The Fourth Generation Warfare Reason to Ditch the “War on Terrorism” Analogy

Gulliver and the Lilliputians

After the underwear bomber incident, all together too many people are talking about how Yemen is now the central front of the war on terrorism and preemptive action is necessary and if Yemen’s dysfunctional government can’t do what needs to be done then the U.S. should step in and do it for them (as usual, Senator Lieberman can be counted on as the go-to guy for idiotic pronouncements here). To me the events of recent days really show what’s wrong with the U.S. reaction being dominated by the notion of a “war on terrorism,” and the superiority of the strategy of treating terrorism as an issue of law enforcement as enunciated by, among others, John Kerry throughout 2004.

What we’re facing is the classic squeezing a balloon problem: the United States can deploy 112,000 solders to Iraq and another 98,000 to Afghanistan, and thousands more throughout Central and Southeast Asia and in the Pacific Islands and the terrorists just pick up their laptops, sell their Range Rovers and relocate their operation to the Horn of Africa, or the outer reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile the U.S. is stuck for the next decade in whatever country owing to the weight of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tones of heavy metal.

We are engaged in a fourth generation-type struggle with an opponent employing the classical tactics of asymmetric warfare. The object for the opponent on the presumptively disadvantaged side of the asymmetry is to adopt a strategy whereby the seeming advantages of the preponderant power are transformed into weaknesses. The war on terrorism is a contest of strategic dexterity and in this case the very weight, size and overwhelming capability of the U.S. military has become its greatest liability.

The game that has been played by al Qaeda et al. is that of miring the U.S. in regions of declining strategic importance. Terrorists are Lilliputians and the U.S. Gulliver. Only in this story Gulliver ties himself down. The Lilliputians only have to indicate where he should sink the stakes and he applies the lashes to himself.

While I am deeply skeptical of black ops, secret programs, plausible deniability, assassination, et cetera, I generally agree with the idea that the only time counter-terrorist actions should make the news is when something has gone wrong. The Predator drone and special forces operations that are being conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border seems correct in conception, if still problematic in execution, to me. And of course this level of militarization is still awfully high. The FBI is the U.S. government agency with the largest presence abroad after the Pentagon and the State Department. Treasury is quickly following suite. Counter-terrorism should only become subject to special forces means under extreme circumstances. The rest of the time it should be dealt with by the various legal investigative agencies.

Whatever the case, our reaction to terrorism needs to be in kind: nimble, dynamic, human not territory oriented, multifaceted.

A strategic studies acquaintance commented the other day that he can’t wait for the reigning generation of the foreign policy establishment to retire, because they are a bunch of Cold War relics, mired in the mindset of a bygone era. The idea of stateless actors is beyond their comprehension. In this regard one of the most seminal moments in the U.S. reaction to mass-casualty terrorism was Paul Wolfowitz’s 13 September 2001 press conference, where he said the following (DoD News Briefing, The Pentagon, Arlington, VA):

I think one has to say it’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that’s why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign. It’s not going to stop if a few criminals are taken care of.

I believe that in some ultimate sense Paul Wolfowitz has been right about Islamic extremism: that it is not our war, that we cannot fight it, that it is not a war that can be won in the realm of strictly materialist forces, but that it is a struggle of ideology, that it can only be settled among those most immediately concerned, that the most the U.S. can do is indirectly effect this outcome through the opening of a space where moderate, modernist, liberal Islam can flourish. This was Secretary Wolfowitz’s idea for Iraq: that it would become the Islamic “city on the hill.” That he could simultaneously have been so wrong makes Paul Wolfowitz one of the tragic figures of the post-11 September period.

But this idea, that states and territory are what is important, this was the commanding idea of the early Bush administration. But the strategy of militarily occupying every square mile of lawless territory on the Earth and engaging in nation building in every failed state is beyond our capability. It is how the strength of a great power will be sapped.

Rolling Back the Twentieth Century Watch: Abolish the FDIC

Rortybomb, like most of blue America, originated in red America and maintains ties there that give him an occasional finger on the pulse. He reports on how many fathoms the fever swamp (Konczal, Mike, “Things I’m Reading, 12/22,” Rortybomb, 22 December 2009):

Visiting home for the holidays, it’s amazing to me how certain groups of friends, who I mostly considered in the generic Republicans/conservatives camp, have been wading deeper into the Ron Paul territory. “Abolish the Fed” is one thing, but what surprised me the most was when I was at a Christmas party several people mentioned, fairly out of nowhere, how bad FDIC is for the economy. I think they thought that regular depositors could have done a better job vetting financial institutions than major sophisticated shareholders. When I tried to point out how if there wasn’t FDIC and millions of savings accounts were getting wiped out in ordinary bank runs we’d almost certainly have a wave of turn-of-the-last-century style violence that is hard for us to even imagine now — think bomb throwing anarchist violence — they seemed to be ok with that.

President Obama Between Exceptionalism and Primacy in Afghanistan

I thought that President Obama’s speech last night was extremely diptych1 It was a continuation of his tendency to split the partisan difference on the substance of the matter, with no one getting all of what they wanted, and then throwing all parties concerned a rhetorical bone. For instance, this part of the speech was all paleoconservative, Andrew Bacevich, Christopher Preble, The American Conservative, Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy. He even invokes the patron saint of the movement, Dwight Eisenhower:

As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don’t have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I’m mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended — because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.

