Events Unfold

It’s 3:35 AM here in Washington, D.C. A last survey before bed turns up still very little commentary of much use regarding events in Pakistan. One of the strange things about D.C. is the proximity to the powers that be gives at least me the sense of hidden events unfolding. One can see in the mind’s eye the chaos that must be going on at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon even at this late hour. The encrypted channels to India and Israel have to be at capacity right about now. There is a lot of intelligence to exchange, contingencies to be agree upon and reassurances to be extracted. I imagine that if I were to bike down to the White House campus right about now, the lights at the Old Executive Office Building would be blazing. Twenty copies of an about fiver-hundred page briefing book are expected at the West Wing tomorrow at 7:30 AM. More darkly, I imagine that they will also be working overtime at STRATCOM and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The thing that I am worried about the most is what is going on in the Office of the Vice President tonight and into tomorrow. Or at least it’s the thing I’m most worried about in my own neck of the woods. Even a mind’s eye can only perceive to the horizons of one’s imagination. Dark plans, as yet unrevealed to the world, are unfolding everywhere.

The Bush Debt

The Fiscal Year 2007 Financial Report of the United States Government was released on 17 December 2007 and accompanying the report was a letter in summery prepared by the Comptroller General of the United States, Mr. David Walker, in which he highlights the following:

the federal government’s fiscal exposures totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007, up more than $2 trillion from September 30, 2006, and an increase of more than $32 trillion from about $20 trillion as of September 30, 2000. This translates into a current burden of about $175,000 per American or approximately $455,000 per American household.

Later that day Mr. Walker told the National Press Club (“Some Progress on U.S. Government’s Financial Statements But Significant Problems Remain,”, 17 December 2007),

If the federal government was a private corporation and the same report came out this morning, our stock would be dropping and there would be talk about whether the company’s management and directors needed a major shake-up.

So, just in case you missed that, the total debt of the United States, all that had been racked up through the years of Great Society, guns and butter, stagflation, the Reagan arms buildup and the corrections of the Bush, Sr. and Clinton years was $20 trillion. Since that time President Bush has managed to pile a whopping $32 trillion on top of that. In a scant seven years he has managed to increase the debt of the United States by 160 percent. That’s nearly a half-a-million dollars per household.

The right lauds the Bush tax cut, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. There has been no Bush tax cut. Deficits are future taxes. There has merely been the Bush tax deferral. George W. Bush looks good at the expense of one of his successors having to play the adult. “[T]alk about whether the company’s management and directors needed a major shake-up,” indeed. And yet, still one more year of the Bush administration with nothing to be done.

Soft Balancing on Iran

A few days after the key findings of the Iran NIE were released Kevin Drum suggested that with the war hawks’ position so heavily damaged and the policy danger that they pose having been diminished, many, including some countries, might feel freed up to take a more hardline position now that they no longer have to tread between the Charybdis of Iran’s nuclear program and the Scylla of the Office of the Vice President (“Counterintuitive Thought for the Day on Iran,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007). He even speculated that that the continued progress of a U.N. sanctions resolution might confirm this theory (“Sanctions and the NIE, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007).

But what would this mean, that countries slow-walk actions to constrain a potential Iranian nuclear program out of fear of becoming a party to a larger U.S. plan against Iran? It would mean that a group of countries have formed a tacit — or perhaps not so tacit — agreement to impede the United States. Wouldn’t one have to admit this as a sort of primitive soft balancing against the United States. I don’t think that the case is exactly strong here. This is probably no different than the sort of actions that one could point to probably dozens of instances during the Cold War where U.S. alliance partners felt the need to mitigate some particularly egregious U.S. policy position. States engaging in minor acts of diplomatic defiance is nothing new.

On the other hand, when you consider that there have been some more hard balancing-like actions (“A Caspian Balance?,” 23 October 2007), it seems like there is a context where this doesn’t look like diplomacy as usual. Perhaps there is a slowly building effort to constrain the U.S. in the Middle East.

