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How Domestic Politics Trumps Foreign Policy

Letter From an Afghan Patriot

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

I have an Afghan friend, Hashim, who lives in Europe.  We correspond frequently on the situation in Afghanistan.  He comes from an old distinguished Pashtun family; he has multiple degrees from the UK’s finest universities, knows Afghan (and world) history; and he admires the United States immensely, having lived here for a number of years as a young man.

Hashim is an Afghan patriot, and while he is a realist, he understandably tends to see things in a hopeful light for his beloved country.  This is especially true with regard to his hope that President Obama’s will correct the gross errors of his predecessor.  Hashim recently sent me a hopeful email (see below) describing his reactions to  two closely related wire service reports issued on 9 January⁠1, in which U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes revealed that the White House was considering an option for a total withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end 2014.

Rhodes said the White House was considering the so-called ‘zero option’  in addition to the more widely reported options for maintaining a limited troop presence 3,000 and 9,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.  In contrast, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is lobbying for an enduring presence 6,000 to 15,000. There are currently about 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  With one year to go, it is therefore clear that big changes are coming.

Rhodes made clear that Obama’s final decision will not be made for several months, and he emphasized will be based on the twin U.S. security objectives of (1) denying the so-called counterterrorism strategy of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda (read: a continuing targeted assassination strategy by special forces and drones) and (2) ensuring that Afghan forces are trained and equipped to maintain internal security (read: ensuring that Afghan forces can neutralize the Taliban).

Rhodes’s words, predictably (perhaps deliberately), created a firestorm of reaction among the neocons and advocates of empire in the U.S. as well as among those in Afghanistan who have benefitted from the U.S. presence. Members of the Afghan government, in harmony with the despairing cries of the neocon armchair warriors in the U.S., predicted that the zero option would be equivalent to a U.S. admission of defeat; that it would precipitate another a civil war, like that of the 1990s; and that it would leave the 350,000 man ill-trained Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) unable to provide internal security. While the Taliban had no comment, a spokesman reiterated its 5 January call for the immediate removal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Hashim’s Take on the Zero Option

My Afghan friend did not think much of these reactions.  On 10 Jan 2013, he wrote:

“This [i.e. Rhodes’ zero option] is more to do with negotiating with the insurgency leaders than it is about ensuring the future survival of the despised Karzai criminal clique — a smart strategy, and an appropriate answer to thugs who say, ‘You need us more than we need you.’”

“The foundations of normal U.S.-Afghan relations are finally being laid by people concerned with the U.S.’s national interests, rather than by dubious. armchair warriors, rabid ideologues, and self-serving vested interests – long may it continue!”

“The cries of fear and despair, from the less than 1% of Afghans who’ve grown obscenely rich, courtesy of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, are to be expected – they are the supporters of the thugs who thought that the U.S. could be blackmailed into expending blood and treasure ad infinitum, no matter what these gangsters said or did, because of their ‘you need U.S. more than we need you’ mantra.”

“The statements will be welcomed by the young village-based insurgent commanders inside the country, but will leave the ‘old’ Taliban leaders who still have  political ambitions in a quandary: No one will accept their leadership if they agree to join the Karzai criminal cooperative, nor will they continue the fight until the ‘Islamic Emirate’ is re-installed in Kabul.  What the majority of the insurgents want is an end to the ‘occupation,’ and a truly representative government of competent ‘good Muslims’ in Kabul.”

“Similarly, Karzai and his gang have been put on notice, that they’re not the ‘indispensable’ puppets they had assumed themselves to be. Moreover, the U.S. statements will cause the ranks of their supporters to diminish dramatically, and decrease their ability to act as rejectionists or spoilers of any agreement reached with the Taliban insurgency.”

“Doubtless, matters will come into better focus in coming weeks. So, my comments are really ‘hazarded guesses.’”