On display is a recognition of multifaceted national objectives that trade off, of the need for choice in the face of scarce national resources, of real limits to the exercise of power, that conserving ones strength is an important means of cultivating it.

But then President Obama goes on to say the following and I hear Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, perpetual U.S. primacy, the Bush Doctrine and the neoliberal agenda forever:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents and great-grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions — from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank — that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades — a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, and markets open, and billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.

The trite rhetorical temptation here is to write something like “So which is it going to be, Mr. President?,” but there’s no reason it’s got to be one path or the other. An incremental, experimental approach is possible and 30,000 seems as good a number as any — this is on top of the additional 40,000 soldiers that President Obama already approved in March 20092 — a not insubstantial commitment. Ideologues argue that while it’s all fine in practice, does it work in theory? But pragmatists tend not to be ideologically pure. President Bush disappointed many of the most maximalist elements when he announced the numbers for the surge in Iraq. The right wanted more, but the surge seemed to work. I’m aware that there’s a dispute as to whether the surge worked on the substance of the matter, but even if it didn’t work on the merits, it at least succeeded politically.

Notes

  1. President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Eisenhower Hall Theatre, United States Military Academy at West Point, West Point, New York, 1 December 2009

  2. Cooper, Helene and Eric Schmitt, “White House Debate Led to Plan to Widen Afghan Effort,” The New York Times, 28 March 2009, p. A1

The Continuance of the Savings Glut

With President Obama in China and the issue of the dollar-renminbi exchange rate presumably on the agenda, there has been a great deal of commentary about the threatening peril of the Chinese savings glut1. Here was Paul Krugman late in October on how the savings glut — the condition and a leading cause of the 2007-2008 financial crisis — remains unabated, continuing to propagate its distortions throughout the world economy2:

Until around 2001, you could argue that [the target value of the yuan was reasonable]: China’s overall trade position wasn’t too far out of balance. From then onward, however, the policy of keeping the yuan-dollar rate fixed came to look increasingly bizarre. First of all, the dollar slid in value, especially against the euro, so that by keeping the yuan / dollar rate fixed, Chinese officials were, in effect, devaluing their currency against everyone else’s. Meanwhile, productivity in China’s export industries soared; combined with the de facto devaluation, this made Chinese goods extremely cheap on world markets.

The result was a huge Chinese trade surplus. If supply and demand had been allowed to prevail, the value of China’s currency would have risen sharply. But Chinese authorities didn’t let it rise. They kept it down by selling vast quantities of the currency, acquiring in return an enormous hoard of foreign assets, mostly in dollars, currently worth about $2.1 trillion.

Many economists, myself included, believe that China’s asset-buying spree helped inflate the housing bubble, setting the stage for the global financial crisis. But China’s insistence on keeping the yuan / dollar rate fixed, even when the dollar declines, may be doing even more harm now.

Although there has been a lot of doomsaying about the falling dollar, that decline is actually both natural and desirable. America needs a weaker dollar to help reduce its trade deficit, and it’s getting that weaker dollar as nervous investors, who flocked into the presumed safety of U.S. debt at the peak of the crisis, have started putting their money to work elsewhere.

But China has been keeping its currency pegged to the dollar — which means that a country with a huge trade surplus and a rapidly recovering economy, a country whose currency should be rising in value, is in effect engineering a large devaluation instead.

And that’s a particularly bad thing to do at a time when the world economy remains deeply depressed due to inadequate overall demand. By pursuing a weak-currency policy, China is siphoning some of that inadequate demand away from other nations, which is hurting growth almost everywhere.

For thirty years now the prevailing grand social bargain in the United States has been that outsourcing and offshoring will be the means whereby capital will capture an increased portion of national income and the resultant consumer goods price deflation will substitute for the also resultant wage stagnation. In shorthand, this might be called the Reagan Revolution, though Reagan only brokered the deal. The conditions that gave rise to parties militating against the preceding post-war social bargain lay much deeper in the structure of the post-war international order. This social bargain is the basis of the financial problems of the U.S. as well as of the China problem.

The savings glut is not merely a problem with China, but in its Chinese component it is driven by two factors, neither of which is likely to be resolved by U.S. action. First, owing to population growth and the massive migration from rural farms to urban wage labor, China needs to create around 25 million new jobs per year. The memory of Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989 remains potent in the mind of Chinese Communist Party officials. It is widely believed among Chinese officials that preventing a repeat of the unrest of 1989 and hence the survival of the Party depends on the ability of the Chinese economy to provide jobs for these millions, preventing them from becoming a mass of disaffected urban unemployed. Second, the savings glut exists as a part of China’s long-term grand strategy of pursing peaceful development first and regional political realignment only once they have attained sufficient economic and military weight. For the U.S., the G-8, the IMF or whoever to ask China to abandon its policy of undervaluing the renminbi is to ask the Chinese government to commit suicide and to accept their second-tier world-political status; it is to ask them to run the highest order of political risk as an act of charity to the rest of the world. We cannot rely on China doing the U.S. any macroeconomic favors here. The only way to eliminate the macroeconomic conditions of the next financial crisis is to get our own house in order.

