The China Challenge

Published January 30th, 2011 by tcarpenter

Dealing with an increasingly assertive China is likely to be the biggest challenge the United States will face in the coming decades.  It will be difficult to contain and manage the growing differences between the two countries, but it’s essential to get the relationship right.  If disagreements get out of hand, the consequences could be extremely bad, not just for the two countries, but for the global economy and world peace.

My latest thoughts on this difficult and complex relationship can be found in this article.

North Korea Behaving Badly Again

Published November 27th, 2010 by tcarpenter

Those of you who are worried about the latest spike in tensions between North Korea and South Korea should read the excellent piece by my colleague Doug Bandow in the National Interest Online.  Among other things, Doug questions why nearly six decades since the end of the Korean War, the United States is in the middle of a parochial spat between two small nations half-way around the world.  He shows why North Korea’s neighbors should be perfectly capable of handling that obnoxious little troublemaker on their own.

The security commitment to South Korea is yet another example of U.S. global obligations that are both obsolete and dangerous.  The sooner we get our troops out of harm’s way, the better.  We have far more pressing problems much closer to home–including the soaring (and spreading) drug violence next door in Mexico.

South Pacific Realism

Published April 30th, 2010 by tcarpenter

Last month, I spent nearly three weeks in Australia and New Zealand.  In addition to delivering some speeches on U.S. foreign policy, especially the future of America’s role in East Asia, I held a number of meetings with defense and foreign ministry officials in both countries.  Three important insights emerged from those meetings.  First, although Australia and New Zealand have crucial economic ties with China, they are also increasingly nervous about Beijing’s growing power.  Second, despite repeated assurances from U.S. officials and nongovernmental foreign policy experts from America that everything is just fine and that Washington will keep military forces in East Asia and take care of the region’s security problems (as it has since the end of World War II) forever and ever, the Aussies and Kiwis look at our enormous federal budget deficits and have major doubts about those assurances.  Third, since they believe that U.S. military retrenchment is likely at some point, they want both India and Japan to play larger security roles in the region.  Otherwise, they fear that China will become totally dominant.

I found their thinking far more realistic than the drivel that passes for foreign policy analysis in the U.S. government and most American think tanks.  My reflections on the meetings and my analysis of East Asia’s security situation and the choices facing America’s allies can be found here and here.

Afghanistan: Obama’s Vietnam?

Published November 29th, 2009 by tcarpenter

President Obama will address the American people on Tuesday night regarding Afghanistan.  Reports have leaked out over the past week that he will announce that he is sending additional troops into that quagmire.  The only question seems to be whether he will send 30,000, 40,000 or some number in between.  That is, frankly, not a very important issue.  And for all of his talk about “off ramps” for the United States if the Afghan government does not meet certain policy targets or “benchmarks,” the reality is that he is escalating our commitment.  Since Obama has repeatedly asserted that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity, not a war of choice, his talk of off ramps is largely a bluff–and the Afghans probably know it.

I am in the process of co-writing a book that includes a chapter on America’s disastrous war in Vietnam.  I’m the first to acknowledge the hazards of equating one historical event with a development in a different setting and time period.   In fact, the tendency of U.S. leaders to view every conflict in the world over the last 60 years through the prism of the failure to stem Nazi aggression in the 1930s has been a major cause of policy disasters like Vietnam and Iraq.  And I don’t want to imply that what Obama is doing is exactly the same as the foolish strategy that the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations adopted in Southeast Asia during the 1960s.  But there are a couple of very disturbing similiarities.  In both cases, U.S. leaders opted to try to rescue a failing war by sending in more troops.  And in both cases, Washington found itself desperately searching for a “credible” leader who could serve as an effective partner in the war effort.  The United States never found such a leader in Vietnam.  From the first client, Ngo Dinh Diem, to the last leader of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, American policymakers were frustrated by a parade of repressive, corrupt, and ineffectual political figures.  Now, doesn’t that sound more than a little like the problem the Bush and Obama administrations have encountered with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government?

