What was David Broder smoking?

If you want to see just how ill informed and morally bankrupt an "establishment" political voice can be, check out David Broder's op-ed column in this Sunday's Washington Post. Broder argues that President Obama's prospects will remain bleak if the economy doesn't improve, and that the President cannot count on the business cycle to do that for him. So after reminding his readers that World War II helped end the Great Depression, Broder offers Obama the following advice:

With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history."

I haven't read such an ill informed and morally bankrupt piece of "analysis" in quite some time (which is saying something). For starters, on what basis does Broder believe that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world?" The United States spends over $700 billion on defense each year; Iran spends a mere $10 billion. That amount is less than Greece, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, or Taiwan. As I've noted previously, Iran has no meaningful power-projection capabilities, and its main "weapon" is the ability to modest amounts of money and arms to groups like Hezbollah. This behavior is clearly a problem, but Iran is not an existential threat to anyone. And if Iran were to get a few nuclear weapons at some point in the future -- which is by no means a certainty -- it could neither use them nor give them to terrorists without inviting devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation.

Second, Broder thinks that a military confrontation with Iran would boost the U.S. economy, the same way that defense spending did during World War II. Never mind that the U.S. economy is in a very different place today, or that an attack on Iran would not require an increase in defense outlays sufficient to generate a significant Keynesian stimulus. The real problem is that a war in the Persian Gulf would almost certainly trigger a spike in energy prices, thereby adding a burden that our fragile recovery doesn't need.

Third, Broder never considers whether it might be possible to head off Iran's nuclear ambitions through more creative and intelligent diplomacy. Like most of official Washington, he's convinced that the only way to stop Iran from getting the bomb is to keep ratcheting up sanctions, keep the threat of force "on the table," and if that doesn't work, to launch a preventive war.

But has he noticed that we've been trying this approach for over a decade now, and without success? The failure of this approach was hardly surprising, because when a powerful state threatens a far weaker country with military force and/or regime change, it merely reinforces the weaker state's desire for some sort of deterrent. The only way to defuse Iran's nuclear ambitions is to take the threat of force off the table, and to try to convince Iran that the costs of developing an actual nuclear weapon (which include the possibility of a regional arms race) outweigh any likely benefits. Unfortunately, this approach has never been tried.

Finally, the sheer callousness of Broder's prescription is mind-boggling. Although he says he's "not suggesting… that the president incite a war to get reelected," he's actually doing precisely that. Has he forgotten that wars are violent and unpredictable affairs, and that human beings -- including innocent civilians -- die in them? And rest assured that if the U.S. military were ever ordered to attack Iran, it wouldn't conduct a limited "surgical strike." If past practice were any indication, the U.S. military would be very thorough, which means several weeks of air strikes against a broad array of targets. And that means even if we are careful, there will be significant civilian casualties.

But hey, what are a few hundred (or thousand) foreign lives if it will get the economy moving again? The idea that the United States would once again be launching an unprovoked attack that is likely to kill a large number of Muslims doesn't trouble Broder; in fact, he never even mentions it.

So if you ever wonder why the United States is so unpopular in some parts of the world, it is because we pay little or no attention to the effects of our actions on others. And we're not dealing with some xenophobic Tea Partier or rabid Islamophobe here; in this case we have the acknowledged "dean" of Washington's punditocracy telling the president that war with Iran is a good way to put Americans back to work and to keep his own job.

I'm sure there will be a chorus of voices denouncing Broder's column, and this is one choir to which I'm happy to lend my voice. Let's just hope President Obama is not as mendacious as Broder would like him to be.

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Stephen M. Walt

Signs of realism in U.S. grand strategy

The Council on Foreign Relations is not the first place I look for outside-the-box thinking, but can be a useful weather-vane marking shifting attitudes within the establishment. And on that score, two articles in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs merit your attention.

The first article, entitled "American Profligacy and American Power," is by former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and Council President Richard Haass. It is telling indictment of past policy errors that have undermined American power, and it is refreshing that Altman and Haass outline the strategic implications clearly. Some money quotations, with my emphasis added:

One way or the other, by action or reaction, there will be a profound shift in U.S. fiscal policy if the U.S. government continues to overspend. Deficits will be cut sharply through a combination of big spending cuts, tax increases, and, quite possibly, re-imposed budget rules. No category of spending or taxpayers will be spared."

But the impact of the United States' skyrocketing debt will not be limited to the behavior of markets or central bankers. Federal spending will decrease once the inevitable fiscal adjustment occurs, and defense spending will go down with it. …

The good news is that total defense spending could be reduced by five percent or even ten percent without materially weakening the United States' security if (and admittedly it is a big if) the cuts are done intelligently…

Military operations need to be subject to cuts, too, if defense spending is to come down significantly without reducing the number of people in uniform. Together, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost more than $150 billion a year. The combat role of U.S. forces in Iraq has ended, and only 50,000 troops remain there. ... [T]here is a strategic argument for maintaining some U.S. forces in Iraq beyond December 2011 ... Nevertheless, the new fiscal order in Washington could require Iraq to pay for all or at least part of that presence, or go without it.

Shrinking budgets are likely to have an even greater impact on the future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan. . . . [A] U.S. military presence in Afghanistan at or close to 100,000 soldiers will cost around $100 billion a year. The coming fiscal austerity and the need to find cost savings in the defense sphere argue against maintaining that expense. Indeed, economic and strategic arguments both call into question the counterinsurgency approach of fighting the Taliban and the nation-building approach of investing heavily in the development of the Afghan government's capabilities and institutions. They suggest a more modest counterterrorism approach: going after the terrorists directly with drones, cruise missiles, and Special Forces, much as the United States is doing in Yemen and Somalia."

Wow. If I didn't know better, I'd think I was reading the Afghanistan Study Group report.

Then follow up Altman and Haass with Council President-emeritus Leslie Gelb's essay "GDP Now Matters More than Force." Although I'm not sure that title is fully justified, it's hard to argue with the following sentiments:

"Because Beijing has been playing the new economic game at a maestro level -- staying out of wars and political confrontations and zeroing in on business -- its global influence far exceeds its existing economic strength. China gains extra power from others' expectations of its future growth. The country has become a global economic giant without becoming a global military power. Nations do not fear China's military might; they fear its ability to give or withhold trade and investments.

And yet, for all the novel characteristics of the present era, there is one stunning constant: the national security strategy of the United States. Whereas other countries have adjusted to the new economics-based order, Washington has been tardy. … it must adjust its approach to recognize that economics is now at the center of geopolitics. Washington's failure to do so has already cost it in blood, treasure, and influence. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, leaders in Washington proclaim their awareness of the new economic order but lack any semblance of a new national security strategy to embrace it."

Can you say "offshore balancing?" I knew you could, and so can I. In fact, a few of us have been pushing variations on this idea for some years now. When experienced insiders like Gelb, Haass, and Altman are moving in that direction, it's a sign that reality is starting to catch up with the "pay any price and bear any burden" world-view that has distorted U.S. foreign policy for decades. I hope somebody in the new Congress listens, and that Obama and his team of liberal interventionists does too.