On the right and amidst the Lou Dobbs crowd you here these constant sidelong remarks about China holding the strings of America’s economic future. But this is not the result of some insidious plot on the part of China to acquire a financial WMD stuffed full of T-bills for deployment against the U.S. at some opportune occasion (like a WMD, to actually use it would result in mutually assured destruction). This is result of the Wal-Mart low-wage, low prices, long supply chain model of doing business (surprise: the day-to-day purchasing decisions of millions of people reach up to the commanding heights of world finance). We can try to brow-beat China to forego the opportunities of the system that we have created, but the origin of that system reaches down into what is now, under the midwifery of the right, claimed as the American way of life. And perhaps we have decided that getting off on a bad foot with the world’s next superpower is preferable to confronting our own economic culture.

Notes

  1. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Director of the IMF, made a speech on the subject in Beijing, The International Monetary System: Reforms to Enhance Stability and Governance, International Finance Forum, Beijing, 16 November 2009; Krugman, Paul, “World Out of Balance,” The New York Times, 16 November 2009, p. A25; Wolf, Martin, “Grim Truths Obama Should Have Told Hu,” Financial Times, 17 November 2009.

  2. Krugman, Paul, “The Chinese Disconnect,” The New York Times, 23 October 2009, p. A35

The Other Forgotten War

D.C. World War Memorial, Armistice Day, 11 November 2009

One could be forgiven for not knowing that there is a memorial to the First World War in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia | Google Maps). The first time I stumbled across it, it was as an exploration of a curiosity. I wanted to figure out what that unknown building was, barely visible through the trees along Independence Avenue. To approach the memorial is to get a sense of what it must have been like for a Renaissance-era scholar on grand tour of the continent to come to Rome for the first time, when the ruins of Rome were still that: ruins — mysterious, forgotten, pillaged, unkempt, crumbling, ignored. The First World War Memorial is lost in a grove of trees on the south side of the Mall. It’s like coming across an abandoned temple in a forest. The flagstone paving stones of the walk up to the memorial are lose, scattered, broken and on their way to gravel. The memorial itself is blackened with mildew, its marble cracked and stained. It is like a mushroom that popped up in a forest clearing after a rain. Completed in 1931, its archaic inscription simply reads “The World War.”

Our wars aren’t merely matters of fact, narratives or parables from which we are to take the vaunted historical lesson. Our wars are tropes: they represent certain touchstones of the American consciousness. The Second World War was the good war: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, proving the directionality of history. The Vietnam War is central figure in the right wing Dolchstoßlegende. They are all morality plays. The First World War is a forgotten war because it does not signify anything that fits easily into the American mythos. It is an amorality play. Its obvious meta-narratives of miscalculation, system effects, the amorality of state interest, the fleetingness of progress, the shabbiness of war, the divisions of class interest and the meaninglessness of our social conventions around war don’t figure in U.S. discourse on war. So the event is simply excised from the national consciousness, not a part of the pantheon of nostalgia writ in Neoclassical white marble in the nation’s capitol.

Political-Economy and Inflation

Paul Krugman devoted his column two weeks ago to the conduct of economic punditry as if the economy were a nineteenth century morality play: sermons about “debasing” the currency, longings for gold, fretting over inflation at the nadir of an economic crisis, a masochistic enthusiasm for “belt tightening” (“Misguided Monetary Mentalities,” The New York Times, 12 October 2009, p. A23). Taking off from this, Matthew Yglesias makes the point about the degree that class-parochial interests play in purportedly objective economic analysis (“The Monetary Hawks,” ThinkProgress, 12 October 2009):

… I would suggest that divergent analysis is in part driven by things that have relatively little to do with analysis. … if we have four or five years of near-zero inflation and 9-10 percent unemployment that will be fine for prosperous middle aged people and devastating to the interests of the poor and the young. Conversely, if we have four or five years of modest unemployment with four or five percent inflation, that will be fine for young people and poor people but potentially detrimental to the interests of wealthy people sitting on large piles of savings. Ultimately, I don’t think it helps the progressive cause to ignore the class / ideological elements to this dispute and just pretend to be engaging in a neutral technocratic dispute about the correct application of the Taylor Rule. What we’re talking about, after all, is decision-making under conditions of moderate uncertainty. What the hawks are proposing to do is to implement a policy that’s extremely attentive to minimizing downside risk to the currently wealthy whereas Krugman is proposing a policy that’s [attentive] to minimizing downside risk for people with below-average labor market prospects.

The problem is that we’ve adopted a manner of speaking about economic issues denuded of any mention of interest. The language of popular economics today is categorical: a strong dollar is good, a week dollar is bad; stable prices are good, inflation is bad; low unemployment is good, high unemployment is bad; rising house prices are good, stagnating or falling house prices are bad; et cetera. But none of these factors are categorically good or bad (few things in life are). What is omitted is the “for whom” of these characterizations of good and bad. Low employment may be good for job seekers, but high unemployment is good for employers: they have their pick of workers when hiring and they hold the majority of the bargaining power in wage negotiations. A strong dollar may be good for Wal Mart and their customers, but it’s bad for General Motors and their employees.

Real estate maintains some knowledge of contraposition with their talk of a buyers’ market versus a sellers’ market. We do not speak with a similar respect to the value of the dollar: of an investors’ dollar (strong) versus a producers’ dollar (weak) or an importers’ dollar (strong) versus an exporters’ dollar (weak). Or in employment, some people might think getting a raise or ease in finding a job are good, but these are what someone else might call labor price inflation (bad).