That fact alone suggests that our Afghanistan mission is not likely to turn out well.

Instead of escalating, Obama should move to rapidly draw-down our forces and narrow the mission to one of trying to harrass Al Qaeda and keep it off balance.  My colleague, Malou Innocent, and I published a Cato Institute White Paper, “Escaping the Graveyard of Empires,” describing how to achieve that goal without pursuing the futile objective of nation-building in Afghanistan.

How Not to Handle North Korea

Published October 29th, 2009 by tcarpenter

I have a new article in the National Interest Online about the speech by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his recent visit to East Asia.  His comments inadvertently underscored why U.S. foreign policy is such a mess.  In one speech, he 1) made the North Korean nuclear crisis more dangerous, 2) greatly reduced the chances that China will exert itself to help solve the crisis, and 3) gave U.S. allies Japan and South Korea a green light to continue underinvesting in their own defense while free-riding on U.S. efforts.  Other than that, it was a brilliant speech.

Gates is reputed to be the foreign policy “adult” in the Obama administration.  If that’s true, we’re all in deep trouble.

Afghanistan: The Graveyard of Empires

Published September 7th, 2009 by tcarpenter

Last week, I published an article in The National Interest Online about the folly of engaging in nation building in Afghanistan.  Following the 9-11 attacks, I strongly supported military action in Afghanistan to punish al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that gave the terrorist organization a safe haven from which to plan that dastardly attack.   But I also warned that we should not try to remake Afghanistan into a modern, stable, democratic country–in other words, try to pursue a utopian nation-building crusade.  Yet, during the Bush years, we gradually drifted into exactly that sort of mission.  And, unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to be escalating that effort.

The reality is that Afghanistan is not going to become a Central Asian version of Arizona–or even Arkansas–no matter how long we stay, how much money we spend, and how many American lives we sacrifice.   The country is not called “the graveyard of empires” for nothing.  Invaders from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union discovered that it was impossible to subdue that fractious society.  Now, the United States seems determined to make the same foolish error. 

We have to adopt realistic objectives.  It is possible to further disrupt and weaken al Qaeda.  But we must learn to treat that terrorist threat as a chronic, but manageable, security problem, not an overpowering threat that requires a definitive victory with a surrender ceremony (which isn’t going to happen anyway).   And it certainly doesn’t require us to (somehow) get the people of Afghanistan to become good 21st century democratic capitalists committed to gender equality.   That won’t happen for generations–if it ever does.

Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, we need an exit strategy, not the escalation strategy that the Obama administration is giving us.  On September 14, my colleague Malou Innocent and I will be publishing a Cato Institute White Paper giving a detailed analysis of the current situation and outlining such an exit strategy.  Please stay tuned.

What Century Are We In?

Published July 23rd, 2009 by tcarpenter

When you see an article like this, it’s hard to believe that we’re in the 21st century.  Humanity has come a long way, but we’re constantly reminded of how far we still need to go to move beyond the suffocating effects of superstition.  And one has to wonder what would happen if modern societies, controlled by a thin layer of educated people, truly fell on hard times.  How far would the world slide back toward a new dark age?

Keep an Eye on Pakistan

Published May 11th, 2009 by tcarpenter

The situation in Pakistan is becoming increasingly ugly.  Taliban forces and their Al Qaeda allies have gained control over significant chunks of Pakistan along that country’s border with Afghanistan.  The feckless government in Islamabad, after unsuccessfully attempting an appeasement policy, has now apparently reversed course and is confronting the militants with a major military offensive.  The bottom line is that Pakistan is an extremely fragile country with a growing radical Islamic insurgency.  At the very least, those developments complicate America’s already beleaguered mission next door in Afghanistan, where the Obama administration is beefing-up the U.S. military presence.  And we need to ponder a possible worst-case scenario: Pakistan completely unraveling and the militants getting control of that country’s nuclear arsenal.  While the risk of Pakistan becoming the South Asian version of Somalia is still relatively remote, that possibility cannot be ruled out.

