Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama, the military budget, Iraq and Iran

The military budget has essentially been a sacred cow since the post-Cold War cutbacks initiated under the Old Man Bush administration (when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense!). And that has been especially true since 9/11, which supposedly changed everything.

As I put it before in a post drawing on figures provided by Benjamin Fordham, the long-term trendline for US defense outlays from 1947 (the start of the Cold War buildup) through 2004 almost flat at around $310B (in 2004 dollars), i.e., on the average for that period.

But the peaks tell a striking story. They are 1953 (Korean War, early Cold War anti-Soviet buildup), 1968 (Vietnam War), 1989 (peak of the Reagan buildup, final year of Cold War) and 2004.

The so-called global war on terror (GWOT), in which our main enemies are terrorists hiding in caves in Pakistan, is costing us as much as those earlier events, in which the US faced a nuclear-armed adversary for the first time and was fighting a hot war against the Chinese and North Korean Armies (1953), the peak of the 1960s arms race and the height of the Vietnam War (1968) and the final year of the Cold War in the period where Reagan's conscious policy was to force the USSR into levels of military spending they could not afford (1989). In 1977, outlays dropped to around $250B. Their lowest point in the post-Cold War period was around $285B in constant dollars.

So it's not surprising that discussions of the terrorist threat today are often nearly identical to discussion of the Communist threat during the Cold War, with "terrorists" substituted for the Soviets or other Communists of different varieties. "Threat inflation" was already a problem during the Cold War. Equating the GWOT to those earlier situations is a wildly over-the-top level of threat inflation.

One obvious and relatively immediate source of defense savings would be to withdraw US participation from the Iraq War as quickly as possible, without a comparable buildup in Afghanistan, Pakistan or other countries the Cheney-Bush administration has been bombarding (Somalia, Syria, who knows where else).

The invaluable Gareth Porter reports for IPS News in Obama Pressured to Back Off Iraq Withdrawal 11/13/08:

Obama's secretary of defence appears to be the key element in a broad campaign by military officials and their supporters in the political elite and the news media to pressure Obama into dropping his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in as little as 16 months.

Despite subtle and unsubtle pressures to compromise on his withdrawal plan, however, Obama is likely to pass over Gates and stand firm on his campaign pledge on military withdrawal from Iraq, according to a well-informed source close to the Obama camp. [my emphasis]
I certainly hope Gareth's source on that is correct!

But aside from the Cabinet-pick guessing game, his article is also very important in reminding us that even though there is some kind of consensus among the Iraqis now for US withdrawal, it's still much harder to get out of a war than to get into one.

Despite the massive amount of criticism that the military has made about the Cheney-Bush administration, that does not mean that there is any kind of consensus among the officer corps about withdrawing from Iraq. As Gareth puts it:

Obama advisers who support his Iraq withdrawal plan, however, have opposed a Gates appointment. Having a defence secretary who is not fully supportive of the 16-month timetable would make it very difficult, if not impossible for Obama to enforce it on the military.

A source close to the Obama transition team told IPS Tuesday that the chances that Gates would be nominated by Obama 'are now about 10 percent'.

The source said that Obama is going to stick with his 16-month withdrawal timeline, despite the pressures now being brought to bear on him. 'There is no doubt about it,' said the source, who refused to elaborate because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Opposition to Obama's pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq on a 16-month timetable is wide and deep in the U.S. national security establishment and its political allies. U.S. military leaders have been unequivocal in rejecting any such rapid withdrawal from Iraq, and news media coverage of the issue has been based on the premise that Obama will have to modify his plan to make it acceptable to the military. [my emphasis]
Withdrawing from Iraq is still a fight. And it's one where war critics will have to keep the pressure on, even though a large majority of the American public favors withdrawal. This is an issue where I suspect that Obama will welcome pressure from war critics to "make him do it". Because there will be plenty of effort by a variety of parties to prevent him from doing it.

