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US doesn’t need more defense dollars to ease crisis in East China Sea

Charles Knight, letter to the editor of the Boston Globe, 24 Janurary 2014.

Preventing war with a rising China requires diplomatic wisdom, not additional US military investment. Nicholas Burns (“The trouble with China,” Op-ed, Jan. 16) cites a recent mini-crisis in the East China Sea as a warning sign for “congressional leaders in both parties supporting deep cuts in the State Department and Pentagon budgets.”

However, the modest budget reductions that have been proposed — next year the Pentagon is actually getting a $20 billion raise — would in no way prevent the United States from performing shows of force such as the recent flight of B-52s through China’s newly claimed airspace in the East China Sea. The Pentagon’s budget would have to be cut in half to get close to touching overwhelming US military dominance in the Pacific.

A quick look at a map of the region will reveal that China has critical national interests in unencumbered access to the shipping lanes off its coasts and through the passages to the south. Accommodating these interests is the best path to peace in the long run.

America will be much better served by helping to establish an inclusive cooperative economic and security zone in the region, rather than pursuing an ultimately losing game of indefinitely overmatching China’s military power in its own neighborhood.

The trouble with China: It’s the responsibility of the US to prevent war over East China Sea islands
by Nicholas Burns, Boston Globe, 16 January 2014.

As the White House struggles to cope with a burning Middle East, another vital challenge is arising on the far horizon — China is flexing its muscles with real consequences for America’s future in Asia.

In the East China Sea, the United States worries about a stand-off between our ally Japan and Beijing over conflicting, historical claims to small, uninhabited islands the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyu. China opposes Japan’s ownership of the islands and, in November, announced creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea that directly challenged the right of Japanese, American, and other aircraft to transit airspace in the area without prior notification to Beijing. China has made equally extravagant legal claims in the South China Sea against Filipino and Vietnamese territorial claims.

As my Harvard colleague, Graham Allison, recounts in the National Interest, China’s actions are playing out on a broad historic canvas with Beijing and Washington as the main actors. He reminds us of the “Thucydides Trap”— when, in past centuries, “a rapidly rising power rivals an established ruling power, trouble ensues. In 11 of 15 cases in which this has occurred in the past 500 years, the result was war.”

Conflict between the United States and China is far from inevitable. But the East and South China Seas crises illustrate the American challenge in working with China’s assertive new leadership. The United States and China are partners on a range of issues, from trade to climate change and proliferation. But they are also strategic rivals for power in Asia. That is why the White House should be firm that the United States and its allies won’t be bullied by China’s peremptory and unilateral territorial claims.

The immediate challenge is in the East China Sea. Tokyo defends its long possession of the islands through naval and air patrols while Beijing counters with its own naval vessels and aircraft to contest it. The obvious risk is potential collision by two powerful militaries at sea and in the air. The stakes are very high for the United States as our defense treaty with Japan obligates us to come to its assistance in the event of conflict with China.

The United States has rightly stood by Japan against China’s unilateral claims. Washington is also counseling China to gain better control of the often-willful People’s Liberation Army and submit its territorial claims to international adjudication rather than assert them by fiat and intimidation.

To be fair, however, Washington is also advising Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, to lower the temperature in his rivalry with China. His recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals from the Second World War are buried, as well as Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the horrific actions of its military during the Second World War, are unnecessarily provocative to the Chinese, South Korean, and Filipino peoples.

As the United States seeks to keep the peace in the East China Sea, the immediate danger is not so much that Japan or China will decide to launch a war for the islands but that they might stumble into conflict by mistake or miscalculation.

British historian Margaret MacMillan warns of such a risk in a recent Brookings Institution essay. She recounts the improbable and unplanned events that led to the outbreak of war in 1914 in which 16 million combatants and civilians eventually perished. Her essay is a direct warning — we can’t take the current Great Power peace for granted. Human folly, frailty, and hubris could lead the great powers of our time — among them China, Japan, and even the United States — into a conflagration we never believed was possible. “The one-hundredth anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew,” she warned, “on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophe, and sheer accident.”

The East China Sea Crisis and the lessons of World War I remind Americans of a final stark reality — global peace and security still depends on us more than any other country. It is thus essential that we remain the world’s strongest diplomatic and military power. Congressional leaders in both parties supporting deep cuts in the State Department and Pentagon budgets should remember that in Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, we are still, as Madeleine Albright once rightly claimed, the world’s “indispensable” nation.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Time to get U.S. nukes out of Europe

Stephen M. Walt. Foreign Policy, 18 April 2012.


