Focal Points Blog

U.S. Wins the Merchant of Death Sweepstakes

Viktor Bout extraditedThe diplomatic tug of war between the United States and Russia over the fate of suspected international arms dealer Viktor Bout was won Tuesday by officials in Washington. For the past two years since his arrest in a US sting operation, Bout has languished in a Thai prison as Moscow and Washington sparred to control his fate. The United States has publicly pushed for his extradition to American soil where he will very likely be put on trial for conspiracy to kill Americans. Bout purportedly enjoys close ties to the upper echelons of power in Moscow which some believe has driven Russia to fight for his release in fear of what beans might be spilled about state secrets in an American courtroom.

Bout—known popularly as the “Lord of War”—was extradited Tuesday morning by Thai officials in a security operation worthy of the Secret Service. The New York Times gives a sense of the scope and scale of security measures taken to keep Bout alive for quick trip between the prison where the alleged “Merchant of Death” and the Bangkok’s international airport.

Two motorcades — one apparently a decoy — made the trip to the airport and shortly afterward an airport official confirmed that Mr. Bout had left on a chartered American aircraft. The Bangkok Post reported that about 50 police, including snipers, were at Don Muang airport to protect Mr. Bout. The 20-seat aircraft also carried two pilots and six officials from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

Bout will arrive in the United States, likely in New York, sometime Tuesday night.

Thailand’s last minute decision to ship Bout off to the States came as a huge relief to American officials. Thailand’s criminal court, which had opened the door for extradition in a ruling last month conditioned their decision by announcing that Bout had to be moved before November 20, or else set free. In the month since, Washington and Moscow have heavily lobbied the Thai government, with Russia being unusually visible in its proactive attempts to have Bout released. But authorities in Bangkok signed off on the suspected arms trafficker’s extradition early this morning, and state police wasted no time in putting Bout on a plane to the United States.

Russia was predictably upset. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the move as “an example of extreme injustice. We as a country,” Lavrov said, “will support him by all means.” The foreign minister also cast doubt on the independence of the Thai legal system, noting that Bangkok’s decision resulted from “unprecedented political pressure from the USA on the government and judicial authorities of Thailand.” For its part, American officials had no immediate comment, but a press conference to discuss the issue has been scheduled for tomorrow morning in New York.

The big question in the immediate term is what effect, if any, Bout’s extradition will have on recent efforts by both Washington and Moscow to “reset” US-Russian relations. Despite the angry posturing by the Russian foreign ministry, the Bout case is unlikely to single-handedly disrupt attempts by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to draw their countries closer on issues of common interest even as they push points of possible dispute to the sidelines. Renewed relations have successfully navigated some turbulence in recent months, not least of which, as the Telegraph points out, “a major spy scandal this summer that saw the FBI catch ten Russian agents did not spoil the party.” It’s hoped that the Bout situation will also not present a major speed bump to improved relations between the two powers.

For some, Bout’s extradition is not nearly so threatening to a US-Russia reset as the recently recalibrated US Congress. The Telegraph goes on to argue that “After Mr Obama’s Democrats fared badly in recent midterm elections, the fate of the new US-Russia nuclear pact or START, which needs to be ratified by the Senate, seems uncertain. If that falls, then the “reset” really will be in trouble.” Perhaps, but it isn’t just American lawmakers that could throw a wrench into the works.

Russia has recently exhibited an emerging block of reactionary legislators no less suspicious of the Obama White House than the US Congress is of their Cold War antagonists. Medvedev’s concessions to the Obama administration on anti-proliferation matters particularly have come under heavy fire from Russian lawmakers who argue that it represents of victory of American power over that of Russia. An irate Leonid Slutsky, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the Duma’s lower house, decried what he sees as clear US bullying. “The United States is now trying to dictate its position on the entire system of global politics and international relations. It is trying to somehow reintroduce a unipolar world.”

