Small Wars Journal

domestic politics

The President’s Not-So-Stunning Moment of Candor

Sat, 08/04/2012 - 8:53am

About three months ago, the 24-hour news cycle and the blogosphere were aflame with news of President Obama’s comments to Russian President Medvedev regarding European missile defense, picked up on an open microphone and heard by a platoon of reporters.  The President noted:  “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but its important for [Putin] to give me space…This is my last election.  After my election I have more flexibility.”[1]  Stated more plainly, the President, in a private conversation unknowingly made public through a technical oversight, admitted that domestic politics and international affairs are inextricably interlinked, and that candidates standing election sometimes must have different positions than candidates unburdened by concerns about politics.  Well, knock me over with a feather.  Who knew that domestic politics and foreign affairs were linked?

Honestly, this writer cannot quite get his head around what it is everyone cannot get their head around.  Did anyone honestly labor under the delusion that domestic politics do not affect the conduct of foreign affairs, and vice-versa?  Do the American people really expect that the President’s posture on missile defense would not change depending on his position in the election cycle?  That such a dynamic does not have enormous historical precedent in American politics?  As recently as the administration of the 43rd President, decisions on the Iraq invasion and hesitance to increase the force footprint in Iraq likely were driven by the November, 2004 election.  Decisions on military escalation in Vietnam were driven by the 1964 and 1968 general elections, and Nixon’s Vietnamization campaign was born partially out of political calculus as he looked toward the 1976 race.  Woodrow Wilson adopted a noninterventionist agenda based principally on domestic politics until World War I became inevitable, and Lincoln’s choice to remove McClellan as his army commander in 1862 likely were made with one eye on victory and the other focused on 1864.  Even unparalleled wartime leader FDR factored electoral politics into his decisions to stay out of WWII after the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1940 rollup of the low countries and France, prioritizing continued, fragile domestic economic recovery as a political consideration until the day which lives in infamy.

Moreover, it is not sufficient to understand this dynamic merely as an unfortunate instance “of that’s just how it is.”  In fact, it is that way by design, and it is part of the grand bargain the electorate makes with a President each time he is elected or re-elected:  we know tacitly that priorities will change, and the electorate makes calculated guesses based on our collective estimate of how far one way or the other he will sway once safe from being cashiered.  Presidents are political actors, by definition.  Each president is also the chief economist, strategic leader, a noteworthy social icon, super-Attorney General and head law enforcement officer, and chief diplomat for the nation.  The President is required to balance all of these roles, and to prioritize each at different points in the historical cycle of a presidency.  In fact, whether we want to admit or not, we expect a President to be a political actor and to prioritize politics at times:  who wants to follow a loser who accepts political defeat as a fait accompli?  Domestic politics is merely a reflection of national priorities, even if there is not always a 100% match, as one subsystem lags or leads the other.

The real issue that national security professionals, the diplomatic community, and the electorate should register and monitor is the insertion of politics as the principal motivator of a president’s strategic, economic, and administrative decisions.  We should understand and even tacitly encourage the president to be a competitive politician with the will and desire to win.  Our national communities of interest have a responsibility to help the president shape his priorities through the delivery of sound, prudent, well-reasoned advice and advocacy which has but one agenda:  the economic and social health, well-being, security, and prosperity of the nation.  That is the standard against which we should judge a president’s performance, taking into account his or her entire body of work, not individual data points hyperbolized into something greater than they really are.

As the electoral frenzy waxes toward November, we can expect the administration to engage in additional political calculation as it shapes national security decisions this year.  We should expect it as a natural byproduct of the electoral process.  Political leaders have to be responsive to the will and priorities of the people, expressed through a number of mediums – polls, online, broadcast and print media, the political actions and statements of allies and rivals, and national economic performance, among other cues.  As this President makes decisions on weighty national security issues such as Syrian intervention, counterterrorism policy, cybersecurity, missile defense, U.S. policy on Iran, China, North Korea, and Mexico, the South Asian security dilemma, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the polity should expect political considerations to factor into the administration’s decisionmaking calculus as a vehicle for continuing his national security agenda into the next term.  The clamor from some quarters for a national security decisionmaking process free of domestic political constraints is not only naïve, it is unwise in terms of its abstraction from the national will.