Economics isn’t free of the language of interest per se, so much as of one particular set of interests. The propaganda victory of the economic interests of Wall Street, the investing class, large business is so complete that their economic preferences have become de facto the whole language of economics. The awareness of the interests of all other economic actors has been totally expunged from the language of economics — well, not totally: there is the disciplinary ghetto referred to as heterodox economics, an exception that proves the rule.

To have asserted control over the linguistic territory is to have banished the political dispute; to have disappeared from the lexicon is to have ceded political legitimacy. Disputes over the political mixture of the interests of one economic class versus those of another are no longer about one set of economic relations versus another, but now take place in the frame of a rational economic order versus chaos, unreason and decline.

A firm separation between economics in its positivist, scientific role and economics in its normative, polemical and political role should be vigorously policed. Or perhaps economics is simply to value-laden, too embedded in the hurly-burley of human affairs for such a division to be tenable. Perhaps we should dispense with the notion of economics as a hard science in favor of a thoroughgoing political-economy. Even if we admit the possibility of a purely positivist economics, all that economics can do in our political deliberations is serve as a speculative tallyman of the opportunity costs of various policy options. The primacy of politics should come to the fore whenever economics crosses over from the academy to the public realm.

Target values for economic factors represent a political compromise between contending societal factions. The most well known of these is the NAIRU, the trade-off between inflation and unemployment codified in the statutory guidance of most of the world’s central banks. But inflation isn’t an unqualified evil. Its primary evils are that it has a tendency to run-away and, related, that it breeds uncertainty (a certain anticipatable regularity to the future is necessary to the function of capitalism). It used to be well known amidst the working (and indebted) classes that a certain amount of inflation served their interest and that “sound money” was merely the rallying cry of the investor class. The class conflict of easy versus sound money used to be a significant fault line separating progressive from conservative, populist from whig. Hence the advocacy of arch-populist William Jennings Bryan of an inflationary policy of bimetallism or “free silver” in the election of 1896.

There’s talk today about how vile it would be for the government to attempt to inflate away its debt (“debasing the currency” they call it), but the government doesn’t only inflate away its debt, it inflates away all dollar-denominated debts. A couple of years of higher than target inflation might be good for a country that has seen twenty years of galloping gains for the investor class, but racked up unsustainable amounts of debt among the middle and working classes. The investing class would scream bloody murder, but not because 3-5% inflation would be the end of economic reality as we know it, but because it would be a wealth transfer from creditor to debtor.

Cap and Trade and Rightward Drift

It is, as always, both amazing and dispiriting to see how well orchestrated the right wing noise machine is, this time with regard to what to a man pundits and politicians on the right now refer to as “cap and tax.” One of the amazing things on display here is the amount of rightward drift the country’s political class has experienced over even the last twenty years.

Cap and trade got its start as a market-oriented Republican counterproposal to Democrats’ more standard-issue regulatory approach to controlling pollution. When cap and trade was introduced to the mainstream political discourse as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act as a means to control SO2 emissions and the resultant acid rain, and then first discussed as a means to control greenhouse gasses as well, the reaction among Democrats and the left was revulsion and rejection. If pollution is so bad, then we should just outlaw or limit it, rather than allow corporations to purchase pollution vouchers.

Republicans countered with the usual critique of the regulatory approach: that broad mandates of bureaucrats lacking the expertise of managers on sight will result in the variable plants of the country having to adopt means from a relatively small menu, which in many instances would not be the best one for that plant or corporation’s circumstance. On the affirmative, they argued that a market-based solution would allow managers and experts close to the problem to determine what the most cost-effective means of adaptation to a lower overall emissions economy would be. Plants or corporations with a substantial retooling burden would be able to purchase time to alter their consumption pattern. High-pollution, but high-value activities would have a kind of exemption in the market means of greater expense. Where the burden of both the new cost structure and adaptation was too great, the creative destruction of the market would naturally select the best alternatives.

(I am generally very amenable to this sort of systems-type solution to problems.)

It’s no surprise that there is not a universal embrace among Republicans of a Bush, Sr. administration policy proposal. The right was never all on-board with cap and trade in the early 1990s. The sector of the polity opposed to action on climate change spans a variety of factions and epistemologies. And the right has always been skeptical of George H.W. Bush, Sr. The “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge and the selection of Dan Quayle as a running mate were maneuvers meant to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan by the politician who in the 1980 primaries had coined the term “voodoo economics.” But that the contemporary right now disavows George H.W. Bush, Sr. — along with Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and increasingly George W. Bush, Jr. — as not true conservatives, or Republicans In Name Only, while a proposal of the Bush, Sr. administration, roundly rejected by Democrats at the time, has become the policy preference of the Democrats today, should be telling as to the direction of party drift.

As Clinton said early on in his presidency (Woodward, Bob, The Agenda [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994] p. 161),

I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans. We’re Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans.

This is a very astute observation and testimony to the enduring power of the Reagan revolution in U.S. politics. Today there is only one president that Republicans admire. Meanwhile, that old tradition of Republicanism represented by the rest of the Republican presidents has been taken over by the Democratic party — no longer the party of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, now the party of Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush, Sr.