There’s an overwhelming case for removing these archaic and unnecessary weapons from the European continent. Ideally, we would do this as part of a bilateral deal with Russia, but we ought to do it even if Russia isn’t interested.

Editor’s Comment:

Couldn’t agree more!

No Matter Republican or Democrat in the White House, More Military Budget Cuts are Coming

Charles Knight, commentary, 24 February 2012.

The Pentagon, the Obama administration, and many members of Congress hope that cuts to the defense budget stop with those mandated in the first stage caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act and made more specific in the President’s recently announced FY13 budget plan. As Reuters has reported the Obama FY13 budget shifts away from an austerity frame, partially adopted in 2012, to instead emphasize a program of higher taxes on the rich, a continuing tax cut for wage earners, and public investments in infrastructure, education and police services.

It is safe to predict that most all Republicans and some Democrats in Congress will join to block the President’s tax/revenue enhancement programs and domestic economic investments. The political stalemate on further deficit/debt reduction that followed passage of the BCA last year will remain in place through the remainder of 2012.

Even if we assume that after this year’s election Congress will find a way to avoid the particulars in the so-called “sequester” (second-stage) provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act, the pressure for deeper cuts will remain.

To see why the pressure for more defense cuts will continue into next year we need look no further than a new report from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget called Primary Numbers: The GOP Candidates and the National Debt. Their analysis shows that in 2021 the fiscal plans the GOP candidates will yield the following national debt levels as percentages of GDP:

    Gingrich – 114%
    Santorum – 104%
    Romney – 86%
    Paul – 76%

By odd coincidence Ron Paul’s plan and President Obama’s plan both end up at a debt level of 76% of GDP in 2021. Of course, the two plans get there by very different mechanisms. Obama’s plan relies substantially on increased revenue (including tax increases) and Paul’s mostly on spending cuts, including deeper cuts in the defense budget.

What makes the Pentagon budget vulnerable after the election is that the centrist Democratic president and the libertarian Republican candidate have positioned themselves as the most fiscally conservative, while the leading Republican contenders are looking like spend and don’t tax radicals.

Gingrich grabs for the mantel of Reagonomic fiscal policy by favoring an increase of national debt to 114% of GDP. Santorum is a close second at 104% of GDP. By comparison, Romney appears moderate at 86% of GDP, 13% higher than Obama or Paul. Romney is in favor of increasing military spending.

The problem for the Pentagon is that both Obama’s and Romney’s plans are politically unrealistic and very unlikely to be implemented. Obama keeps the debt low largely through tax increases — which will not happen if Congress remains controlled by Republicans. A failure to raise new revenues will be critical. If the Administration were able to get higher taxes on the rich it would facilitate holding DoD cuts to the level of the FY13 plan. Failure to achieve these tax increases will mean two things: 1) it will be much harder to get a domestic investment program (even if the Democrats do better than expected in November) and 2) the attractiveness to a significant portion of liberals and conservatives of additional DoD cuts will continue.

Romney, on the other hand, plans to keep taxes low and increases defense spending — therefore his fiscal plan depends on deeper cuts in domestic spending and substantial cuts to entitlements. Given that domestic spending has been cut to the bone in most accounts and entitlement programs have survived all conservative assaults to date, Romney’s plan seems equally unlikely. For more on the limits of the Romney plan see Ezra Klein here.

So there is every reason to believe that after this year’s election powerful fiscal conservatives who can see beyond the partisan nonsense will look hard again at the Pentagon’s budget to find things to cut. This condition means that the nation will remain open to strategic adjustment for some years to come.

Debt and GOP Candidates' Fiscal Plans

Projected National Debt from GOP Candidates' Fiscal Plans

Regaining Our Balance: the Pentagon’s New Military Strategy Takes a Small Step

Christopher Preble and Charles Knight. Huffington Post, 20 January 2012.


Balance depends on what you are standing on. With respect to our physical security, the United States is blessed with continental peace and a dearth of powerful enemies. Our military is the best-trained, best-led, and best-equipped in the world. It is our unstable finances and our sluggish economy that make us vulnerable to stumbling.

Unfortunately, the new strategy does not fully appreciate our strengths, nor does it fully address our weaknesses. In the end, it does not achieve Eisenhower’s vaunted balance.


History shows danger of arbitrary defense cuts

Paula G. Thornhill. CNN, 23 November 2011.


