Voice

Why aren't America's wars an issue for the midterms?

Tom Brokaw has acquired sufficient gravitas such that, when he clears his throat in a meaningful way, he gets his own New York Times op-ed essay.

This morning, Brokaw cleared his throat about why the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq aren't being talked about during this election campaign season. 

[W]hy aren’t the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes?

The answer is very likely that the vast majority of Americans wake up every day worrying, with good reason, about their economic security, but they can opt out of the call to arms. Unless they are enlisted in the armed services -- or have a family member who has stepped forward -- nothing much is asked of them in the war effort.

The all-volunteer uniformed services now represent less than 1 percent of the American population, but they’re carrying 100 percent of the battle…

No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure. Surely blood and treasure are worthy of more attention than they’ve been getting in this campaign.

It's true that Iraq was a much bigger issue during the 2002 and 2006 midterms. Is Brokaw right that the lack of a draft is deflecting the issue? Sort of. 

Brokaw has half a point in saying that the all-volunteer force blunts the incentive to have a public debate on this Very Important Topic. There's a better reason to explain the silence, however: There's not much daylight between the two parties on this issue. 

In 2008, the Bush administration began the drawdown phase in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration anted up for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan. Neither war is popular with the U.S. electorate

Given these political facts, why would either party bring up these conflicts? Democrats can't rail against wars being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Not even nutjob ultra-conservative hacks can credibly claim that Obama has been a "Kenyan anti-colonialist" on the military front. Democrats can't really run on a "see, we told you that Obama isn't a war wimp!" message either. The GOP has little incentive to call for doubling down in these conflicts and can't really pivot towards a "pro-peace" position either. [I suspect the Islamophobia issue is cropping up on the GOP campaign trail because it's a stalking horse for "getting tough" with the United States' enemies. Even here, however, it's not like Democrats have created all that much daylight between them and the party of opposition.] 

If neither party has an incentive to bring up these wars during the campaign, the only way it becomes an issue is if a powerful interest group and/or social movement raises it. Here's here the all-volunteer force comes into play. Perhaps some returning veterans want to bring up the war as an issue for policy debate -- but the returning veterans do not appear to be alienated en masse. There is also no U.S. equivalent of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia -- not that the Russian version was all that effective. All one finds on this terrain are the Cindy Sheehans of the world, and her credibility has been eroding as of late

Brokaw is right that matters of blood and treasure should be debated. But a debate requires politicians to have divergent views to debate about -- and right now, that doesn't exist between the major parties. 

Daniel W. Drezner

Going short on Tom Friedman's China analysis

Today's Tom Friedman column on China's future is a pretty good one, in that it demonstrates how and why Friedman excels at a craft that flummoxes the best essayists. First, he asks a great question: 

[O]ne of the most intriguing political science questions in the world today is: Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party? 

Then, he makes a coherent argument in less than 800 words that the most populous nation in the world will have no choice but to liberalize and democratize. Friedman's thesis:

The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level....

My reason for believing China will have to open up sooner than its leadership thinks has to do with its basic challenge: It has to get rich before it gets old....

The only stable way to handle that is to raise incomes by moving more Chinese from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more knowledge- and services-based jobs, as Hong Kong did. But, and here’s the rub, today’s knowledge industries are all being built on social networks that enable open collaboration, the free sharing of ideas and the formation of productive relationships — both within companies and around the globe. The logic is that all of us are smarter than one of us, and the unique feature of today’s flat world is that you can actually tap the brains and skills of all of us, or at least more people in more places. Companies and countries that enable that will thrive more than those that don’t.

This argument is clear enough for the average New York Times reader to get it. It's also clear enough for us foreign policy bloggers in pajamas online analysts to point out where and how he's wrong. In particular, Friedman makes two large errors:

1) It's not clear that China has to get to "the next level" of economic development in order to become the most powerful country in the world. China's GDP could be larger than America's while still possessing only 1/3  the per capita income of the United States. If the rest of China were to enjoy the infrastructure and living standards or, say, Shenzhen, China would be doing quite well for itself. And as Chinese consumers demand more goods and services, the domestic jobs that power the rise of middle-class professionals -- teachers, lawyers, consultants , environmental engineers, travel agents, etc. -- will start to emerge in large numbers. 

Just to be clear here -- Friedman is right to say that greater liberty is likely to lead to more innovative growth. My point is that a population of a billion plus people allows the government to focus on intensive growth for an awfully long time and still prosper an amazing amount. 

2) In a world of network technologies and externalities, the best and most innovative technology does not always win -- the technology used by the most customers develops the lock-in. China doesn't have to have a technological edge, it just has to ensure that the largest market in the world embraces China-friendly technologies. Hey, come to think of it, you know what institution could ensure that occurrence? The Chinese Communist Party.

[Still, you hope Friedman is right and you're wrong.... right? --ed. Well, in theory yes, but...... after reading this SPIRI paper on China's new foreign policy actors, I'm not so sure. The common thread in that paper is that the more pluralist actors were also the most nationalist. It's entirely possible that a freer China is also a more reckless China.]