Who Screwed Up the 1970s?

The standard narrative of the stagflation of the 1970s is the one that the right has advanced. The left has no countervailing narrative. In that of the right, the economic doldrums of the ’70s can be squarely hung round the neck of liberals: in the simplified version, because of the welfare state, no further explanation required; in the more complicated one, the inability to choose between the guns of Vietnam or the butter of the Great Society, of Keynesian fine tuning and oil shocks resulting from liberal pussyfooting around in foreign policy. The hero of this narrative is Ronald Reagan who unwound twenty years of leftist regulation and redistribution, unleashing the U.S. economy to do what it does best.

As a liberal, this is the narrative against which I must justify my policy preferences, but more basically, I think it just simplifies a much more complex story. As an example, when Reason, a right-of-center libertarian publication, decides to hold a colloquium on the renewed threat of stagflation, which president do they put on the cover as the personification of the memory of the inflation of the 1970s? Gerald R. Ford:

Reason Magazine, October 2009, President Gerald Ford as the poster-boy for inflation

Poor Gerald Ford: an honorable man whose best association is Chevy Chase spoofs from Saturday Night Live of him tumbling down the airstairs.

It should be recalled that Reagan’s first run for the presidency consisted of his failed challenge to incumbent Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination, and that the real bête-noire of the Ford-Kissinger foreign policy was not the Democrats or the left, but the anti-détente, anti-arms control neoconservatives and elements of the right who found their political figurehead after Barry Goldwater in Ronald Reagan. It should also be recalled that the policy maker credited with the defeat of the inflation of the 1970s is then Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee, rather dishonorably shown the door for his efforts by President Reagan in favor of Alan Greenspan.

I Know There Must be an Iron Fist Somewhere in All Obama’s Velvet

Upon a second watching, the thing that’s so striking about President Obama’s speech tonight is just how magnanimous and in-touch it was. Listen to the whole arc about the Kennedy letter: it’s almost all high principle and his concessions to capitalism and the notion that government action and the realm of individual freedom trade off is fairly surprising. But I think that he is right about where the American electorate is right now, whether they know it or not (i.e. have been intentionally misinformed).

But if the Obama administration is right about where the average American voter is ideologically, then this is a terrible indictment of their political strategy. That they are losing the P.R. war on what should be a popular policy is a powerful demonstration of the ineptness of the Democratic party.

In the afterglow of a well-delivered speech like this it’s entirely too easy to get carried away by the rhetoric. But the imperturbability of President Obama’s insistence on a reasonable tone in Washington, D.C. is remarkable. It seems as if the President is sincere about his desire to transcend partisanship. If Barack Obama manages to pull it out yet again on the base of steady-handed, even-keeled reason, my political cynicism will have been dealt a heavy blow.

On the other hand, this bipartisan talk is really tactical. Tomorrow it’s going to be balls to the wall. There’s going to be a full court press against the blue dogs and Olympia Snow. Healthcare reform passed along straight partisan lines through the budget reconciliation process will be in the mix as a negative inducement and as a real possibility (to Congressional fence-riders what the public option will be to the insurance companies). The speech was potentially the last of the nicie-nice.

Or a third possibility, with so many plans now in play (the House committees, the Senate HELP plan, the Republican plan, the Max Baucus plan, and now the administration plan), perhaps this was merely the opening move of an intensified, second round of horse trading. Perhaps President Obama is a nervy bastard playing the long political game.

Michael Lind’s Unified Theory of U.S. Political-Economic Grand Strategy

On Friday, 24 July 2009 I went to see a New America Foundation panel discussion of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free, by Christopher Preble, the Director of Foreign Policy Studies at CATO. Mr. Preble is, along with Andrew Bacevich, Robert Jervis, Christopher Layne and others, a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. It was a very Coalition-y event, with a panel comprised of ideological misfits amidst our ill-representative bipolar political spectrum. At one point Mr. Preble felt it necessary to state that people think he’s a Republican because he works at CATO, but that he is not.

I’m a fan of Mr. Preble, and a swath of other of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy thinkers. I have previously made Preble’s point with respect to Gareth Porter’s book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (“Militarism: Loose It or Use It,” 3 February 2008). Mr. Porter’s book is a specific case study of Mr. Preble’s point with respect to the Vietnam War era.

What interested me most about this discussion was Michael Lind’s comments. When his turn came, off the cuff Mr. Lind spun one of the most trenchant, compelling and unified analyses of the last century of U.S. grand strategy I’ve ever encountered. Without saying it in so many words Mr. Lind shows how the present economic crisis is a systematic crisis resulting from the evolutions of an international system that is the product of a U.S. grand strategic and international political-economic bargain decided upon coming out of the interwar crisis years and the outbreak of the Second World War.1

A transcript of the relevant sections of Mr. Lind’s comments, as well as editor’s notes, follow (Mr. Lind’s comments are 0:43:03-1:00:15, I excerpt his comments starting at 0:45:11):

Michael Lind, Gordon Adams, Christopher Preble, Michael Cohen, The Power Problem, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C., 24 July 2009

I think if you look at both our national security policy and our global economic strategy — and there is one — these two things are not completely unrelated even though they’re usually discussed as though they’re on separate planets — you can understand both by referring to four countries, which happen to be the other four great powers or greatest powers: Germany, Japan, Russia and China. You can’t understand out national security strategy or our trade policies without thinking about these countries in particular.

