Paul Ryan's Bad Idea for the Middle East

It's not true that Mitt Romney's veep choice is a complete neophyte on foreign policy. But his major foray abroad does not inspire confidence.

The consensus seems to be that Paul Ryan is an unknown quantity when it comes to foreign policy. He's a free trader, sure, and a guy who takes American "exceptionalism" pretty seriously -- he recently called the United States "the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen" -- but does he really have a grand strategy for advancing U.S. global interests? If his sparse record on foreign policy precludes answering that question, the congressman's work promoting free trade in the Middle East -- coupled with a pair of platitude-laden speeches he delivered at the Hamilton Society and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) -- at least gives us a window into his thinking. And by that barometer, Ryan's vision dovetails neatly with the neoconservative policies of George W. Bush.

Ryan's free-trade beliefs are not just an extension of his domestic priorities, but an integral part of what Bush called his "forward strategy of freedom." Following the 9/11 attacks, free trade became a central component of the U.S. strategy in the war on terror. The idea was simple: draw economically and culturally backward countries into the global economy, and their governments will become less autocratic. Freedom, in turn, would allow moderates to triumph. As U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick put it in 2004 upon concluding a preliminary trade deal with the United Arab Emirates, the agreement "complements our strong partnership in our fight against terrorism ... Expansion of trade with the [UAE] is part of our efforts to promote democracy and economic vitality in the Middle East."

The Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) initiative, announced in May 2003, was to be one of the cornerstones of the administration's new anti-terrorism policy -- and Paul Ryan quickly emerged as its most stalwart champion. MEFTA's implementation was supposed to begin with membership in the World Trade Organization and culminate in a series of bilateral free trade agreements between the United States and what Ryan described in his 2009 CFR speech as "20 moderate Muslim countries." (Israel and Cyprus, neither primarily Muslim, fell under MEFTA, as did Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, which can hardly be described as moderate.) But after a few early successes, MEFTA faded from the agenda, hamstrung in linchpin countries like Egypt and the UAE by political and commercial disputes.

Before MEFTA tanked, Ryan, perched on the House Ways and Means committee, helped negotiate free-trade agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, and Jordan, as well as preliminary trade and investment framework agreements (known as TIFAs) with a dozen other countries in the region. He also formed the bipartisan Congressional Middle East Economic Partnership caucus to press for further free-trade legislation. At the heart of the free-trade push was the desire to influence domestic policy in partner countries -- after all, U.S. trade with the Middle East is minimal and virtually all of it involves oil. But as Ryan explained at CFR in 2009, MEFTA gave the United States leverage to "get these countries to open up and to respect human rights."

Free trade, in Ryan's view, is a "carrot approach" that helps spread American values. "[T]hrough each of these trade agreements we require things like the rule of law, enforceable contracts, women's rights, and advancements towards openness, transparency and democracy," he said.

On this count, Ryan sounds a lot like Mitt Romney, who recently suggested that the Arab uprisings might have been avoided if only Bush's "freedom agenda" hadn't been cut short by the new administration. "President Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner," Romney said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper.

But history has exposed some serious flaws in the Bush administration's worldview. First, Bush himself abandoned the "freedom agenda" when it became clear that democracy might not always be good for American interests -- Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, and the Iraqi government that the United States expended blood and treasure to support looked to Tehran rather than Washington for guidance.

But more importantly for Ryan, the problem with his free-trade "carrot approach" is that it simply doesn't work. Free trade might have boosted U.S. exports to Bahrain, for example, but it did not prevent King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah from brutally crushing protests in his country during the Arab Spring. Nor has it stopped Saudi Arabia, which has strong, though not free, trade ties with the United States, from beheading suspected sorcerers or quashing political dissent, especially in the Shiite-heavy Eastern Province. Likewise, Singapore and Hong Kong are far from democratic, but perennially top the World Bank's "ease of doing business" ranking.

Promoting free trade, it turns out, reliably leads to more trade. The idea that it improves human rights in the process or makes democracies out of dictatorships is at best inconclusive, and at worst wishful thinking. As political scientists Michael Hiscox and Scott Kastner have pointed out, "While the recent rush to free trade in the developing world has coincided with the spread of democracy in a general way, just which of these phenomena is the cart and which is the horse is not very clear." In other words, we have established only a correlation between free trade and democracy. And assuming there is any, we don't know which way the causality goes.

But it's not just that Ryan's vision is flawed -- after all, he could not have known in 2009 how Bahrain's king would squelch a popular revolt in 2011. The issue is that his ideological commitment to free trade appears to blind him to the possibility that such initiatives might have any unintended consequences, or indeed, that foreign policy almost always has unintended consequences. "I'm suggesting that free trade is pro-human rights," he said when asked whether free trade could contribute to human rights abuses, as it arguably did in Colombia and Peru. "They go hand in hand...economic liberty is a component of human rights."

It is this kind of willful aversion to nuance that characterized George W. Bush's "with-us-or-against-us" approach, and one that tells us a lot about Paul Ryan -- even if his record on foreign policy is remarkably short.

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Cutting School

Why is the Pentagon making big cuts to big think?