Hashim

While Hashim’s analysis makes sense and suggests a realistic sense of foresight on the part of the U.S. government, it triggered uncertainties in my mind about what other political factors might be driving our foreign policy in Afghanistan.

Here is My Response

Dear Hashim … I hope  you are right, and as usual, you certainly raise insightful issues.  But that said, I think there are several very powerful domestic political factors also in play, and these factors may well be taking precedence in the decisions shaping our Afghan policy. Consider please the following:

In the U.S., as in most countries, the exigencies of domestic politics almost always trump the logical needs of foreign policy. This is particularly the case when a government is changing policy direction, as is the case of Afghanistan today.  A good, if somewhat dated, general introduction to the history of how the exigencies of domestic politics influence  American foreign policy can be found in Robert Dallek’s, The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs.

Here is what I think is now happening — to be sure what follows is speculation, but it is based over thirty years of experience of closely observing the pathological machinations of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex, hereafter referred to as the MICC:

1. It is pretty clear Obama wants out of Afghanistan.  My own suspicion is that Mr. Obama understands he was railroaded into approving the fatally flawed surge by the MICC and cabal of neocons in 2009. Whether or not this is indeed the case, and it is not clear whether Generals Petraeus and MacChrystal “played” Obama or Obama was a willing part of the game; one thing is clear: Mr. Obama set himself up to become enmeshed in the Afghan quagmire via opportunistic political maneuvering during the 2008 election campaign to contrast Afghanistan as a “good war” as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq.  His obvious intent was the usual Democratic effort to protect his right flank from being attacked by Republicans as being soft on defense.  So, consciously or not, Obama entrapped himself in a quagmire by succumbing the exigencies of domestic politics in a foreign policy question of supreme importance.  Now, like all politicians, he does not want to look like a fool as he walks along the exit tightrope from the Afghan debacle.  Score 1 for domestic politics trumping foreign policy.

2. More importantly, Obama’s opportunistic behavior is a symptom of  deeper problems created by more powerful domestic political exigencies:  It is now clear the MICC also wants out of Afghanistan, but the MICC’s players also must walk a tightrope: Its players must extricate themselves from the Afghan quagmire without jeopardizing their future budget prospects.

The MICC’s players — in the Pentagon, in industry, and in the Congress —  are terrified of a so-called “peace dividend,” and the potential for cutbacks is looming, either in the form of a loss of $80 billion annually in supplemental budgets to cover projected war spending, or the loss of $50 billion through a budget sequester or some kind of fiscal deal, or some combination of both. The brass hats in the military also know they are losing the Afghan war, and they probably fear that sooner or later their defeat will become understood by the voters and create a PR problems that could adversely affect their future budgets for an extended period.  To date, the military has dodged that bullet, but how long will that last?  The generals and defense industrialists must therefore understand that time is not on their side.

The generals and politicians also know that a larger majority of Americans now oppose the Afghan war than opposed the Vietnam war.  To be sure, it is now clear ending the draft and “professionalizing” the military has successfully has muted popular opposition to the war.  Ending the draft successfully prepared the ground for a mercenary U.S. military and the entire MICC to engage in constant war so long as its intensity does not breech certain threshold.  But how long will the public indifference to the pain of war last, particularly if, as is now likely, there are cut backs in spending for social safety net programs during a sluggish recovery and/or the austerity economics trigger another recession?

So, I think the political economy of the MICC is beginning to gag on Afghanistan.  In its structural and logical aspects, this has created a political situation that is not unlike that faced by President Nixon in 1969, although political emotions are far more muted today.