First our national security strategy. As many people have pointed out — this is simply the standard interpretation2 — our foreign policy during the Cold War was one of dual containment. We were containing four countries, not just two. We weren’t just containing the Soviet Union and communist China, but we were also containing post-1945 West Germany and post 1945 Japan. And the reason the U.S. adopted this hegemonic global military strategy — which was not what it had intended in World War II. In the course of World War II the Roosevelt Administration in its planning assumed you would have a three power world, essentially the British, the Soviets and the Americans and that Chan Kai Check would govern China as a satellite of the Americans.

But in the Cold War this all broke down. And what evolved was a system in which the Germans and Japanese would be permanently demilitarized. Their security would be provided unilaterally by the United States. You can call it NATO, but it would essentially be a unilateral offer of guarantee for this disarmed Japan and this disarmed West Germany. At the same time the Soviet Union and China — which late in the Cold War became a geopolitical ally of the U.S. — would be contained, they would be outside of the system. And we would be protecting Japan and Germany — Japan from both China and the Soviet Union and Germany from the Soviet Union.

Now, what does that have to do with economics? There was a deal implicit in this strategy, which is, okay Germany and Japan you have this massive military industrial complex and unlike after World War I we’re not going to have punitive reparations and so on to bring about some future Hitler as a result of humiliation. We want to rebuild you and integrate you into this American-led system, including a global free trade system, or managed trade system. So the deal is, you don’t make tanks, you make cars, you don’t make guns, you make radios. So you will become civilian manufacturing superpowers and this is in the interest of the United States, at least according to American strategists because this will avert the reemergence of an independent Japanese military great power and an independent (even) West German military great power and the emergence of a multipolar world, with multipolar rivalries, like those of the 1930s.

So the deal, which was taken up more by Japan than by West Germany, which has had fairly liberal trade relationships, both with us and with its neighbors in Europe, was that you export to us and we will turn a blind eye to the fact that you, Japan, use non-tariff barriers to keep our products out of your markets, to the fact that you’re targeting particular industries in the U.S., to the fact that you’re hiring lobbyists in Washington to promote your industrial strategy in the 70s and 80s. We will turn a blind eye because we’re willing to sacrifice certain American industries — and here the libertarians part from my interpretation — we will sacrifice certain American industries in order to keep you part of the U.S. Cold War coalition and we will tolerate things that if we were not military allies and protectors we would never put up with. And so that was basically the pattern.

Now, the end of the Cold War comes along. There was a fascinating debate. I was sort of on the sidelines of it as executive editor of The National Interest, Irving Kristol’s foreign policy magazine by the way, back in the early 1990s, late 1980s. And you had the America first isolationists, you had the balance of power school, there were the liberal internationalists and so it was a fascinating debate. It was all shut down in the aftermath of the Gulf War and we’ve had the de facto basic same strategy under both Clinton and Bush and now under Obama — with the exception of the more aggressive neoconservatives slant.

And the decision was made — it sort of evolved, you know, it’s not a conspiratorial thing, but this became the new consensus after the Gulf War in 1991 — the decision was made we will continue the policy of dual containment. In other words, we’re not going to rethink it. We’re not going to say oaky, NATO, we’re going to admit Russia and turn it a concert of power, or we’re going to get rid of it, we’re going to come up with a new system and bring in the Chinese. No, basically we will continue to be Japan’s protector nation and South Korea’s, we will maintain these Cold War alliances and we will maintain NATO, which will be expanded, for fear — and I’m simply reporting, I’m not endorsing this because I agree, I think, with everyone on this panel that a certain paranoia has driven all of this — for fear that after reunification Germany would emerge as a Fourth Reich, this sort of lose canon neo-militaristic power. And so the geostrategic purpose for the expansion of NATO, it served both of the goals of dual containment after the Gulf War. You push NATO all the way up to the borders of a weakened, post-imperial Russia so you’re still containing Russia, no longer the Soviet Union, but the Russian Republic. And at the same time, you’ve embedded Germany even more deeply in this system of U.S. alliances, of hegemonic alliances.

It’s not a traditional alliance system. Traditional alliance system is more like the allies in World War I, World War II. … The American alliance system is a hegemonic system. We expect nothing, really, in return. They’re essentially client states and protectorates, most of our so-called allies. They’re not actual equal partners. We will protect them for what we perceive as out interest in a world order that’s beneficial to us. They really don’t have to do anything in return to protect us. But we don’t see this as charity, at least the establishment. This is promoting a world order.

We maintain this dual containment system after the Cold War. Paul Wolfowitz and others had a name for it in the early 1990s some of you may recall from stories in the New York Times and elsewhere.3 It was called Reassurance. That was the initial [name] during the first Bush administration. This was called the Reassurance Doctrine. We would reassure the other great powers of the world that because we would look after their geopolitical interests, they would not need to rearm and they could continue to devote their economic energy — in fact, George W. Bush said this at Westpoint in [2002].4 He said the other countries should concentrate basically on trade and we will maintain these enormous strengths [crosstalk]. My point is, this is not a crazy idea. I think all of us would agree that this is flawed and ultimately doomed, but there is a system here.

