaney's effort to hold the line on defense spending and, like presidential candidate Ron Paul, couldn't see why America kept troops forward-deployed in Europe and Asia. His experience in Vietnam taught him that the battle for "hearts and minds" now under way in Afghanistan can't be won. He was ready for the United States to get out.

Several themes kept coming up in my conversations in the district. One was a disgust at the federal government from which the Defense Department enjoyed no immunity -- the classic Tea Party view. Another was disillusionment with America's foreign adventures abroad and a wish to bring the boys home. Chauncey Gregory, who holds the seat in the South Carolina Senate that Mulvaney held before him, says he has grown so disgusted with recent interventions abroad that he would warn his 20-year-old son again joining the Army -- an apostasy in that neck of the woods. A third issue was: Where's the big threat? Terrorism didn't seem nearly as dangerous as it had before. And China and Iran were problems for another day.

One of the inferences I drew from these conversations was that the very real threats of recession and unemployment had made the threats beyond U.S. borders seem remote and hypothetical. In a zero-sum calculus, foreign policy lost -- a worrying prospect for anyone who wishes to revive Americans' faith in their country's capacity to do good abroad. Beyond that, I had the impression that the link between patriotism and defense spending, which hawks had encouraged for generations, was finally loosening. You can love the military without loving military spending. In the South Carolina debate this week, Paul claimed that he received more funding from currently serving soldiers than the other candidates combined. That sounds unlikely, but it would be telling if he got even as much as candidate Mitt Romney or the latter's fellow hawks.

In the debate, Romney renewed his attacks on President Obama's planned defense cuts, accusing him of gutting the Navy and the Air Force. He has said in the past that he would increase the defense budget by at least $30 billion a year. This line continues to get applause at the American Enterprise Institute and Conservative Political Action Conference. The Republican elite remains committed to a hawkish, big-spending policy and will keep hammering Obama as a peacenik, the way Republicans have done to Democrats for the last 40 years. It won't resonate the way it used to, however, because too many ordinary conservatives have lost the faith. Paul arouses plenty of antipathy with his attacks on U.S. foreign policy, but he also gets a great deal of applause -- more than Romney ever gets when he calls for more ships and planes. Polls consistently find that Americans are prepared to accept serious cuts in defense spending.

What does this mean for Obama? First, it's unlikely he'll pay any political price for the $450 billion in Pentagon cuts over the next decade mandated by Congress as part of the debt-reduction package. The public might not even balk at the additional $500 billion or so in automatic cuts triggered by the failure of the bipartisan budget panel. It's not 2004 anymore, and Democrats can no longer be mau-mau'ed on defense spending the way they have been for so long. I'm not sure, though, that the Obama administration is convinced of this. Gordon Adams, a leading Pentagon number-cruncher with the Stimson Center, says, "The president doesn't think he has political leeway, even though he does."

The fact that a Democratic administration can make deep cuts in defense spending does not, of course, mean it should. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that trillion-dollar cuts would have a devastating effect on national security. Three senior administration officials I've spoken to on the subject sided with Panetta -- which makes Romney's claim in the South Carolina debate that Obama favored a trillion-dollar cut a particularly brazen lie. Yet both former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and current far-right-wing Sen. Tom Coburn have recently issued reports calling for cuts of that magnitude. So has Kori Schake, a certified hawk who served in George W. Bush's White House (and, full disclosure, is also a fellow contributor to Foreign Policy). I find their arguments convincing, and I find it odd for the Obama administration now to be standing to the right of such folk.

Of course "we live in a dangerous world," as hawks always remind us. The fact that Vinyard, the Vietnam vet, and Gregory, the state senator, don't lie awake at night worrying about Beijing's designs on the South China Sea doesn't make China any less threatening. But do we really live in a more dangerous world than we did at the height of the Cold War, when spending never rose above $580 billion in current dollars -- $120 billion less than the budget Obama inherited from Bush? A report from the Center for American Progress states, "President Obama would need to reduce the budget by about 40 percent, or close to $300 billion, to reach the budget levels established by Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton."

This debate will not end with the 2012 election -- no matter who wins. But when an ultraconservative congressman from South Carolina can issue warnings about the military-industrial complex, you know you're in a different place.

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Terms of Engagement

Threats and Promises

Do Obama’s red lines with Iran and others really mean “or else”?

Have you had it up to here with supposed allies who issue ultimatums to Washington? Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, seems to come up with a new one whenever he's in a bad mood. Last week's was: Hand over all the prisoners in the main detention facility in Parwan within a month. And what about the Pakistanis? In the aftermath of the NATO raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the military leadership ordered the C.I.A. to close the Shamsi airbase it uses to launch aerial drones -- this from a country whose military we train and finance, and whose pockets we deeply line. And it's not just the allies: Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if the West doesn't suspend its program of sanctions.