Now, with this background in mind, consider the White House’s so-called exit strategy:  It is based on the reported personnel options ranging from complete withdrawal (the zero option) to keeping 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, with their responsibilities divided up between a counter-terrorist operations (read targeted assassination with drones and special forces and all that implies) and the self-evidently absurd idea that there is still enough time remaining for a tiny cohort of U.S. trainers to solve the heretofore intractable training problem posed by the ineffectiveness the hugely corrupt 350,000 man Afghan army.  Nixon’s Vietnamization policy was far more substantial to the policy being proposed by the White House, but the White House is the same game: Afghanizing the war is more designed for domestic consumption in the U.S., in the hope that the President can preserve his credibility by spinning a narrative of achieving objectives out of what is really retreat and defeat. Another aim, of course, is to protect business as usual in the MICC and stave off the domestic opponents of empire  in both parties.  Score 2 for domestic politics trumping foreign policy.

3.  Consider how domestic politics is setting stage to ease the pain of any budgetary reductions accompanying the Afghan exit strategy.  Obama is easing the pain to defense contractors by expanding foreign military sales (FMS) of U.S. frontline weapons.  This is exactly what President Nixon did when he announced the so-called Nixon Doctrine in summer of 1969 as being at center of his Vietnam exit strategy. Obama has already played his first big card in this game by sharply ramping up FMS to record levels of at least $68 billion⁠2 in Fiscal Year 2012 (which began in October 2011) — that is, in the year leading up to his re-election in November 2012.  Score 3 for the exigencies of domestic politics trumping the rationale needs of a foreign policy.

4. There are some differences in the Nixon comparison, but they are also revealing: In 1969, President Nixon did have one “exigency” advantage over Mr. Obama in the domestic politics of catering to the MICC: the Cold War.  Nixon and his successors could ‘refocus’ the defense budget on the Soviet threat in Europe and the nuclear threat to the United States and hype these threats to pump up the long-term budgetary prospects for the MICC.

So, while Nixon was reducing the defense budget as he exited Vietnam in the early 1970s, he augmented the political buyoffs of the Nixon Doctrine by planting the seed money to start a large number  of R&D programs (e.g., F-14, F-15, B-1, AV-8B, AWACs, SSN-688 submarine, M-1 tank, etc) for a new generation of even higher cost weapons to be bought in the late 1970s and through the 1980s  Like an insurance policy, these R&D programs, coupled with increased FMS, protected (and pacified) the MICC’s constituencies, while building a huge head of programmatic steam to govern the future — in the Pentagon the mushrooming future costs of all these new programs became known as the “bow wave.”  The bow wave prepared the political ground for the emergence of ‘requirements’ for far larger procurement budgets and the eventual growing of defense budgets in late 1970s and the explosion of those budgets under Ronald Reagon.  In retrospect, it is quite clear that the Reagan spending spree was actually launched during the Carter Administration by seeds planted in the Nixon Administration.  A similar bow wave was planted in the aftermath of the Cold War during the last years of the first Bush Administration and the first term of the Clinton Administration — and as I explained in my 1996 paper Defense Budget Time Bomb, the budget explosion in the first decade of the 21st Century was inevitable.  As will be seen below, Osama bin Laden merely iced the exploding cake.

President Carter was a prisoner of the bow wave of new programs created by his predecessors’ cynical decisions.⁠3  President Obama, however, may be end up being far more culpable that Carter, because whether Obama knows it or not, he is not repeating Nixon’s strategy of refocusing on an existing, if exaggerated, superpower “threat.” Obama is taking the scam one step higher: He is laying the seeds for a new and entirely unnecessary Cold War by approving the MICC’s  the reckless plan to “pivot” to a grossly exaggerated, non-superpower threat posed by China.  The China “pivot” will placate the MICC by providing the needed justification to maintain high defense budgets far into the future, backed up, of course, by the budget requirements of Obama’s targeted assassination policies in a never ending war on terror.  Score game, set, and match for the exigencies of domestic politics trumping the rationale needs of a foreign policy.

MICC Über Alles

The long-term budget implications of Obama’s “China pivot” are stunningly clear in the following figure: Despite the fact that the United States is exiting Afghanistan and the fact that President has called for cutbacks in so-called entitlement programs, while protecting most of Bush’s ill conceived tax give aways in the middle of a so-call fiscal crisis, President Obama is now calling for huge defense budgets into the future as far as the eye can see.