The nation’s leadership needs a Plan B so that a heroic assumption — or hope — about the unlikelihood of future wars does not inadvertently lead to strategic disaster. This is harder than it seems. Plan B would allow more flexibility to meet what could go wrong in the strategic environment rather than just making budget cuts.

Editor’s Comment:

Plan B is to maintain a good ‘strategic reserve.’ As neo-conservatives like to point out the United States spends only 4.5% of its GDP on its military. If new threats pinch, the U.S. can easily ramp up spending and engage its still considerable industrial and knowledge base. The problem this country faces with a reconstitution strategy is lack of political will. Civilian leaders are loathe to ask the American people to sacrifice. A robust National Guard and Reserve force that is not abused by frequent deployments to unnecessary wars and a societal expectation to pay a tax surcharge in times of national emergency are the fundamentals of what this country needs to be strategically prepared while maintaining a small standing peacetime force. With such a strategic plan the U.S. can be well provisioned for any threat.

Ending our militaristic foreign policy saves money

Ethan Pollack, The Economic Policy Institute Blog, 20 September 2011.

One of the persistent criticisms of President Obama’s fiscal plan is that it counts war spending reductions as savings. Basically, the Congressional Budget Office calculates its defense baseline in part by taking the most recent war supplemental (technically called Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO) and assuming that amount—adjusted for inflation—will be spent each year over the foreseeable horizon. This adds up to about $1.73 trillion over 10 years. The president’s proposal, however, includes only $653 billion in OCO spending over 10 years, for a savings of about $1.1 trillion.

Some critics, however, allege that these savings cannot be counted because the CBO OCO baseline itself isn’t realistic, therefore the savings are not “real.” For example, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) argues that counting these savings is a “budget gimmick” that the president uses to “inflate his savings.” According to this critique, another baseline for OCO expenditures should be used—either the president’s budget request or the CBO’s drawdown policy option—which would lower the baseline and make it practically impossible to generate budget savings from reducing war spending.

All due respect to CRFB and the other critics, but this criticism is silly. The CBO OCO baseline isn’t “unrealistic”—rather, it represents the costs of President Bush’s aggressive invasion-centered approach to foreign policy extended into perpetuity. President Obama is, thankfully, in the process of trying to change America’s approach to foreign policy, drawing down troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and moving toward a more multilateral, patient, diplomatic, and most importantly, less expensive approach. Furthermore, the fiscal plan proposes to cap OCO spending, thereby making sure those savings are realized.

President Obama’s foreign policy approach costs less money than President Bush’s, and the budget outlook should reflect those savings.

Editor’s Comment:

It must be a sign of just how bad things are for progressives that EPI now celebrates a big puff of smoke from the Obama administration sent to divert attention from real budget reductions and, in particular, to protect the Pentagon from further cuts in the fiscal battles. Ethan Pollack has worked for OMB, so he surely understands the accounting distortion built into the CBO baseline projections based on current law. Not one person in the world (including those at CBO who prepare the baseline) believes that OCO expenditures will continue to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same level as 2011. That’s why the CBO did a “draw down policy option” – to estimate likely OCO costs. That latter exercise is not “silly”, nor the suggestions that such estimates be the basis for considering budget reduction plans.

Mr. Pollack must also know that President Obama’s FY12 budget submission to Congress contains only $50 billion a year for OCO for future years. Which is it? $118 billion forever or $50 billion forever? You can’t have it both ways.

CBO’s draw down option is surely better for budget (and deficit
reduction) planning that either the unrealistic “placeholder” (which
is simply irresponsible budgeting) or the CBO baseline artifact of
$118 billion forever.

If President Obama wishes to announce a plan to save meaningful
amounts from OCO he would need to announce more rapid withdrawals from Afghanistan… but then no one really believes he is leaving
Afghanistan in 2014. So this is all smoke and mirrors…and progressives should feel terrible about it, not celebrate.

It is disingenuous to claim that the CBO’s baseline OCO is somehow a Bush responsibility. It is simply a methodological artifact of how CBO does its baseline.

President Obama has been in charge for nearly three years and has not brought all the troops home from Iraq and has hardly begun a draw down in Afghanistan. The current year OCO of $118 billion is his responsibility as is the phoney-ness of projecting it forward ten years and then claiming savings from spending “$653 billion…over ten years.” If he was really willing to end the war in Afghanistan soon he might be able to cut that OCO in half and offer $325 billion from reduced future war costs to deficit reduction.