The budget axe is descending on National Defense University, the Pentagon's flagship institution for professional military education. The cuts come amid controversy over whether NDU should focus solely on Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), which addresses military strategy and cooperation between the services, or whether it should also serve as a think-tank for strategic analysis. According to an internal Pentagon document, the Joint Chiefs of Staff want NDU to stick to JPME, and have recommended a long list of budget cuts that would slash other functions. But critics worry that narrowing NDU's mandate will deprive the United States of big-picture thinking at a time when American planners are struggling to adapt to changing geopolitical and budgetary circumstances.

The budget cuts, including dozens of layoffs from NDU's 800-strong workforce, are part of a long list of recommendations compiled by the Joint Staff, which works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JCS spokesman Richard Osial refused to comment on the grounds that the cuts are part of an internal staff document under review, but a copy obtained by Foreign Policy says the changes are intended to "align NDU organization and funding with [the] new fiscal reality."

That reality is less than cheerful. NDU is scheduled to lose nearly 10 percent of its Pentagon funding, from about $93 million in FY2012 to about $85 million in FY2013, and the Joint Staff report provides recommendations on how to reach that goal. NDU has two main sources of funding: direct funding from the Joint Chiefs for JPME, and reimbursable funding from other government agencies for various research and analysis activities.

It's the non-educational activities that are drawing scrutiny. "NDU's overall budget has grown from approximately $51 million in 2001 to $143 million in 2011. The majority of this growth was outside the education mission," according to the Joint Staff report. NDU's research budget, for example, has nearly quadrupled, from $6.5 million to $24.5 million. The problem is that outside funding is drying up. "NDU's business model has become increasingly dependent on reimbursable funding. As all government agencies are experiencing budget impacts, outside sponsors who provide funding to NDU research and programs are likely to reduce their funding, making NDU's current budget model unsustainable," the report says.

NDU's website shows an organization of remarkable breadth, including five colleges, a dozen research centers spanning everything from Chinese military affairs to tabletop war games, and five geographical research areas for various parts of the world.

Yet the Joint Staff report points to an unwieldy organization: "The existence of multiple management structures across the numerous NDU schools adds significant overhead costs and complicates sound fiscal decisions and management due to competing equities." In addition, the report cites high personnel costs: 58 percent of NDU's budget goes to salaries because many employees are GS-15 or Senior Executive Service (NDU's FY2013 budget report puts the average civilian employee salary at $115,000). Also, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits Mid-Atlantic universities, found that NDU had critical information technology deficiencies that jeopardize its teaching functions.

The Pentagon's solution? Focus NDU on professional military education so that it can eliminate departments and jobs. There are almost a dozen recommendations, some of which seem almost petty, such as a $40,000 savings by eliminating two courses at the Joint Forces Staff College at NDU.

The proposed cuts include:

  • Abolishing the Institute for National Security Ethics and replacing it with an ethics chair, saving $600,000 annually. Two military officers would be reassigned or returned to their services, and two full-time-equivalent positions would be eliminated.
  • Abolishing the Joint Reserve Affairs Center, which teaches national security to reserve and National Guard forces, thereby eliminating four jobs and saving $500,000.
  • Redirecting the Center for Strategic Research to concentrate on JPME, which would save almost $1 million and eliminate seven jobs, plus one officer reassigned.
  • Concentrating the National Defense University Press on JPME, which would save $660,000 and eliminate four jobs.
  • Evaluating other NDU organizations, including the Center for Complex Operations, the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies, the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, the Conflict Records Research Center, and the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs for their actual cost to NDU (and presumably for future cuts).
  • Merging administrative functions within NDU for a savings of $2.1 million and nine jobs.

The real question boils down to what NDU's purpose is. NDU's mission statement, revised last February, states that "National Defense University (NDU) supports the joint warfighter by providing rigorous Joint Professional Military Education to members of the U.S. Armed Forces and select others in order to develop leaders that have the ability to operate and creatively think in an unpredictable and complex world." This replaced the older and broader mission statement, which stated that the university's mission was to "prepare and support leaders to think strategically and lead effectively across the range of national and international security challenges through interdisciplinary teaching, research, and outreach."

One NDU staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the planned focus on professional military education as "anti-intellectual." A staffer at a research institution that has worked with NDU worries that the Pentagon is shooting itself in the strategic foot by focusing only on tactical questions: "There is a depressing and distressing tendency throughout the entire PME system to do away with intellectual rigor, critical thinking in general, and strategic thinking in particular in favor of less challenging short courses and quickie ‘education' focused on short-term issues or bullshit topics."

Ironically, the cuts could actually threaten the university's focus on military education because a reduced budget may result in curriculum changes that would trigger a mandatory re-accreditation of the JPME program. What's more, combatant commanders have said that  NDU's subject matter experts, who are not part of the JPME program but who advise the commands on things like area studies, provide an essential service -- one that the combatant commands lack the funding to procure on their own.

The NDU staffer said that morale at the university is currently at "rock bottom" because employees know cuts are coming but feel like officials are not leveling with them, which means that NDU itself has both a tactical and a strategic problem on its hands.

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