The Iraqi government is now willing to approve the withdrawal agreement they negotiated with Cheney and Bush. Iran dropped its opposition to the proposal, probably hoping that Obama will recognize the very real common interests the US and Iran have in Iraq now, objectively speaking (if the neocons haven't ruined the world "objectively" for a generation). Those common interests are real (though not identical), despite substantial differences over other issues, Iran's nuclear program most urgently. See Iraqi cabinet approves accord setting U.S. troop withdrawal by Adam Ashton and Leila Fadel, McClatchy Newspapers 11/16/08; Obama, Iran, and the US-Iraq SOFA by Bob Dreyfuss The Nation 11/17/08; Iraqi parliament debates security pact by Qassim Abdul-Zahra San Francisco Chronicle A********* P**** 11/17/08.

Juan Cole conveys via an Arabic report from Al-Zaman that "Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) [the largest Shi'a party in Iraq] was in Tehran" when he "sent word back that ISCI cabinet secretaries should vote for the agreement." Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Shi'a Mahdi Army (JAM), still opposes the pact, and the largest Sunni party wants to go to a nationwide referendum.

Although Iran's seeming new willingness to cooperate is a good sign, that does not mean that the status-of-forces agreement is necessarily a good idea for the Americans, especially if its reportedly flexible timeline could be interpreted to obligate the US to remain longer than the time an orderly complete withdrawal would require. Bob Dreyfuss' reading of pact's terms is, "None of this ties Obama's hands" when it comes to withdrawing American forces faster.

In any case, it really should be submitted to Congress for approval. See also Protest Stirs Against US-Iraq Secret Pact by Tom Hayden Huffington Post 10/24/08.

David Kurtz at TPM calls attention to this column, Don't Believe Spending Cut Rumors by Bernard Finel Defense News 11/17/18. His take on current defense budget maneuvering is this:

The services have been laying the groundwork for the request for several months. Earlier this year, briefing slides showing $60 billion to $80 billion per year in new expenditures started making the rounds inside the Beltway, supported by a public campaign by conservative think tanks and politicians to establish a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP.

The uniformed services are trying to lock in the next administration by creating a political cost for holding the line on defense spending. Conservative groups are hoping to ramp up defense spending as a tool to limit options for a Democratic Congress and president to pass new, and potentially costly, social programs, including health care reform.

They also like the idea of creating an unrealistically high baseline of expectations for defense spending that will allow them to claim President Obama has cut defense spending. [my emphasis]
While I find this to be a credible assumption consistent with other things we know about the current context, it bothers me that Finel's column is long on generalization and short on specific sources. He's on firmer ground later in the column when he talks about how the Republicans tried to manipulate the debate over defense spending in the 1990s, and how part of Rummy's disputes with the military stemmed from his unwillingness to accept the Pentagon's official perspective on the shape of the military budget when he began his infamous term as Defense Secretary.

Boh Porter and Finel provide timely reminders that while Rummy's own particularly nasty style and the "rogue superpower" goals of the current administration played a large part in the tense civil-military relations during his tenure, the military is large enough, powerful enough and prestigious enough to assert independent pressure on any civilian administration.

And conflicts will occur during the Obama administration, as well. Whether it's the Bush Gulag, missile defense, or the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we can expect the military to make some kind of move to whack the new administration up side the head in hopes of making it more sympathetic to Pentagon priorities. Bill Clinton's early conflicts over gays in the military was largely initiated by that legendary "moderate", Colin Powell. And it played served just such a purpose at the beginning of the Clinton administration.

During the current administration, there have been a great many leaks indicating that senior military officers disagreed with one aspect or another of the Cheney-Bush-Rummy policies. And, politics being politics, both Democrats and the antiwar movement have used those leaks, as well as criticism by former generals, to attack the current administration.

But now some of the same leakers and critics that criticized aspects of the Cheney-Bush policies can be expected to make leaks and otherwise voice their criticisms of Obama's policies, as well. The kinds of critics and criticism from military sources that may have seemed counterintuitive during a warlike Republican administration are going to be embraced by Republicans now to attempt to discredit the Obama administration on national security.

Just to be clear: I'm not suggesting that we disregard such criticisms. On the contrary, I'm saying that they deserve the same kind of critical examination that such criticisms should have received during the current administration. Historian Andrew Bacevich is one analyst who has managed to keep a broad view in examining those criticisms in the light of longer-term issues in civil-military relations.

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