The audacity of this hope is mind boggling. Consider the figure below:

It depicts the Defense Department’s budget authority in terms of the four year totals of each presidential administration, beginning with that of Harry Truman in 1949-1952.  DoD Budget Authority is the new money Congress appropriates each year to fill up the Pentagon’s annual checkbook. This is the MICC’s gravy train.

The four year totals appropriated during Democratic administrations are portrayed in blue and those for Republican administrations are portrayed in red.  Note that the effects of inflation have been removed from the data portrayed below.⁠4

If Mr. Obama’s plan unfolds as predicted by the ‘Obama2’ by, his eight years of defense spending (i.e., in the non-war base budget) will exceed any comparable eight year period of his predecessors except for that of Ronald Reagan.

The chart also makes it clear that, notwithstanding Secretary Panetta’s claims of deep, savage, and arbitrary cuts in future defense budgets, the new five year budget projections in the White House’s and Pentagon’s  budget computers project totals out to 2017 that would be far  higher than budgets averaged during the Cold War, and would, in effect, out spend President Bush’s FY 2001-08 “base budget” spending spree.

And remember, unlike previous wars in Vietnam and Korea, the war on terror has been funded on a pay-as-you-go basis via the legislative scam of appropriating supplemental budgets. This policy is a little like a city fire department telling the mayor that its annual budget will support its equipment but the department will need extra money to put out a fires.  So be careful to note how the figure separates the war budgets since 2001 from the non-war related base budget.  My comparisons do not include the war budgets which are portrayed by lighter shaded boxes on top of the columns.

Note also how this chart depicts the four year total for the future defense budgets Mr. Obama approved for his second term (labeled Obama2 highlighted in yellow) for last February.  This plan has been slightly reduced over the last year, and while the new budget total will not be available until the long range plan is released by Obama in about six weeks, my sources tell me that the much ballyhooed cuts in the new plan will reduce the inflation adjusted four-year budget total only to the level indicated by the point of the yellow arrow on the right.  Bear in mind, the chart unrealistically assumes supplementals for the war on terror will cease to exist as of FY 14, which certainly will not the case.

Several other points implicit in the chart are worth pointing out: (1)The level of $1.6-1.7 trillion over 4 years appears the to be a floor to which budget drops, when it declines as it did during the Eisenhower, Ford/Carter, and Clinton periods. This “floor” — which now appears a little quaint — was the level that induced President Eisenhower to warn the nation about the excessive influence of military-industrial complex in the halls of government. (Note: he actually included “congressional” in his first draft of the speech, but the reference was subsequently dropped for unknown reasons.) (2) The size of the military combat force supported by these budgets has shrunk sharply over time since the Eisenhower years, but even so, old equipment was continually being replaced by new equipment at decreasing rates, so consequently, the average age of our weapons has increasing over time.  The continued ‘aging’ of weapons creates a perpetual modernization crisis, as explained in the Defense Budget Time Bomb paper I referenced above. (3) Even if his detailed spending plans unfold perfectly, Obama’s new budget plan projects even more force reductions and equipment age increases as we move into the future.  These force reduction/aging trends will once again create the conditions for domestic political pressures to increase the rate of shoveling of money into the MICC. (4) The Pentagon’s accounting systems are a shambles, making it impossible to sort out where the money has been going, much less where it should be going.  Put bluntly, we have created a domestic political economy in the MICC where feeding the monster increases its voracity, and this creates a continual pressure to distort our foreign policy to support the feeding operation.