In this sense, the Bout case will likely bolster fears throughout various quarters in Moscow that Washington is intent on getting its way irrespective of Russian interests. It remains to be seen how well the Obama and Medvedev regimes handle this latest flashpoint in US-Russia relations. What is clear, however, is that in the face of a conservative resurgence in both countries, what otherwise could have been a minor nuisance in the management of foreign affairs suddenly may now take on greater dimensions, and further frustrate the maintenance of international security.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Contingencies, Not Domination, Behind Build-up of Chinese Navy

China's navyIn the last several years, the security community has become fixated on the rise of China. In particular, Chinese naval expansion has been the cause of growing alarm among its neighbors, international observers, and military strategists. Concerns have been intensified by the increasingly assertive attitude Beijing has adopted toward foreign policy, typified in its recent territorial spat with Japan. However, a closer inspection of Chinese naval policy, operations, and importantly, vessel procurement indicates that the Chinese are likely preparing for strategic contingencies and not for hegemonic domination of the high seas.

National Defense University professor, Bernard Cole, describes the Chinese naval buildup as “moderate,” and instead focuses on China’s improvements in the education and training of sailors (including the development of a professional non-commissioned officer corps, similar to the ROTC) to improve operational mobility, organization, and logistics management. Improvements in training and personnel are perhaps the most crucial aspect in developing a modern navy, and the Chinese are gaining invaluable experience through engaging in overseas operations as far away as the Gulf of Aden.

Chinese vessel procurement is a telling indicator of the strategic interests of Beijing. Indeed, it appears that China is much more concerned with its own littorals than it is at extending its reach. For example, China currently lacks the ability to sustainably project power over long distances. China only has five replenishment ships, of which only two are new. Furthermore, while it has continued to pursue joint operability with other branches, China’s navy remains years away from fielding aircraft carriers, and lacks integral naval aviation logistical units, such as AWACS and air-to-air refueling capabilities.

Instead, China has focused on developing capabilities to control and respond to contingencies in its own backyard. The 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis influences much of the Chinese program of modernization. This episode (coupled with lessons learned from the history of the Cold War) convinced Chinese naval planners that they should not attempt to match U.S. strength, but rather modernize with specific strategic goals in mind. Chinese modernization appears to be geared toward assuring continued access to sea-lanes of communication, vital to sustaining economic growth, and future contingencies surrounding Taiwan.

Relations between China and Taiwan have lately improved, and Chinese naval modernization does not appear to be directed toward the forceful repossession of Taiwan. Importantly, China currently lacks large-scale amphibious capabilities that would be necessary in an invasion. Rather, Chinese modernization seems to follow the established doctrine of “minimal deterrence,” in the event there is a replay of the 1996 Crisis. In particular, the growth of China’s conventional submarine force appears to be directed primarily at preventing potential U.S. military intervention by increasing the costs to unacceptable levels. This stance is further supported by China’s development of anti-ship ballistic missiles. In line with the aforementioned doctrine, China is attempting to counter U.S. strength through developing limited capabilities aimed at exploiting U.S. weaknesses, thereby somewhat insulating Chinese policy from the effects of U.S. pressure.

Contingencies over Taiwan were indeed vital in influencing Chinese naval modernization. Today, however, access to sea-lanes of communication (SLOC) has become the major driving force behind Chinese naval expansion. Continued access to the SLOCs is vital to sustained economic growth, on which the Communist Party has staked its legitimacy. It is hardly surprising, then, that China has engaged in efforts to secure its littorals, home to several critical lanes of commerce. However, these efforts have been viewed with suspicion by neighbors and exacerbated by China’s increasingly assertive attitude, exemplified in its territorial claim to the South China Sea.

Chinese proximity to important SLOCs has given rise to the fear that China does not need to develop far-reaching capabilities to dramatically influence the international community. This fear is particularly strong among import-reliant neighbors, such as Japan. Indeed, many neighbors view China’s improved anti-access/area of denial capabilities, despite claims that they are defensive in nature, as threatening to their economic interests and security.

