Friday, June 20, 2008

The Platform, Part Four

Foreign Policy

George Washington advised the young United States to avoid foreign entanglements, and that’s not a bad basis for anybody’s foreign policy. The trouble is, foreign entanglements get harder and harder to avoid as a country grows and develops. Much of our prosperity is based on trade, and international trade depends on an international rule of law. So isolationism becomes less viable as globalization advances.

I’m in favor of globalization, so I have to favor things that reinforce an international rule of law. This puts me at odds with people who believe that our participation in international organizations such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization undermines our sovereignty. It also puts me at odds with people who think that any action on behalf of U.S. interests abroad is by definition imperialism and therefore to be opposed. So both the far right and the far left are going to have problems with my position on our role in the world. Tough.

Globalization is inevitable, and, I believe, a good thing. Trade makes everyone richer, and countries that have peaceful trading relations are less likely to go to war. One prominent feature of the run-up to war in the dismal nineteen-thirties was the proliferation of embargoes and tariffs that crippled international trade, spread the Depression, and provided dictators with ready-made grievances. So I think it’s in our national interest, as well as that of the world as a whole, to promote a smoothly functioning system of international trade.

Beyond trade, peace depends on the ability of people and information to circulate freely around the world. Travel contributes to human knowledge, and travelers need security and predictability in their movement. All of this means coordination between nations and some system of international law. And because there is no law without enforcement, this means some mechanism for international coordination of the application of force, i.e. police and military powers.

The UN and the WTO and other world bodies were set up to provide this kind of international coordination, and they are indispensable in some form or other. Those who complain that we surrender sovereignty by belonging to and cooperating with these bodies are, of course, to some extent correct, and they certainly have a point when they protest the corruption and hypocrisy that is so common at the UN. But to me that means only that, like all human institutions, these world bodies need constant maintenance and reformist vigilance, not that we can do without them. We can’t, not if we want to further the globalization that benefits us as much as anyone else. Globalization has to be fair and governed by rules everyone plays by if it is to find widespread support.

So I favor continued membership in and contribution to world bodies such as the UN and the WTO, while at the same time I favor increased insistence on probity and accountability in those bodies. As the major bankroller of the UN and other bodies, we’re in a good position to insist on these things. We should pay our dues and use our leverage to insist on reform.

In general, then, my foreign policy is based on the principle of strengthening the rule of law in the international arena. But what does this mean applied to real-world conflicts? Let’s get down to cases. I’ve talked about Iraq in a previous post, but let’s recapitulate: What are reasonable goals to pursue in Iraq? At this point, we’re playing damage control, having presided over a disastrous collapse in Iraqi society. Our goal in Iraq should be the restoration of basic security. This appears to be achievable; the surge has had real and positive effects. Beyond that, our goals should be modest. We can’t make Iraq a western-style democracy. Only the Iraqis can do that. We can’t prevent Iraq from cozying up to Iran. We can’t even insist that they agree to a long-term American military presence. We can only restore order, leave the basic structures of an independent state in place, and hope for the best. If our experience in Iraq has taught us anything, it should have taught us to avoid hubris.

This applies especially to Iran. Iran represents a potentially more serious danger than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq ever did, with its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Even if they’ve temporarily mothballed their weapons program, once they have enriched uranium, re-starting it is a snap. How scary would an Iranian bomb be? Maybe no scarier than the North Korean and Pakistani bombs. But every time another dubious regime gets the bomb, the world becomes a more dangerous place. If you are bothered about Israel or India having the bomb, you can’t tell me it wouldn’t be so bad if Iran had it. And pious exhortations aren’t going to dissuade the mullahs.

This is the toughest problem of modern statecraft. We don’t want everybody to have the bomb, but we really can’t stop anybody who is determined to get it unless we’re prepared to wage war. And how many wars can we afford?

Keeping Iran from getting the bomb is an urgent foreign policy goal. But it would be good to find a way of doing that short of total war. We should keep in mind that Iran is a much less monolithic state than Hussein’s Iraq was. To an extent, it is even a democracy, certainly more so than our gallant ally Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government is dominated by hard-liners, but there are also strong reformist currents in Iranian society and even rumbles of discontent in government circles about Ahmadinejad’s grandstanding. A war with Iran would instantly legitimize the hard-liners, unite Iranian society in hostility to the West and shove any positive political trends into the deep freeze. So war should be a last resort.

First, in accordance with our adherence to the rule of law, we should make clear that any nation willing to play by the rules is entitled to reap the benefits. We should emphasize to the Iranians that our opposition is specifically to their infractions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which they are a signatory, and their evident lying about said infractions. Then, without waiting for an improbable change of heart, we need to keep up the carrot-and-stick approach, in conjunction with the Europeans, who seem to agree with us (for a change) that Iran is a problem. The carrot is the offer of technical assistance in developing peaceful nuclear power. As for the stick, sanctions have their role. But the unspoken threat of a few quick airstrikes (either by the U.S. or, more plausibly, by Israel) might concentrate minds wonderfully in Teheran as well. It doesn’t have to be total war. We didn’t need a regime change to make Qaddafi have second thoughts about Libya’s weapons program. And even surgical airstrikes should be kept in reserve. But the U.S. should keep the mullahs guessing by refusing to take the military option off the table.