It’s also disturbing that the U.S. is considered a threat to stability of such a scale that states find themselves having to stake out some middle ground between us and Iran.

The FY2008 Military Budget

On Friday I wrote, “my ideal president would expend a significant portion of their political capital on the bland and unrewarding task of rationalizing the budget.” To balance the budget one cannot niggle over small change programs. A million here or a million there is chump-change in a $2.9 trillion budget. One has to turn to the big line items and that should include military spending. Today Democracy Arsenal points out just how crazy-detached from reality the military budget has become in recent years (Kelly, Lorelei, “How High is Up? The Defense Budget Gets Even Crazier,” 18 December 2007):

Last week, both houses of Congress approved the conference report on the Fiscal Year 2008 Defense Authorization bill, H.R. 1585. The bill includes $506.9 billion for the Department of Defense and the nuclear weapons activities of the Department of Energy. The bill also authorizes $189.4 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This funding is NOT counted as part of the $506.9 billion.

Keep in mind, today’s defense spending is 14% above the height of the Korean War, 33% above the height of the Vietnam War, 25% above the height of the “Reagan Era” buildup and is 76% above the Cold War average.

In fact, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the annual defense budget – not including the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – has gone up 34%. Including war costs, defense spending has gone up 86% since 2001.

But where to cut? Given our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan it seems that the United States has a problem in on-the-ground troop strength and the Democratic candidates are all talking about increasing that. Given the vagaries of air power projection we probably should keep a regular replacement schedule for aircraft carriers. I have suggested that anti-submarine warfare will probably be important in the near future, so we should probably keep those skills primed (“ABM,” 14 October 2007). There is missile defense, but that is only $10 billion — only $230 billion to go before we’re back in the black. The obvious thing seems to me to be advanced tactical fighters. Is there a single potential opponent out there that will be able to come anywhere close to contending with the U.S. for tactical air superiority any time in the coming decade? But between the Joint Strike Fighter and the F/A-22 the U.S. is only spending $6.24 billion in 2008.

I guess the thing we could cut would be the breadth of our commitments, but that’s a hard political call of another scale than putting off a generation of aircraft procurement.

Anyway, if you want to play your own Pentagon budget scenarios, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has a nice breakdown of the fiscal year 2008 military budget (Hellman, Christopher and Travis Sharp, “Analysis of Conference Agreement on the FY2008 Defense Authorization Bill [H.R. 1585/S. 1547],” 12 December 2007).

What Basis the Clinton Myth?

Ezra Klein takes the opportunity of Bill Clinton’s recent poor performance in support of his wife’s faltering campaign to review one of my shibboleths, the unimpressive record he racked up as president (“The Myth of Bill Clinton’s Strategic Genius,” The American Prospect, 17 December 2007):

… it’s worth taking a moment to examine the myth of Clinton’s extraordinary political skills. The 1992 election occurred in context of a deep recession, the post-Soviet Union turn towards domestic policy, and a vicious third party challenge to the sitting Republican. Clinton won, but did not capture a majority.

This was a huge deal for the Democrats, and rightfully so, as they’d been locked out of the White House for 12 years. But it wasn’t the world’s most impressive political feat. By 1994, Clinton had suffered a tremendous defeat on health care reform, passed a deficit reduction act that he was unable to secure a single Republican vote for, attracted Republican support to pass NAFTA, and presided over the loss of 52 Democratic seats in Congress. The next two years were a period of significant retrenchment with some successes, notably the crime bill and, again, the non-traditional priority of “welfare reform.” Clinton did, to be sure, beat Bob Dole, but he failed to capture a majority of the vote. Between 1996 and 2000, the economy roared forward, Clinton managed it ably, pushed through some decent-if-incremental legislation, almost got impeached, and turned his attention to foreign policy work. He exited office a popular president, but not a historic one. His successor — for a variety of reasons — failed to take office, and congressional majorities were reduced from their 1992 peak.