Concerns over Chinese expansion, combined with the improved naval capabilities of Japan and South Korea, have ignited the potential for a regional arms race despite the increasing integration of East Asian economies. Although China is indeed expanding its influence, the naval modernization need not lead to heightened conflict. Given U.S. alliance commitments and the importance of the region to world economic stability, heightening tension or the outbreak of conflict would prove disastrous. It is therefore imperative that the U.S. and its allies engage in more open dialogue with China over the future security structure of East Asia.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern/Research Assistant with Foreign Policy in Focus.

Fireground Rules, Part 1: When in Doubt, Cease and Desist

Wild FireIn the fire service, we had a simple rule that saved a lot of lives – when things go totally to shit, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING!

Don’t do it harder. Don’t do it longer. Don’t throw more resources at it.

It’s not working, so STOP!

This rule applies to US foreign policy as well. In a nutshell . . .

STOP fighting stupid wars. The US has launched some five dozen invasions, ‘interventions, ‘police actions’ and ‘regime changes’ in the last 60 years. None has made the nation or the world safer. All have made the nation and the world poorer. All have cost lives, damaged the environment, and skewed local and national economies. And all have cost the US cash, credibility, status and relationships.

STOP supporting stupid governments. The long history of the US picking and backing losers and criminals continues unabated. The Karzais are no more noble nor capable – and will ultimately prove no more durable – than Diem, Marcos, Pahlavi or Pinochet. America’s support for Israel, Pakistan and Egypt, to name only a few of the current crop of losers and lame-os shored up and funded by the US, is equally stupid and counterproductive.

STOP supporting stupid organizations. From the IMF and the World Bank to multi-national predators, private military contractors and Halliburton, US support of corrupt and incompetent institutions digs an ever deeper hole of environmental destruction, inequity, unrest and insecurity. These organizations have amply demonstrated over the past several decades that they have neither the intention nor the ability to create a better future, so why waste time and money on them?

STOP buying stupid weapons. (Especially the ‘smart’ ones.) Not only is the cost of Cold War legacy weapons a major factor in the impending bankruptcy of the US, their profusion and use further separate both warfighters and the general population from the ugly reality that what the US does best is kill people and destroy nations. Anything that allows that process to be more sterile and remote – more like a video game than the vicious murder it is – allows us to ask only the question of whether something can be done, rather than whether it should be done.

And, finally, to the voters who ultimately choose the policymakers . . .

STOP electing the fools, criminals, liars and corporate whores that currently populate the administration and congress. These are the people who brought you to this dangerous and potentially disastrous point. Unless you want more of the same, stop electing more of the same.

Republican Whip Kyl Sold (Literally) on New START

After Republicans picked up six seats in the Senate earlier this month, prospects for the passage of the new START began to diminish (not that this author minds). Barron YoungSmith at the New Republic writes that last week “chief of staff to Senator Bob Corker — a key vote on the treaty — said that it should not be considered during the lame-duck Congress, and the Republican Policy Committee released a memo urging a similar delay.”

Of powerful Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, YoungSmith writes: “Kyl’s position as Republican whip enables him to command enough Senate votes that he can determine whether New START is ratified or not.” Nor has Kyl demonstrated a fondness for treaties in the past. “I submit that we have to be very careful to avoid relying on treaties to safeguard our security, since the reality is they are rarely enforced,” he said in 2000 of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But, writes YoungSmith, “bizarrely enough, he seems to want [new START] to go through.”

Turns out, not so bizarrely. Desmond Butler for the Associated Press writes:

In a bid to win approval of [new START] before newly energized Republicans increase their clout in the Senate, the Obama administration is offering to add billions of dollars in funding for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. [To wit] a boost of $4.1 billion . . . between 2012-2016 . . . that will go to maintaining and modernizing the arsenal and the laboratories that oversee that effort. The additional money comes on top of an additional $10 billion the administration had already agreed to over 10 years.

And that additional $10 billion, YoungSmith explains, is “on top of” . . .

. . . an initial massive $80 billion appropriation in Obama’s 2011 budget proposal [that Kyl demanded be] guaranteed over ten years. [In the end] Kyl’s proposal would pair New START with a huge cash bonanza for programs that would make it easier to maintain and upgrade our nuclear weapons in the future.