[1] David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren, Obama seeks more time on missile defense, Washington Post, Mar. 26, 2012.


Empire at War: The Effects of the War on Terrorism on the American Middle Class

Mon, 04/23/2012 - 1:04pm

Editor's Note: While soldiers sometimes believe that military programs and military operations should be held in some rarefied atmosphere protected from domestic politics, there is no such world. Hard choices always have to be made and it is worth considering how different people view these choices.

As the United States prepares to wind down operations in Afghanistan, the last high profile conflict in the War on Terrorism, and seeks a so-called strategic pivot towards Asia, it is important to assess the impacts of the war at home and the prospects for engaging future national security issues. While the War on Terrorism (hereafter referred to as GWoT) did not produce the 2008 recession in the United States, it greatly exasperated the severe economic crisis already faced by the American middle class that has been brewing since the middle of the 20th century. This has led to the current financial emergency in government where radicalized ideologies harden political positions and make progress difficult on economic and national security reform.

Estimates vary about the financial costs of the War on Terrorism. One assessment suggests approximately three trillion dollars. However, if one includes the annual defense budgets, homeland security expenditures since 2001, veteran programs, and the interest on the principal borrowed for military spending, the cost balloons to an astronomical eight trillion dollars. Using 2010 census figures about the number of households in the United States, this equates to about $70,000 owed by every American family.  This is nearly double the size of the national average income. Combined with the stagnation of middle class incomes, the inflation of health, education, food, and fuel prices, and record low tax revenue from upper income families and corporations, the middle class now bears the heaviest burden of financing the war and its consequences. It is no wonder that American families are buried in debt.

Compounding the problem is the increasingly expensive and incapable military establishment. As the defense budget continues to grow, the military is less able to deliver desirable political outcomes in America’s conflicts. The high spending of the GWoT did not produce a correlating increase in American security; instead, it hastened the coming crisis facing the military. Increasingly expensive and complex weapon systems reduce the availability of military forces, and restrict their flexibility by requiring them to operate equipment and execute doctrines ill-suited for the demands of war. Last year, the Department of Defense announced that the Army alone will lose 50,000 personnel in an effort to reduce costs. Predictably, just last week, it was announced that the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will increase by 20 billion dollars and that it’s lifetime cost is expected to be at least 1.45 trillion dollars. As the military continues to break its own suicide records and maintain higher-than-average domestic violence, divorce, and sexual assault rates, it decides to decrease the number of personnel available for worldwide military operations in favor of over-priced military platforms incapable of performing basic military tasks like surviving contact with the enemy.

But this problem is disingenuously framed as class warfare and therefore receives little attention. Instead, the political leadership focuses on diminishing, eliminating, or privatizing key middle class programs in order to preserve the regressive tax code and the inefficient defense budget. The high costs of the GWoT are to be paid by sacrificing middle class benefits instead of balancing the obligations of all American taxpayers. Just last week, the Republican-controlled House passed in a partisan vote Paul Ryan’s budget that effectively privatizes Medicaid, and reduces federal retirement programs, food stamps, and college tuition aid, among other programs, while increasing defense spending and expanding tax cuts for upper income-earners. At the same time, the House also rejected a two-year Senate proposal to fund transportation spending, and instead passed, in another partisan vote, a 90-day extension of current spending. This was done despite America’s failing infrastructure, which has had notable failures in New Orleans and Minnesota. The classic debate about guns vs. butter rages on, and currently the guns are winning at the expense of the American Dream.

The cost of the War on Terrorism, or even the annual defense budget, could provide all of the funding necessary for repairing America’s infrastructure, reforming its failing education system, or even providing health-care to every American citizen. Instead, the costs of the war has forced America into political deadlock, where popular and essential public programs alike are being discarded in favor of retaining decaying institutions. Now, Americans are being asked once again to pay up for expensive military programs in pursuit of confrontational policies in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. We have already toppled the regime in Libya, Syria and Iran may be next, and we are posturing for a future conflict with China. The American public should be informed by its experiences in the GWoT. War is expensive, and it has long-term consequences beyond its immediate outcomes. One of those consequences should be the realization that nation-building at home must precede nation-building or -destroying abroad.