… the remarkable thing about Gingrich wasn’t his eventual fall, but the damage he caused Clinton during his rise. Clinton “won” the personal confrontation, but Gingrich won the ideological showdown, essentially ending a Democratic president’s ability to pursue recognizable progressive priorities for six of his eight years in office.

The purpose of Mr. Klein’s account is to suggest that Bill Clinton is no electoral silver bullet:

Bill Clinton was, to be sure, a very good politician, but that aptitude mainly manifested in getting himself elected. There’s no real evidence that he’s got the same talent for getting other people elected. His tenure did not end with increased Democratic majorities, a Democratic successor, or a vastly expanded social welfare state. The 90s were, to be sure, better for Democrats than the Bush years, but they shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

I think the sooner the Democratic party gets over its Bill Clinton mythos — and every aspect of it: the deft economic management, the heroic foreign policy, the cleaver triangulation of his opponents, the knack for the pulse of America — the better off it will be.

Democrats Always Looking Over Their Partner’s Shoulder

Matthey Yglesias laments the absence of a second Al Gore candidacy (“The Case for Gore,”, 14 December 2007):

Gore hits the sweet spot of experience and vision in a way that nobody else can. What’s more, a person who’s in a position to be a viable presidential candidate and who believes the things Gore says he believes almost has a duty to run, a duty that I’m sad he hasn’t seen fit to take up.

In 2000 I think a lot of Democrats settled for Gore. He was, for me, the ideal candidate. A bland technocrat is exactly what I want in a president. A book that nags at me constantly is Mismanaging America: The Rise of the Anti-Analytic Presidency by Walter Williams. One blurb of the book reads,

An American president must be a master of two arts: politics and management. According to Willians, no president since Dwight Eisenhower has been a top manager.

I think this is pretty close. I’m not so pessimistic as Mr. Williams. I think there is a line of managerial presidents that includes Eisenhower, arguably Gerald Ford, and George Bush, Sr. A President Gore would have been a part of this lineage: technocratic, competent, hands on, detail oriented, dedicated to getting the small things right, steadfast to the facts of the matter, not necessarily good at the P.R. thing, eschewing the elaborate ideological pronouncement, ultimately a politician, but willing to alienate a key constituency when faced with a tough decision.

I tend to see George Bush, Sr. as a paragon here because he never made things politically difficult for Gorbachev when reveling in Cold War triumphalism might have been domestically expedient and because he went back on his “read my lips” promise when balancing the budget was at stake. In this regard I almost see his professed lack of the “vision thing” as charming; and ultimately all these things cost him the election. He did the right thing even when it conflicted with personal ambition.

For probably the last ten years now I have pretty much figured that my ideal president would expend a significant portion of their political capital on the bland and unrewarding task of rationalizing the budget. After Bill Clinton, I too am an Eisenhower Republican.

When Al Gore was denied the presidency by the Supreme Court in 2000, I think a lot of people imagined him coming back after a period to claim his rightful position, but history doesn’t always work out that way.

It’ll All End In Tears, Redux

The Financial Times today (Stephens, Philip, “A Physicist’s Theory of the Transatlantic Relationship,” 14 December 2007):

The overarching geopolitical fact of coming decades is likely to be the relative decline of US power. The word relative is important. Measured by economic, technological and military might, America is likely to remain the pre-eminent nation during the first half of the present century and, perhaps, well beyond. But the US is already an insufficient as well as an indispensable power. As China, India and others rise, and Russia re-asserts itself, the US will become more dependent on the goodwill of others. How it responds to the shifts will in large degree shape the new international order — or disorder.

The image of the future in the minds of many is of a multipolar system, with power shared between two or three groups of nations. … Others — in the US as well as Europe — conjure up a world divided into two competing blocs: the liberal democracies on one side, the authoritarian capitalists, notably but not exclusively China and Russia, on the other. …

More probably we are on the cusp of an era of great power competition in which alliances and allegiances shift according to accidents of circumstance and geography. Those who like historical analogies could look back at the second half of the 19th century.

The problem with looking back at the second half of the Nineteenth Century is that we all know how that ended.