War Spending Is Monopoly Money, Apparently

Evan Bayh thinks paying for foreign policy commitments lowers its priority.

In case you haven’t heard, House Appropriations Chair Rep. Dave Obey has proposed that the 30,000 additional troops to be deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 be paid for with a tax. Predictably, soi dissant fiscally responsible deficit hawks absolutely loathe the idea. Ezra Klein has the goods.

David Obey’s effort to fund the expansion of the Afghanistan war with a surtax is running into some opposition. Evan Bayh, who generally presents himself as a paragon of fiscal rectitude, flatly said it’s not going to happen. “National security comes first,” he said, though it’s not clear how paying for a war relegates it to coming second. Ben Nelson wants to sell war bonds, which is to say, he wants us to borrow.

I’m really having difficulty summoning the language to describe how galling this is. These are the same centrists who oppose health care reform on the grounds of fiscal responsibility even though CBO has projected that reform will actually reduce the deficit. So somehow, it’s controversial to think we’d take measures to simultaneously lower the deficit and save some 45,000 preventable American deaths per year, but it’s unthinkable to pay up front for just one year of military commitment in Afghanistan? If the Afghanistan “surge” is such a first order national priority, then why can’t we be expected to pay for it? What’s the logic here? Does a willingness to pay interest on a war signal that it’s really a priority? Like, you don’t really want it if you aren’t overpaying?

Or maybe it’s that if Americans actually had to pay for a hyperactive foreign policy, the public might actually lose appetite for endless commitments with loosely defined objectives? I don’t know, you be the judge.

I’ll also note from a historical perspective that taxes increased significantly during World War II, which whatever your thoughts about Afghanistan, we can all agree was a national security priority.

Troop Escalation and Public Opinion

First — sorry for the long delay in posting. I’ve been on vacation working maniacally, and just haven’t had much time to blog. But now I have a brief window of daylight, and just wanted to offer a few thoughts on the question of escalation in Afghanistan.

My regular readers will know that I’m quite skeptical of the War there, mostly because I think the costs associated with prolonged involvement pretty considerably outweigh what potential benefit they might offer. Unfortunately for President Obama, between campaigning on escalation and conservatives who are poised to criticize Obama for anything short of meeting the exact demands of his top commanders, the political situation is fairly tricky (Stephen Walt has a nice summary here). But is it really that dire?

Via Matty Glesias, we see some Gallup polling that shows there might be some more wiggle room than an initial read of the politics would suggest.

As you can see, the public is more or less split unevenly between increasing troops by Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation and beginning to withdraw troops, a view despite obvious public support, hasn’t enjoyed much support within the Administration. Accordingly, this option hasn’t really been taken seriously within the public debate, but it seems that’s starting to the change.

More interesting though is the anemic support for increasing troops by a number less than Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation and maintaining the status quo. In light of this, a “compromise” option of adding troops at a lower level than requested doesn’t seem to have much of a political constituency. Since there hasn’t been much PR groundwork for a scale down, it would be a tough road, but it seems the political stakes lie actually between escalation and scale down. And as Matt Yglesias points out, most of the support for escalation comes from self-identified Republicans, so I’m not sure what pleasing this audience gets Obama politically.

Like I said, it would take a lot of PR groundwork — and probably a few high ranking officials willing to fall on the sword — but I’m optimistic about the options this polling opens up. Ultimately, it seems political interests and national interest might line up on this one.


Trouble Lurking

Kevin Drum comments on Afghanistan NATO Commander Gen. Stanley McChrsytal’s savvy troop request strategy. The idea is pretty basic negotiating: set extremes as plausible and “settle” for the compromise. In terms of this particular question, the choices are a a “high risk option” of no troops, a much higher, not to be taken seriously request of around 80,000 troops, and a the “compromise” of about 40,000. Kevin registers his displeasure with promoting Generals based on political acumen.

This is all pretty obvious stuff and I don’t want to make too much out of it.  But I’ll repeat something I said earlier anyway: I’m not really thrilled at the idea of the Pentagon focusing its energies on promoting generals who are good Washington gameplayers.  If McChrystal truly doesn’t favor the higher option, we’d all be better off if he just left it out and instead made the recommendation he really believes in. Trying to box in the commander-in-chief may be business as usual when it comes to things like F-22 acquisitions or base closings, but I don’t have to like it.  I especially don’t have to like it when it comes to things a little more important than Lockheed-Martin’s balance sheet.  And I don’t.

This is all true, but to get to the specific question at hand, it really makes me continue to worry about the strategic rational for being in Afghanistan. That is, it’s hard to see how a single consistent approach could simultaneously allow for no troop increase, a moderate troop increase, and a massive troop increase. I mean, if the war would be best executed with a troop increase of 80,000, then that’s something that should be considered and McChrystal should make the case on the merits. Same goes for 40,000 or no additional troops. But if the range of options is somewhere between 0 and 80,000, that sounds more like a strategy for escalation for its own sake than it does for achieving any specific goals. And that is cause for concern.