My final point in analyzing this consensus system is the economic counterpart since the Gulf War. And this is a system called Bretton Woods II. Bretton Woods II is the term that economists use for this very strange global economic order that evolved in the last twenty years. In which American consumers went into debt in order to purchase goods from primarily China. China has, at least up until the crash, 90 percent of the non-oil trade deficit with the United States. But even before China moved up in this decade, it was East Asian countries,5 to a lesser extent Germany in Europe. So you get this very odd system where the United States is the consumer market of first resort for the other three leading market or quasi-market economies of the world, which today are Japan, China and Germany. Japan, China and Germany all have substantial merchandise trade surpluses. The United States has had an ever growing merchandise trade [deficit].

When you read these discussions taking place on economy planet and national security planet, without the frame of reference to the bargain here it’s just kind of missing the point. There was a geopolitical bargain underlying America’s offer of unilateral access to U.S. markets, particularly to Japan which practices a fairly sophisticated form of mercantilism at the expense of U.S. exports. And then after the cold war the elites in the United States decided to extend this to China.

This brings us up to the present and why this system is collapsing before our very eyes. What worked for Japan, a country much smaller than the United States, they could trade with us while protecting their markets from American exports. This cannot work, that export-oriented model was doomed the moment China, the world’s most populous nation adopted it. There are simply not enough first word consumers in the U.S., or in the U.S., the E.U. and Japan put together, to accommodate all of the stuff that first China and now India are capable of doing. In that sense this bargain is doomed. This is one of the underlying reasons for this crash, because China would not have had these enormous dollar surpluses — some of the oil-exporting countries would have, but China would not have — had it had a more demand-oriented domestic consumption driven policy. It’s this export-oriented policy that allowed it to accumulate these dollar surpluses and indirectly, through purchasing American debt, for reasons we need not get into, but that also helped their exports, enabling American consumers to go on this binge which then helped build up what is really gross overcapacity in Chinese manufacturing.6 So this system has crashed now. It’s not coming back. … It’s run into its limits. So Bretton Woods II is dead as a global economic system. There is no other domestic consumer market, apart from the U.S., that is capable of accommodating all of the export capacity, not only of China, but of Japan and even Germany, which has trade surpluses with all its European neighbors.7

So how does this effect security policy? Well, my prediction is that the costs of digging our way out of this collapsed 1990s, 2000s post 1992 global economic system, which again rested on this geopolitical bargain between the U.S. and these potentially threatening great powers, except for Russia, which is becoming more and more of a resource power, but it was the other three major industrial great powers: China, Japan and Germany. We’re simply not going to be able to afford a military that’s at four of five percent, particularly a military which had as its actual purpose — and let me wrap up just by saying this — the actual purpose if you read Michael Mandelbaum, who wrote a very good book setting forth what I think is the establishment position,8 I’d recommend it to everybody, if you want a view from the inside. [crosstalk]

But he says the real reason we have this giant military is not because we need all these aircraft carriers in order to prevent jihadists from sneaking into the U.S. and getting on airplanes. We don’t actually need this giant army to deal with the North Koreans or this or that rogue state. Rogue states and terrorists — which are real problems I’m not diminishing this I may take them more seriously than some of the other people up here, I mean they’re problems.

If you look at the structure of our military, it is designed to intimidate China, Germany and Japan and Russia if they even think about rearming. That’s why we have the size of the military. Because it’s grossly oversized if you actually want to fight jihadists and AFPAC. But when people come out and say — as President George W. Bush is — that’s the purpose of our military: no one should even think about competing with our capabilities. Well, who’s thinking about competing with the capabilities of the U.S. military? A bunch of guys in suburbs or a cave in Afghanistan, Pakistan? No. We know what the countries are, the ones that can never be named as objects of U.S. Strategy: China, Germany, Russia, Japan.

I’ll end with a prediction. The collapse of Bretton Woods II is going to bring down this Reassurance strategy by creating a fiscal crisis for the American state, of which we are in the early stages because of the enormous debt from the bailout, combined with, if we avoid future bubbles, a fairly slow rate of growth. And this is going to create enormous political conflict in the United States. The defenders of the Pentagon — of whom I am one — I don’t want to cut to dangerous levels — but there’s going to be a battle between the Pentagon and the American Association of Retired Persons over if we’re going to cut government spending by two or three percent, is it going to come out of the Pentagon budget or are we going to slash Social Security … or are we going to slash and reform Medicare. And so my money is on the old people.

Editor’s Notes

  1. A thumb-nail sketch of this history: The formative political experience for the Second World War and early post war foreign policy establishment was the failure of Wilsonianism in the Interbellum years: the Great Depression, the downward spiral of beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies, the rise of fascism and militarism, the intensification of great power competition leading to a repeat of “the war to end all wars” and the eventual need for the United States to return to Europe for a second major war within 25 years. The post-war international system that these people — Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Harry Dexter White; in Europe: John Maynard Keynes, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Ernest Bevin — created was only partly spurred by suspicions of the Soviet Union. Its other motivating force was the avoidance of a third repeat of the pattern of world war that dominated the first half of the Twentieth Century. That system consisted of the suppression of great power competition under the political-military preponderance of the United States as the just guarantor of international order, combined with with market — and market only — based access to resources under a pseudo-legal international economic order in the IMF, the IBRD (World Bank) and GATT, eventually WTO. Already by 1960 this system was being challenged by a world recovering from the devastation of World War (Arthur Schlesinger reported that President Kennedy often said that “the two things which scared him most were nuclear weapons and the payments deficit”). For a decade the United States fought a rear-guard action to uphold its obligations, until the strain of guns and butter (the Vietnam war era inflation and current account deficit) lead the Nixon administration end the Bretton Woods policy of dollar-gold convertability on 15 August 1971.