And until this year’s budget imbroglio in Congress forced his hand he
has continued to feed the Pentagon with higher and higher base budgets every year. There is no evidence that President Obama’s “approach to foreign policy…[is] less expensive”… not as far as the largesse offered up to the Pentagon is concerned.

We must not base progressive policy on smoke and mirrors. Such
politics only hurts us in the long run.

Another critique of this budget gimmick can be found at:


The world’s best policeman

Jeff Jacoby. Boston Globe, 22 June 2011.


…with great power come great responsibilities, and sometimes one of those responsibilities is to destroy monsters: to take down tyrants who victimize the innocent and flout the rules of civilization. If neighborhoods and cities need policing, it stands to reason the world does too. And just as local criminals thrive when cops look the other way, so do criminals on the world stage.

Our world needs a policeman. And whether most Americans like it or not, only their indispensable nation is fit for the job.

Editor’s Comment:

When three-quarters of Americans reject a role of global policeman for the U.S. perhaps they understand something fundamental about policing that Jeff Jacoby doesn’t. A police force without oversight by a judiciary and a guiding body of law is surely a formula for tyranny.

Jacoby would never endorse tyranny, but the avocation to be global policemen by White House occupants who are elected by and responsible to only 10% of the world’s people is a decision to be a vigilante on the global stage. Consider that Americans would be up in arms if China or Russia took it upon themselves to be global vigilantes.

For the leaders of the U.S. to so gladly to take up this role only serves to delay the day when we have capable international judicial and policing institutions. If our leaders attempt to think even a few years into the future it should be clear to them that the practice of vigilantism does not serve American interests.

[A version of this comment was published as a letter to the editor in the Boston Globe, 28 June 2011.]

Huh, did we miss something? Secretary Gates’ $400 billion in savings can’t be located.

Pentagon’s Phantom Savings: $330B Claim Erodes as Programs Reappear
Marcus Weisgerber. Defense News, 16 May 2011.


Nearly 40 percent of that sum [$330 billion] is going straight back into U.S. military programs that replicate the canceled ones, and it’s unclear where another 10 percent came from at all, according to a Defense News analysis and to several analysts.

…many of the military services’ capability requirements remained in place. More than $130 billion is back on the books, or will be soon, for follow-on or replacement programs. Of the programs canceled in 2010, at least five have already been relaunched, or are in the planning stages to begin again.

Editor’s Comment:

When President Obama addressed the nation about the Federal deficit on April 13th he said, “Over the last two years, Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again.” A number of us military budget analysts looked at each other and said, “Huh, did we miss something?” We hadn’t notice any significant cuts in Pentagon spending that could count toward reducing the Federal deficit. Where did the President get that big number?

Of course, we had taken notice when Defense Secretary Gates had announced $78 billion in budget cuts for the FY12 five year defense plan. We noted that the DoD budget would still continue to grow, that some of these cuts were fairly soft (dependent on assumptions about future inflation rates) and most savings would be generated in the out-years. (See: Pentagon Resists Deficit Reduction)

And we had noted that Secretary Gates had cancelled a number of programs in 2009. But we also noted that many of the cancelled programs were being replaced by others substantially reducing the putative savings (see Gordon Adams, Defense Budgets: Still Need to Get it Right!)

In the days following the President’s speech we commented on how there was much less real savings than the President attributed to Secretary Gates’ “courageous” efforts. I pointed out that $68 billion of the January $78 billion in savings had been consumed when 2012 war costs appeared in the budget released in February, replacing small placeholder numbers.

Benjamin Friedman observed that “current ‘savings’ consist entirely of spending that the Pentagon reprogrammed and kept, and the future ‘savings’ come by reducing planned spending growth, rather than reducing actual spending.”

Carl Conetta reviewed the history of these supposed cuts going back to 2009 and compared successive Obama budgets, 2010 through 2012, finding no more than $233 billion in “maybe” DoD reductions in projected out years.

The collective skepticism of independent analysts about the $400 billion no doubt reached the attention of the editors of Defense News, the leading defense industry weekly, where Marcus Weisgerber sought to justify Secretary Gates’ claim of $330 billion in savings from the 2009 program cancellations. When DoD officials refused a request to give a program-by-program breakdown of the figure Defense News “used budget justification documents, DoD officials’ public statements, annual acquisition reports and Government Accountability Office estimates to project program costs. For classified and far-term programs not on the books – but factored into DoD’s projections – think tank and analysts’ estimates were used.” The Weisgerber article title, “Pentagon’s Phantom Savings“, sums up the results of Defense News’ effort to justify Secretary Gates’ claim of savings.