What’s Vital?

Matthew Yglesias thinks the phrase “war of necessity” is meaningless when we define it as Richard Haas does here:

Wars of necessity must meet two tests. They involve, first, vital national interests and, second, a lack of viable alternatives to the use of military force to protect those interests. World War II was a war of necessity, as were the Korean War and the Persian Gulf war.

Matt argues that the Korean war — though “good” — seriously stretches the limits of “necessary,” and because of the extremely limited case of wars that genuinely do hew both conditions, the concept of “war of necessity” should be mostly discarded as a framework for evaluation US commitments. I tend to agree, but I think the problem is actually more with “vital national interests,” than the word “necessary.” After all, the reason the Koren war shouldn’t be judged a necessary one is because it’s difficult to argue that the defense of South Korea from an aggressive neighbor was vital to the national interests of the United States. Certainly, inasmuch as it preserved a favorable status quo, the defense of South Korea lay within the interests of the United States, but it’s a bit of a jump to go from here to its “vital” importance. As such, I really don’t think there’s any problem with the framework itself, we just need to be willing to concede that a good portion of our military misadventures are not in fact necessary. And it follows then that an unnecessary war should be subject to strict consideration of its costs and benefits. A perfect example here is Afghanistan, where I think the case that denying al Qaeda “safe havens” is vital to our national interests is at best unclear, and accordingly we should get a better sense of the possible trade offs to our presence.

More Mission Creep

I’ve said this before, but after reading Stephen Walt’s convincing breakdown of all the reasons why Obama’s doubling-down in Afghanistan is misguided, I’m really beginning to think more we should adjust strategy to get out quickly. The level of resources its going to take accomplish our mission vastly outweigh the potential benefit, and as I’ve argued before, the longer we stay and the larger our commitment the greater the possibility for creating backlash.

I also want to say the more I read about the Afghanistan mission the more I’m reminded of The Best and the Brightest. Obviously this is a war that Obama inherited, but I think the intersection of hubris and extremely limited strategic benefit are quite hard to ignore.

Mission Creep

Professor Stephen Walt:

Let’s not forget how we got [to reforming prisons in Afghanistan]: about eight years ago a small group of anti-American criminals hijacked four airplanes and flew three of them into buildings in the United States. The ringleaders of the plot were in Afghanistan, and the Afghan government (at that time under Taliban control) refused to give them up. So the United States invaded to overthrow the Taliban and capture the al Qaeda leadership. Unfortunately, we failed to get the latter, and we bungled the subsequent reconstruction effort by going into Iraq, thereby enabling the Taliban to make a comeback. So now we’re escalating there once more, in a potentially open-ended effort to build a functioning and legitimate Afghan state. And now that means fixing their prison system too. How does one say “mission creep” in Pashto?

I was at dinner with some my folks the other night and making the point that whole endeavor in Afghanistan stands be self-defeating. That is, since terrorism’s raison d’etre is mostly combating U.S. Policy, it’s hard to see — at least in a very general sense — how doubling-down on more U.S. hard-power abroad is really going to ammeliorate things. That said, Afghanistan is a bit different: al Qaeda’s Afghanistan presence resulted from a friendly Taliban, not a U.S. presence in Afghanistan per se, but similarly, you have to look no further than Iraq to find an example of how increasing U.S. power in the area led to the creation of more terrorist groups to fight U.S. soldiers.

I think with narrowly definied, achievable objectives (what happened to eliminating safe havens?) the risk of creating a long term backlash isn’t very high (at least not as high as it would be with full-scale occupation a la Iraq). Likewise, the odds of fomenting resistance increase the longer you stay and the more you begin to resemble an occupying force. In this regard, mission creep is a real danger.

Terrorists and Space

Responding to this piece in the New York Times about concerns in the Administration that al Qaeda will be ramping up “domestic” terror in Pakistan and the danger posed to America by territorial gains, Matt Yglesias says this:

I’m not sure I understand the relationship between “territorial gains” and “freedom to plot attacks.” You need a lot of territory to raise cattle or build a parking lot. But plotting doesn’t strike me as a particularly space-intensive activity. When the ThinkProgress team gets together to plot, we usually do it in a small confined space. More generally, the entire safe haven concept strikes me as overrated. The 9/11 attacks were primarily plotted in Hamburg. A terrorist in the Swat Valley is, by definition, not in a position to blow something up in a western city.

This makes some obvious sense, but I think it’s also probably true that the more space in which groups like al Qaeda can safely operate, the more difficult it will be to gather intelligence, which on some level, probably makes the world less safe for Americans. To use Matt’s example, it might be true that ThinkProgress plots in a small, confined space — and I imagine al Qaeda’s similarly nefarious ends are met the same way — but if you were looking to restrict ThinkProgress’ ability to plan, you’d be well served by limiting the number of spaces in which ThinkProgress can meet safely. It’s a lot easier to monitor a group’s activity when you have a very good sense of where the group is based. The more specific, the better.