My colleague Malou Innocent recently published an excellent study on this extremely complicated situation.  She spent several weeks last year in Pakistan as part of her research, and her analysis is the best relatively short treatment I’ve seen of this crucial and difficult issue.

Hillary Gets One Right

Published February 18th, 2009 by tcarpenter

I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton or her foreign policy views.  In the past, she has far too often been an advocate of U.S. military intervention in situations that have nothing to do with the security or well being of this country.  Her support for meddling in the civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s were prime examples, as was her later endorsement of the congressional measure authorizing President George W. Bush to use force in Iraq.

But she has made the correct decision regarding her first trip abroad as secretary of state.  Instead of going to Europe, as most of her predecessors did, or going to the Middle East–a region that gets far too much attention from American foreign policy officials, she chose to go to East Asia.  Secretary Clinton is in the middle of that trip, having already made a stops in Japan and Indonesia.  Next, she travels to China and South Korea.

East Asia is already a crucial region for the United States, both diplomatically and economically, and it is likely to become more so in the coming decades.  My colleague, Leon Hadar, makes a strong case for giving that region a higher priority on the U.S. foreign policy agenda instead of obsessing over every development in the Middle East.  It’s refreshing to see signs that the Obama administration may be developing a more rational set of priorities.

The only other step Secretary Clinton should have taken was to put India on her itinerary.  In many respects, that country should be as important as China–perhaps even more so–to the United States.  Nevertheless, her first move as the steward of U.S. foreign policy has been a competent one.

Time for Serious Spending Cuts

Published October 11th, 2008 by tcarpenter

The price tag for the government’s attempted rescue of the nation’s financial system, which has been a spectacular flop so far, is likely to run into trillions of dollars.  Yet very few participants in the policy debate (with the exception of Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr) have talked about making even modest cuts in federal spending to offset this vast new expenditure.  That is nothing short of irresponsible–and both major political parties are guilty.

It is imperative to jettison nonessential expenditures.  There are certainly plenty of candidates among domestic programs, starting with agricultural subsidies–a great reverse wealth-transfer mechanism in which taxpayers of even modest means are forced to fatten the bank accounts of even wealthy farmers.  I’m not an expert on wasteful and unnecessary domestic programs, so I will leave it to others to suggest additional cuts in what is clearly a target-rich environment.

If many of Washington’s domestic spending programs are luxuries we can no longer afford, that is doubly true of our military and foreign policy expenditures.  Foreign aid programs are obvious candidates for elimination.  America has spent nearly a trillion dollars (measured in 2008 dollars) over the past 60 years, and all too much of that money has simply gone into the coffers of corrupt politicians and their cronies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 

But the wasteful spending goes far beyond foreign aid.  The United States spends roughly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.  Promptly terminating the ill-advised crusade in Iraq would save $120 billion a year, but that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Our current annual military budget is nearly $700 billion.  Advocates of such a vast sum should explain why we need to have not one but two expensive new jet fighter programs when the U.S. already has overwhelming superiority in air power and there is no serious military competitor on the horizon for the next two decades–and perhaps longer.  At least one of those programs should be terminated.  The same is true of the program to build the Virginia class submarine, a weapon system that was designed to counter a Soviet system that was never built.

And someone ought to explain why the United States needs to keep nearly 100,000 troops in Europe to guard wealthy allies more than 6 decades after the end of World War II and nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Our trusty NATO allies, who have used the U.S. defense guarantee as an excuse to underinvest in their own defenses for decades, are now citing the global financial crisis as a reason to cut their already paltry military expenditures even further.  But at the same time, they don’t want us to cut our military budget.

A similar situation exists on the other side of the world.  The United States continues to subsidize the defense of South Korea, even though that country now has a population twice the size of its only adversary, communist North Korea, and an economy some 40 times larger.

It is time to expel the international military welfare queens in Europe and East Asia from the U.S. dole.  We should have done that years ago, but the current financial squeeze makes that move not just desirable, but essential.