If you think that’s too harsh, you’re not living in the real world. Ultimately the only answer to existential threats in the nuclear age is deterrence. And deterrence is an ugly thing. Deterrence means we are prepared to be just as nasty as anybody else. It means if you hit me, I’ll hit you back. And that’s childish. But sometimes it’s the only way to keep the peace. Deterrence has to be convincing. People have to be sure that we are both willing and able to commit mass slaughter if provoked. And that’s not a gratifying role to play.

But we have to play it. It’s the only thing that works. In the meantime, we can do our best to get everyone to agree that a nuclear arms race is expensive and dangerous, and keep negotiating and drawing down nuclear arsenals and improving international control of nuclear materials and all of that, and we might even make some progress. But we’re always going to need at least a minimal nuclear deterrent. Pacifism is not an option, not in a world where Kim Jong-Il can run a country.

However, that doesn’t mean that all foreign policy problems are military problems. Somebody said that if all you have is a hammer all your problems tend to look like nails, and as the world’s sole superpower, we risk falling into the trap of wanting everything to have a military solution. We have to make sure we use the other tools we have.

The best tool we have is the undisputed appeal of an open society. Migration patterns are the truest indicator of quality of life, and that fence some people want to build isn’t to keep people in. Even the Muslims want to come here. To a high degree, we have a free economy, a fluid class system and a strong tradition of personal liberty and freedom of expression. All these things come under assault from time to time (from both right and left), but so far they’re hanging on. And as long as they do, most of the world will be on our side, most of the time.

We have to take care of those things here at home. We also have to make clear that they are universal values and that we support their extension. That doesn’t mean we can do it by force. That may work sometimes (see Japan and Germany), but it’s damned expensive. We can’t afford that kind of effort more than once a century or so. It’s better to set the example, nurture relations with like-minded countries and realize that living in the real world is going to mean making compromises sometimes. A dose of Realpolitik is always necessary.

I’ve written before that the War on Terror is a mistaken metaphor—as horrific as September 11 was, it wasn’t a military action. It was a brutal and spectacularly successful crime. Al-Qaeda doesn’t have any carrier groups or armored divisions. What it has is a line of cant that a certain type of shallow-thinking person in the Muslim world finds attractive. But they are a minority, even in Muslim society, and if we don’t further alienate and enrage Muslims with invasions and mass civilian deaths, eventually they themselves will defeat Al-Qaeda. It’s already happening in Iraq. Our approach to the Muslim world should be like our approach to anybody else—offer them the benefits of trade and migration and make clear that in return we expect them to act as responsible members of the world community and police their extremists. A good place to start is with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, our two allies in the War on Terror. We should emphatically support liberalizing political and social currents in those countries.

A full exposition of my foreign policy platform is beyond the scope of a single post because there are a lot of countries and crises in the world. I’ve touched on some of these in past posts, and I’ll deal with others in the future. In general, my approach is based on strengthening the rule of law, even if that means relinquishing a degree of sovereignty, while keeping in mind that ultimately the threat of force is what makes countries toe the line and keeps us safe. I favor supporting the WTO and a serious push for freer international trade. I favor our phased withdrawal from long-term military commitments abroad (like our heavy presence in Korea) and in general a more pacific approach to international conflicts. I wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. But I’m not a pacifist. Afghanistan is a war worth fighting. And there will be others.

But in the long run, the best thing for us and for the world is to promote increased trade and migration between countries, despite the short-term costs to particular interests, because globalization is what will tend to bring everybody’s interests into line. That is not a Utopian vision, but rather a principle to be followed in dealing with the terminal messiness of human affairs. Arrange things so that people have more to gain by trading with their neighbors than by invading them. But be prepared for breakdowns, flare-ups and plain old human savagery. Above all, a U.S. president has to keep a firm grasp on principle and stay on his toes.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Platform, Part Three

Controlling spending is the hardest part of fiscal policy, because everybody’s got their hand out, and everybody’s got a case to make. The number of worthy causes that could benefit from a pile of somebody else’s money is infinite, and people are coming up with new ideas all the time. It’s hard to say no when somebody points out a problem that could use an infusion of money, and Congressmen don’t like to disappoint people any more than you do. So we keep getting new spending programs. And once a program is up and running, it’s even harder to get rid of it. Cancel a program and people lose jobs. Even if a program is a boondoggle, a total waste of money, it’s hard to kill it. There are always people passionately defending it. Usually the argument includes a line like, “This program represents a mere (insert small percentage here) of federal spending, which is nothing compared to what we spend on defense.” The problem is that there are hundreds and hundreds of these worthy programs that cost only a small percentage of federal spending. If you don’t find a way to limit them, they add up.