In other words, according to YoungSmith, Kyl “seems to think that securing long-term funding for nuclear modernization outweighs whatever qualms he might have about reducing our present arsenal.”

Then, a couple of odd statements by YoungSmith. First: “Given Kyl’s apparent passion for securing this funding, it’s no surprise that the White House seems to have decided to threaten the senator.” Most likely, the author and editor failed to notice the absence of the word “not” preceding “threaten.”

Next: “One senior administration official told the Financial Times that ‘not moving ahead … could shatter the fragile consensus on modernizing the nuclear complex.’ Presumably that would put at risk not just the extra $10 billion Kyl has been requesting, but possibly the entire $80 billion proposed appropriation.

Doesn’t the official mean “shatter the fragile consensus on ratifying START”? Because, as the statement stands, it sounds as if he’s more concerned with securing funding for the nuclear-weapons industry than ratifying new START. Maybe he is.

Tax Cuts and Trade: Is Obama Triangulating?

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

It was about this far into his first term—back in late 1994 and early 1995—when President Bill Clinton truly fell under the spell of malevolent strategist Dick Morris. Stung by the heavy losses brought on by the “Republican Revolution” in the 1994 midterms, Clinton began to believe that his only route to reelection was to tack to the right and steal some of the conservatives’ thunder on issues like welfare reform and federal deficits.

Morris, who was only forced out of the White House after a sex scandal and who has since exposed his true political stripes as a FoxNews commentator, thought triangulation both a brilliant political strategy and a generator of fine public policy. The remaining liberals in the Clinton administration disagreed. As the Economist notes, George Stephanopoulos incisively labeled it “a fancy word for betrayal.”

Not yet two weeks after the 2010 midterms, and just two years after Obama’s campaign of “hope” and “change,” there are troubling signs that the current president might be tempted to follow the same path as Clinton.

Obama’s first move after the midterms, already much criticized by progressives, was to express his willingness to cave on Bush tax cuts for the rich. This one felt to me more like a gutless compromise than a calculated shift to the right. And, on the hopeful side, the White House is now backpedaling, indicating that the story was overblown and Obama’s pre-midterms position hasn’t changed.

There’s no detectable silver lining, however, to the president’s drive to push forward the Bush-negotiated, NAFTA-style trade agreement with Korea. While it appears the deal has stalled for the time being, the denunciations of the neoliberal “free trade” program that Obama once used to attack rival candidate Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries are now long gone.

Given the composition of the administration’s economics team, this flip-flop is not surprising. There were signs of it already back in 2008, when Obama quickly tried to moderate his earlier stances during the general election campaign.

Nevertheless the maneuver is a sad one. While triangulation arguably worked for Clinton (he was reelected at any rate), rightward moves promise few benefits for Obama. A too-small stimulus meant that unemployment remained higher and anger about the economy greater than might otherwise have been the case going into the midterms. It also produced an uninspired Democratic base, resulting in a low-turnout election that favored Republicans.

Likewise, the trade deals on deck with Korea, Colombia, and Panama are bad not only because they seek to expand a flawed economic model, but also because “free trade” is a political loser. The Democratic base is firmly in the “fair trade” camp, disenchanted with neoliberal policies, and an anti-NAFTA message also resonates with the wider electorate. As Public Citizen has documented, “House Democrats that ran on fair trade platforms in competitive and open-seat races were three times as likely to survive the GOP tidal wave than Democrats who ran against fair trade.”

Global Trade Watch Research Director Todd Tucker has gone so far as to call compromising with the Republicans on pending trade deals a “political death wish” for a president who will soon be seeking reelection.

After Obama’s first year in office, I gave the administration a “B“ on trade policy, on the grounds that no news is good news. As long as unfinished “free trade” deals remained bogged down in negotiations and are not an administration priority, I am willing to judge the situation as no harm, no foul. But it’s a different story if the White House starts investing any real political capital in advancing these deals.

Even worse would be if Obama keeps his backbone as well hidden from public view as it has been since the midterms and turns to triangulation, imagining that moving right on trade would be politically beneficial.