Remember when it was the United States that was issuing all the ultimatums? Those were the days. Right after 9/11, according to Bob Woodward's book, Bush At War, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage handed a list of seven demands to Pakistan's intelligence chief -- cut off support to al Qaeda and the Taliban, give the United States overflight and landing rights, etc. -- and Pakistan complied. President George W. Bush gave the world a clear choice: stand with us, or stand with the terrorists. And remember when British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America's closest ally, said that he could only join the U.S. war effort in Iraq if the allies got a resolution at the United Nations authorizing the use of force? Bush decided against seeking the resolution, and gave Blair the same choice: in or out. And Blair went in.

So what's gone wrong? How come the United States is suddenly on the receiving end of so many ultimatums? Conservatives know the answer: Because we're weak, of course. Because Barack Obama insists on engaging countries that only understand force. Iran rattles its sabre because it knows Obama will never use the supreme sanction of war. Karzai threatens us because -- well, that's different.

Afghanistan is our ally. So is Pakistan. They don't issue ultimatums because we're weak; they do so because they're weak. The only way either Karzai or Pakistan's military leaders can shore up their fading support at home is by standing up to Washington, which needs them and therefore cannot afford to call their bluff. Come to think of it, the same is true of Iran, which surely knows that blocking oil shipments could provoke a devastating retaliation. But it's the best card they've got.

Historically, of course, the ultimatum is a tool of the strong against the weak: open up the gates or we'll raze your city, rape your women, and enslave your men. But nowadays, powerful countries wish to be seen as rule-abiding, and are less inclined to shake their fist at weaker states. The ultimatum has become largely a tool of the weak -- a form of asymmetric warfare. Stop violating Afghanistan's sovereignty, Karzai seems to be saying, or we'll do something suicidal. After all, he's also threatened to join the Taliban if the West continues to press him to reform his government. He might never carry out any of these threats, of course: The ultimatum is issued publicly because it is aimed at the domestic public as much as it is at the adversary. But the power he has over the West is the power to harm Western interests -- even if that means harming himself.

It's an infuriating situation. You'd like to be able to say, "Fine: join the Taliban for all I care." You'd like to tell Pakistan's Gen. Ashfaq Kayani to get lost. But, as both leaders know, it's not in the U.S. interest to call their bluff. So the White House instead dispatches Sen. John Kerry to talk one or both of them off the ledge. There's really no good alternative: Even the Republican candidates for president, who uniformly scorn Barack Obama for failing to credibly threaten Iran with war if it doesn't end its nuclear program, have very little to offer on Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The real reason the United States has been the target of these vexing ultimatums is that over the last decade it has meddled deeply with the sovereignty of brittle states, which in turn react with intense resentment. The solution is to stop provoking this form of asymmetric warfare. By accelerating the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington will put an end not only to the insoluble relationship with Karzai but also to its dependence on Pakistan, whose hinterland serves as a staging area for attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. The United States has already muted its neuralgic relationship with Iraq by withdrawing its troops there altogether. And one of the side-benefits of the White House's planned pivot to Asia is that the United States will have less frictional relationships with allies like Japan and South Korea than with Afghainstan and Pakistan.

In these matters, Barack Obama is, of course, the consummate grown-up. He neither issues ultimatums nor takes the bait when others do so. He is elaborately respectful of the sovereignty of other states (except, perhaps, when he authorizes drone strikes). At some deep intuitive level, Obama believes that he can persuade adversaries that their true interests lie in cooperation. But his presidency has offered him an education in the limits of this principle, domestically as well as abroad. He has learned that congressional Republicans don't actually want to cooperate for the greater good, and so he has belatedly started to issue demands -- extend the payroll tax cut, or else.

You can be too forbearing, as you can be too peremptory. Engagement does not work if it's one-sided. Indeed, Obama now seems to have applied this lesson to foreign affairs: According to the New York Times, the president has responded to the Iranian ultimatum with one of his own: the United States will treat any attempt to block the Straits as a casus belli. Unlike Iran, the United States delivered this message privately: The goal was to clarify the consequences of Iran's action, and to give them a chance to quietly back down, rather than to bully them into compliance.

If you deliver a threat in private, does that make it a diplomatic demarche rather than an ultimatum? Maybe; I won't quibble. It still comes with an "or else" attached. And if the threat to Tehran has the intended effect, perhaps it will embolden our ever-cautious president to try out this tactic elsewhere -- in Egypt, for example. Over the last week, Egypt's military government has engaged in a crackdown on civil society unprecedented even during the long rule of Hosni Mubarak. The time has come for Obama to tell Egypt's rulers that he will withhold some of the $1.3 billion in military aid, and then more, if they continue to send Egypt back towards autocratic rule. He should convey this threat privately, of course. And he should be prepared to make good on the "or else."