    What followed was a period of monetary instability and a number of ad hoc attempts to remedy it — the Smithsonian Agreement (1971), The European Snake (1972), The Exchange Rate Mechanism (1979), the Plaza Accord (1985) — as well as a period of financial crises of increasing of increasing size and scope — the Latin American Debt Crisis of 1982-1985, the June 1982 ERM realignment and François Mitterrand’s liberal turn in the face of intense dollar-Deutche mark pressure on the franc, The Mexican peso crisis of 1994, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. All of these developments are evolutions of a system of dollar hegemony. Throughout this period the current account deficit grew in fits and starts, leading to the current crisis, whose primary cause is the faltering of the United States in its attempts to prop up the world economy by turning its consumer base into the buyer of last resort and mopping up the worlds excess money in its current account, consumer and fiscal debts.

    For my part, whatever its failings, this system has obvious competitive advantages over what came before it. Mr. Preble ends the session saying, “Power held by others is something to be welcomed, not feared.” I’m not so sure about that. There is, however, one failing with which I cannot argue: as Mr. Lind’s said, that of its being doomed.

  2. E.g. this is the interpretation of the reigning standard work on the early Cold War formation of U.S. grand strategy, Melvyn Leffler’s A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

  3. Tyler, Patrick E., “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop,” The New York Times, 8 March 1992, p. A1. The document in question was the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, early drafts of which were leaked to the New York Times. At the time, the Secretary of Defense was Dick Cheney. Mr. Wolfowitz was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Pentagon. Secretary Wolfowitz had delegated the job of writing the document to his deputy, Scooter Libby, who had in turn delegated it to Zalmy Khalilzad. Participants in the discussions surrounding the Defense Planning Guidance included DOD Office of Net Assessment head Andrew Marshall and independent defense intellectuals Richard Perle and Albert Wohlstetter. These are the usual suspects. A subsequent, whitewashed Planning document omitting the language of dual containment was released as the official, final version, Tyler, Patrick E., “Pentagon Drops Goal of Blocking New Superpowers,” The New York Times, 24 May 1992, p. A1. See Mann, James, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 208-215.

  4. Bush, Jr., George W. “Commencement Address at the United States Military Academy at West Point,” West Point, New York, 1 June 2002, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html (accessed 26 July 2009). The key passage would be as follows:

    Competition between great nations is inevitable, but armed conflict in our world is not. More and more, civilized nations find ourselves on the same side — united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos. America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge (applause) thereby, making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.

    While overt talk of the strategy of hegemony was originally suppressed in the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992 (supra, note 1), after September 11th, 2001, the neoconservative element in the administration was ascendant, peoples’ sensitivities to bald talk diminished and the strategy became overt in the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States. Sanger, David E., “Bush to Outline Doctrine of Striking Foes First,” The New York Times, 20 September 2002, p. A1.

  5. Mr. Lind is here telling the long history of the present crisis. The intermediate history goes back to the dot-com bubble and the developing nation foreign direct investment bubble, precipitating the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, on which I have previously commented (“The Committee to Save the World, Ten Years On,” 26 March 2008).

  6. The idea that capitalism has entered a phase of overcapacity and hence perilously declining profit margins can be found in its most Marxist “propensity of capitalism to crisis” version in the two works of Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2006) and The Boom and the Bubble: The U.S. in the World Economy (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), both based on his special issue of New Left Review, “The Economics of Global Turbulence,” series I, no. 229, May-June 1998. Similar theories can be found in more mainstream versions in Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism (New York: Knopf, 2007) which draws heavily upon John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1967).

  7. The unnamed theory behind Mr. Lind’s reasoning about the current crisis is that of the “savings glut” (or alternately, demand dearth) advocated by, among others, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke “The Global Saving Glut and the U.S. Current Account Deficit” (Virginia Association of Economics, Richmond, Virginia, 14 April 2005) and Financial Times economic correspondent Martin Wolf, first in his special comment and analysis column, e.g. “The Paradox of Thrift: Excess Savings Are Storing up Trouble for the World Economy,” Financial Times, 13 June 2005, then in his book, Fixing Global Finance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). I’m tempted to say something to the effect that in these articles you have the “economy planet” whose orbit never crosses that of “national security planet,” of which Mr. Lind spoke — that the grand-strategic bargain underlying the savings glut is never addressed — but in the 2005 piece, Mr. Wolf writes:

    True, the huge current account deficit gives the US the happy combination of guns and butter in the short run. Since the external deficit is bigger than the fiscal deficit and also bigger than the amount that the US is spending on its armed forces, either of these can be regarded as a free lunch, if only for the moment.

  8. Mandelbaum, Michael, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Public Affairs, 2005)

Photograph, left to right, Michael Lind, Gordon Adams, Christopher Preble, Michael Cohen; courtesy of the New America Foundation; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.