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Plate Is Already Full

The New York Times reports that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi “just five days after an election that recast the structure of military rule in Myanmar” — poured more cement into the foundation, that is — “suggested that the generals who rule the country were confident of their position and ready to face down the devotion she still commands both among her countrymen and among Western nations.”

By “face down the devotion,” doesn’t the Times staff means “yield to the devotion”? One of Burma’s ruling generals’ incentives for freeing Suu Kyi was to provide a key human rights indicator that the West could point to when making the case that the time has come to lift the embargo and sanctions on Burma before China corners the market all its resources.

Meanwhile, of Suu Kyi’s stated intention to return to the human-rights fray, the Times reports that she “will be re-entering a battleground more complicated and difficult than the one she had faced in the past.” For example, partly at Suu Kyi’s behest, her party, the National League for Democracy “declined to take part in the election, calling it unfair and undemocratic, and was required to formally disband. But Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was assailed for that decision by party members who saw the vote, however flawed, as an opening. . . . ‘She’ll be facing a mountain of expectation and challenges,’ said Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based exile magazine.”

Besides the internal divisions in her party, Suu Kyi is also being asked to address the results of the election and the fate of other political prisoners who remain behind bars. Meanwhile, Burma’s festering wound, the junta’s oppression of the country’s ethnic minorities, has become inflamed “over the junta’s border guard force . . . plan aimed at assimilating all armed ethnic groups under its command.”

Suu Kyi’s freedom, the Times concludes “may be a burden as much as it is a liberation.” Let’s not make her feel like being sequestered in her house was so bad after all.

An Open Letter to President Obama, Or Change I believed in

Dear President Obama,

You’re not the man I thought you were.

Roughly a week ago, you issued a waiver that would allow the US to continue to provide military assistance to four countries—Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Chad—whose militaries recruit or deploy child soldiers.

You claimed the waivers would serve as a warning to the states to get their acts together. You claimed Yemen is a key ally in the war on terror and requires our assistance to survive. You said Chad, the DRC, and Sudan were making steps in the right direction and still required our assistance for force modernization and human rights training. Even your advisor Samantha Powers, someone whose human rights work I have deep respect for, tried to justify the waivers as a chance for these countries to do better.

Most progressives have no problem finding flaws with your first years as President to criticize you about, whether it’s the whittling down of the healthcare bill, decision to ramp up military operations in Afghanistan, failure to close Guantanamo, or deal effectively with Climate Change at Copenhagen.

For me however, it is the moments in which you have an opportunity to make a clear decision, with profound moral implications, and yet choose to act in a way that makes me ashamed to call you my President.

It has been one of the saddest and most disappointing aspects of your presidency that you have not only allowed militaries that use children to fight their battles to operate with impunity, but currently and actively assist these same militaries. I wish I could say these waivers were the first instance I suffered this extreme disappointment, but just last year you provided training, arms, and cash to the Somalia Transitional Federal Government, a known user of child soldiers. I still have not forgiven you.

I understand why the idea of professionalizing soldiers and training them in human rights could sound appealing, and even seem like the right course of action. However, a good soldier soon becomes meaningless if he is left to exist independent of the civil institutions necessary to both support him and hold him accountable for his actions. You are smart enough to know no amount of military training and good intentions will create civilian accountability and human rights in these conflict zones. The rule of the gun can never accomplish what the rule of law can.

If these governments lacked the institutional wherewithal to keep children out of their militaries in the first place, what should make us believe they will be able to control the soldiers we train for them? Should we believe that the key power players and military leaders in these countries who have shown their moral disregard for human rights before are suddenly changed men? That the war criminal Bosco Ntaganda has just been misunderstood by the ICC and only needs our help to change his ways? Why should we give these people a second chance to hurt more people?

I can believe that trying to achieve the progressive agenda you promised was difficult, and subject to many institutional constraints that kept you from doing everything the world hoped for. I don’t blame you for that.

That you have decided to make an exception for child soldiers in these countries, in the name of our national interests—for that, I do blame you. As a Senator, you supported and co-sponsored the Child Soldier Prevention Act that made what you are doing illegal. Perhaps more importantly, you are a father with two young children of your own.