Meanwhile, everyone’s got an idea about what should be cut—somebody else’s pet program. Some things are no-brainers to anyone with a sincere commitment to good policy, like abolishing farm subsidies and corporate welfare programs. There’s no mystery about what the rotten programs are: the Cato Institute publishes a useful guide to corporate welfare. The information is out there for all of us to see. You’d think you could get everybody behind abolishing corporate welfare; if ever there was an issue ripe for bi-partisanship, this is it. Democrats don’t like corporations and Republicans like the free market, or so they say. But even the most egregious federal giveaways are defended by their beneficiaries the way a drunk defends his last half-pint. And legislators stick up for each other because they’re all implicated—vote for my program and I’ll vote for yours. What’s needed is for taxpayers to raise a stink, loudly and consistently. This means you—e-mail your representatives today.

Everyone’s against earmarks — the pork legislators slip into the budget—and they’re scandalous, of course, but they represent only a small fraction of the budget. The truth is that there’s no magic bullet. There’s no simple answer to controlling spending, no single item or category that can be easily slashed to bring down the deficit and make room for the things you think the government should be spending money on. Unfortunately, limiting spending means, sooner or later, attacking the really big items in the budget: defense and entitlements.

The biggest entitlement is Social Security, and it’s going to bust us if we don’t reform it. If we don’t privatize it, at least partially, we’re going to have to means-test it. There’s no reason well-off people should be receiving a Social Security check each month, even if they have been paying into the system all their working lives. They’ll say they’re entitled to that money, and of course according to the terms the program was set up on, they’re right. But besides total privatization there’s no way to reform Social Security without some injustice somewhere. It’s unjust right now because it’s a regressive tax. And people at the lowest economic levels tend to die before they receive the benefits they have paid into the system. It’s a bad deal for them, compared with what they could make with private accounts (which would be inheritable). There is simply no way to make Social Security fair for everyone; that’s trying to square a circle. Either you privatize it or you admit that it’s a redistributive program. And if you admit the latter, you still have to deal with the funding problems, either by cutting benefits or raising taxes. Anything else is dreaming. You have to recognize limits and stand up to the howls of protest that any meaningful reform will bring. Take your pick—but don’t tell me that continuing the program in its current form is an option. Social Security is going to have to be curtailed, somehow, or we’ll go broke.

As for defense, it accounts for roughly a quarter of federal spending, and it would be nice if we could hack it down to size. Yes, it is a huge burden, particularly with two wars going on, one of them arguably unnecessary. I’d love to see defense spending come down, and I’m not especially a pacifist. Disengagement from foreign entanglements would be a significant part of my foreign policy as President, and that would eventually allow us to cut defense spending significantly. But even if we stay out of needless wars, there’s a limit to how much we ought to slash defense spending. National defense is one of the legitimate functions of the national government, and it’s expensive. The people who have those bumper stickers saying how nice it will be when the Air Force has to hold a bake sale are living in a dream world. Even if we weren’t leaking blood and treasure in Iraq, even if we could get the Koreans and the Japanese and the Europeans to assume the full costs of their national defense, we’d still need a relatively large defense establishment, because part of what keeps the peace is deterrence.

But isn’t it perverse to spend so much on war when so many people here at home don’t have access to decent health care? Why can’t we slash defense spending to pay for health care? Well, some would say that paying for health care is a legitimate function of national government, some would say it’s not. Me, I tend to the latter point of view. Health care is consumed by individuals and can be paid for by individuals with the help of insurance. There is a government role in providing a safety net for people who are unable for whatever reason to obtain insurance, but that’s a far cry from having the government directly run a large slice of the economy. Meanwhile, military action by its nature requires centralized decision-making and the coercive coordination of vast enterprises. It’s an inherently collective enterprise, which makes it a great candidate for government control (as well as a significant danger to prosperity and good government—definitely a handle-with-care proposition). So I’d say we’ll always need to spend more tax money on defense than on health care, but I recognize that people can disagree with me in good faith.

This is the debate we should be having. What are the legitimate functions of government, anyway? But instead of debating the underlying issues, we just keep trying to pay for everything, and the costs keep ratcheting up. What we really need is a mechanism to cap federal spending and force politicians to have the hard debates and make the hard decisions each year.

So I propose some kind of legal mechanism to cap federal spending each year. I’m not sure a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is the way to do it—the Constitution is hard to amend, and for a good reason. The Constitution ought to be concerned with the basic structure of government, not with policy questions like spending and taxation. For a policy question like limiting spending, legislation is the answer. And if we voters (and taxpayers) make enough noise, we ought to be able to shame our legislators into a bi-partisan commitment to fiscal responsibility. A good start might be to stump for the Cato Institute’s measure to cap federal spending, which would cap both discretionary and entitlement spending and would limit spending increases to an indicator such as the sum of population growth plus inflation. This would force legislators to make the tough choices each year.

There are always going to be political fights over limited resources, because needs are literally unlimited. And when you get past the most outrageous layers of largesse, the choices get harder. Reasonable people can differ. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the money the government spends is not free—it comes from you and me. And so the central plank in my platform for controlling federal spending is a cap mechanism that would force the people in Congress to do their job, which is to have a serious debate about what our priorities are and get rid of the things that don’t further those priorities.

Next time: Foreign Policy

Sam Reaves