Will Chuck Hegel as defense secretary be able to control the domestic political exigencies posed by the MICC and realign its efforts to match the logical requirements of a salutary foreign policy?  Personally, I doubt it.  Superficially, Hegel appears to be a reformer, and he has made some skeptical statements about our stupid foreign policy over the years since 2001.  But as a senator, he did not vote in accordance with his vocal skepticism?  Not against Iraq, not against Afghanistan, not against Israel, although to his credit, he did vote against a sanctions in Iran.  Even worse, to my thinking, he called for a ground invasion of Kosovo in 1999, which was exceedingly reckless, because the Serbian Army was little damaged  by the NATO bombing campaign, and was spoiling for a fight, and a ground war was opposed by our own military.   Moreover Hegel’s past support of unnecessary and bloated cold-war inspired programs like ballistic missile defense suggests he will support the ‘pivot’ and by implication, its implications for high-tech boondoggles. Also, you must bear in mind, the way Washington works, politicians must be “for” something — and the Chinese threat, like the nonexistent bomber and missile gaps of the Cold War, fills that bill perfectly.

So, the stage is being set for defense to remain off the budget negotiating table while Obama cuts back on social programs and protects the Bush era tax cuts to the wealthy.

Conclusion

For these reasons, I think domestic politics is poised to trump the entirely reasonable foreign hopes raised in your email.  I am afraid we are about to sweep Afghanistan under the rug like we did in Iraq and Vietnam.

While I see this as an immoral evasion of responsibility, given the extent to which we contributed to Afghanistan’s misery since the Brzezinski caper in the summer of 1979 (also confirmed in Robert Gates memoir, here) provoked the Soviets to invade six months later, in December of 1979, another evasion is the way American politics have been worked since Vietnam.

American politics continues to repeat the practice of buying domestic power by inflicting misery and destruction on third world nations.  In my view, Obama’s own contribution to statecraft in this regard has been his ability to lobotomize almost the entire Democratic base. The same people who were screaming about Bush’s illegal wars, unconstitutional surveillance, lack of due process, etc., are now silent or singing Obama’s greatness.

Even when Democrats can see how Mr. Obama has disappointed them, the insanity of Republican politicians provides the Democrats a ready rationale to excuse Obama. (BTW, does anyone care if Hagel is confirmed, it means two of Obama’s three SecDefs will have been Republicans?)  The Republican party, with a few exceptions, is so visibly crazy that they have become an indispensable foil that permits Obama to govern as he does.  The conventional wisdom of liberals is that Obama’s heart is in the right place, but he is conflict averse and therefore must govern as a centrist (really a center-rightist), because the GOP is crazy and intransigent. But in reality, Obama actually is a center-rightist who uses his image as a diffident compromiser as a cloak to hide his true identity. And because just about anyone would prefer center-right governance to out-and-out fascism, the GOP plays an essential role as a “bad cop” to the center-right “good cop.”  In my opinion, that is why Democrats went along with  Obama’s plan to enshrine the Bush tax cuts for the bottom 99.3%, and a huge giveaway on the estate tax, in perpetuity, while he simply kicked the can on the fiscal cliff debate.  This kind of opportunism works same way in defense budgets and foreign policy.

Anyway, that is my view from cheap seats in Versailles on the Potomac.

Chuck

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

Notes. 

“Afghans say total U.S. pullout would trigger disaster” (Reuters) and “Obama administration considers leaving no US troops in Afghanistan after combat ends in 2014” (AP)

The $68 billion understates the size of the foreign market the FMS category does not include all sales, for example the money spent in partnering the development and production of new equipment.

While it would be unfair to blame Jerry Ford for these decisions, he did nothing to undo the pressures created during the Nixon Administration.

The relative growth in the Pentagon budget in the last 20 years of so is probably  understated by this chart.  That is because he removal of inflation is based on the official inflation factors produced by the Pentagon.  There is evidence that these factors deliberately overstate the effects of past inflation to make current budgets look less extreme in comparison. An authoritative analysis of the Pentagon’s biases in manufacturing these factors can be found in the 1986 report by the Military Reform Caucus, “Can Congress Rely on DoD’s Inflation Adjustments as the Basis for a Budget Freeze.”