What national interest of ours would be worth destroying the innocence of Sasha and Malia? And why is it acceptable for children in other countries to fight for these national interests?

All of this has lead me to one of two conclusions: either you lied to us, you lied about the bill you supported, about the type of man you were, about the promises of change, or perhaps more disappointing–the system has changed you.

You are the President of my country, but I’ll be damned if you do this in my name. This is your decision and your moral failing. Its consequences will be born by others, but the blame and the responsibility lies squarely with you.

Regretfully yours,
Michael Sean Lally

Will Suu Kyi Ever Be Free of the Imprisonment-House Arrest-Release Merry-Go-Round?

Free Suu KyiAs you’ve no doubt heard, the house arrest of the Burmese people’s favorite daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is due to expire on Saturday. Speculation is running rampant that the woman who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for advocating Burmese democracy and human rights may again be released from the house arrest under which she’s been held for 14 of the last 20 years.

Last Sunday’s the proxy party for Burma’s ruling junta predictably won their vaunted elections. As Reuters reports, the junta might now . . .

. . . seek to win some international legitimacy by freeing Suu Kyi at a time when she is little threat to the formation of a government it can choose and control. Her release might also appease the Burmese public and ward off the threat of protests. If the military wants Western sanctions to be lifted, this would be a step in the right direction, although it would be highly unlikely embargoes would be relaxed immediately. The regime knows there is a fierce debate as to the effectiveness of sanctions and that U.S. and European investors are tempted by the country’s vast resources and untapped potential.

In other words, the junta thinks that it wouldn’t take much to convince the West to retract its sanctions. It may be right because measures such as these, adopted purely out of human-rights considerations (unless I’m missing something), are becoming — in the words of Alberto Gonzalez when speaking about the Geneva Conventions — “quaint” in today’s increasingly mercenary world. Devoid of any such ethical compunctions, China is helping the junta develop natural gas and hydro-electric power, among other things. As well, it provides the junta with military equipment including fighter planes and naval vessels. The West not only wants in on Burma’s resources, but seeks to keep them from China.

As for Suu Kyi’s possible release, live-blogging for the Guardian, Peter Walker writes:

I’ve had a chat with Niall Couper from Amnesty International, who agrees that there’s no way of knowing when the release could happen. He also points out that even if Aung San Suu Kyi is freed the junta could arrest her again the moment she addresses her supporters. He notes: “I wouldn’t see this as a watershed moment. What you have here is one political prisoner among 2,200.”

Not to mention the oppression of its ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, one might be tempted to suggest that since the prospect of re-(house) arrest prevents her from doing substantive work when freed, she should reject it if offered to avoid appearing like a plaything of the junta. But, under the terms of her house arrest, Suu Kyi is even prevented from spending time in her garden. Only human, she must feel at times like a ghost roaming around her rundown lake-side house. Whatever the outcome, bearing in mind that in the past Aung San Suu Kyi has been offered the option of leaving the country, her courage remains unimpeachable.

Catfood Commission Provides Opening for Defense Cuts to Go Mainstream

Exceeding the expectations of many arms control advocates, the deficit panel commissioned by President Obama earlier this year has actually proposed $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget (do consult Miriam Pemberton’s brief treatment of its pros and cons). The cuts come primarily from unnecessary weapons procurements, overseas basing, and health care benefits for military families.

It is rather stunning to see a bipartisan, mainstream group of advisors concoct such an attack on the Pentagon sacred cow. Such a recommendation departs even from the stated position of President Obama, who likely only commissioned the panel in an effort to co-opt the deficit hysteria that was threatening his ambitious domestic agenda. This should be a credit to the efforts of Barney Frank’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, who lobbied hard to let the Pentagon contract its share of austerity fever.

The cuts are somewhat modest (though proportional to cuts sought in other areas of the federal budget), and the recommendations don’t necessarily connect all the dots from various program cuts to that $100 billion figure. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether they will receive the endorsement of the full panel, not to mention of Congress. But for the first time in recent memory, there exists a mainstream substrate on which to catalyze opposition to defense spending. You want those weapons contracts for your district? Fine, vote against the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit panel.

Predictably, and if you can pardon the expression, industry groups are up in arms. Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, has exclaimed that cuts to new weapons systems would “undercut the capability of the nation’s defense industrial base to design, build, and support complex cutting-edge defense systems.” Of course, this is a thinly veiled admission that such programs have little to do with defense and everything to do with that “industrial base,” the military-industrial complex that has its tentacles in virtually every congressional district.

As Miriam Pemberton and John Feffer have shown, there is tremendous unrealized potential in that industrial base that doesn’t require a steady stream of Pentagon funds for exorbitantly expensive war toys. But just in case major arms contractors aren’t ready to convert their capabilities into less destructive enterprises, there is always the international market. Already anticipating potential cuts in the Pentagon’s procurement budget, the Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon behemoths announced last month their plans for a $60 billion sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. This would be the largest arms transfer in American history. And arms exports next year already expected to surge.

Nonetheless, the commission’s interim proposal allows for defense cuts to make a welcome (and much belated) ingress into the political mainstream. The panel has taken a few real political risks that are likely to ruffle some feathers. In addition to the weapons cuts, the panel also suggests cuts to Social Security and – gasp – recommends against repealing health care reform.

This, of course, is not tantamount to world peace. But if the panel is willing to take an ax (or at least a scalpel) to the Pentagon and Social Security third rails, and if it is even amenable to jumping on the health care reform landmine only two months before the Tea Party comes to town, why not go after that other massive drain on spending? Ending the war in Afghanistan, which already costs upwards of $6 billion per month by the most conservative estimates, would go leaps and bounds toward reducing expenditures on every aspect of the defense budget already slated for cuts: weapons procurement, basing, and medical care. With the summer drawdown already looking increasingly farcical, perhaps President Obama needs a bipartisan panel to tell him that this war is too expensive (since “wrong,” or at least “wrongheaded,” has gotten less traction). Like the defense cuts already proposed, when this idea appears in otherwise bland bipartisan circles, we will know it’s finally gotten somewhere.

Military Spending Takes its Place at the Table

The two chairs of the Deficit Reduction Commission have floated their trial balloon. Here’s my good news/ bad news quick take on their proposals for military spending:

Good news:

  • Cutting military spending—the formerly untouchable component of the budget—is off-limits no more. Secretary Gates has been proposing “cuts” that are actually shaved, and redirected, increases. What the Deficit Commission chairs are proposing is, actually, cuts.
  • Military spending gets equal treatment! It makes up half the discretionary budget (what Congress votes on every year). The team of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson propose cutting $100 billion from defense, and $100 billion from everything else. Proportional, in other words.
  • This includes $20 billion in weapons buys. This would be the largest cut in this budget since the end of the cold war. The list includes items that IPS’ Unified Security Budget task force, which I chair, and the Sustainable Defense Task Force, of which I am a member, have recommended, including ending, finally, the hybrid helicopter plane—the V-22 Osprey—that’s struggled to become airborne since the eighties, and that even Dick Cheney tried to kill; canceling the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program; cutting in half buys of the Joint Strike Fighter plane, the most expensive weapons program EVER; and further cutting the grab bag of high-tech toys, the Future Combat Systems.
  • They propose cutting 1/3 of our overseas bases, bringing home 150,000 of our troops in Europe and Asia, which IPS has also been advocating for years. The savings they project from this are far smaller than our projections.

Bad news:

  • They make no mention of savings to be gained from cuts to the nuclear weapons complex, for example, or to unneeded aircraft fighter wings, or submarines, or destroyers.
  • They get to their $100 billion number by gesturing toward large quantities of unspecified “efficiencies.”
  • While reassigning Defense Secretary Gates’ projected savings to the deficit is better than his plans to plow them back into his own budget, this money is sorely needed for job-creating investment.
  • No sooner had the balloon been launched than other members of the Commission began taking pot shots at it. Further deliberations, and the voting, are still to come.
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