March 17, 2014

Ukraine and American Foriegn Policy

The below was originally posted last week to The Foundry, the blog of The Heritage Foundation. As an aside, working with editors is always an adventure, usually demanding a bit of patience in the back-and-forth that occurs while debating everything from grammar and punctuation, essay length, or phrasing and word choice. Oftentimes the author and editor are coming at a piece from different perspectives, the author quite focused on details and nuance within the paper while the editor's interests usually center on the readership or the tone of the publication or website. In this case, I won with regard to content but was surprised by the title posted to the blog that (in my opinion) shifted the focus from commentary on US foreign policy to the machinations of Putin. Ah well. The point I was trying to make was this: the Administration's policies for national security and defense do not account for the world as it is resulting in opportunities our competitors are only too happy to exploit for their own self interest, usually to the detriment of ours. We may wish for others to 'step up their game'--increasing their investment in defense, for example--but we're foolish to make our own national interested dependent on the actions of others. The Obama Administration may want to redirect its attentions to domestic policy but it is doing so at the expense of our national security and the greater good of so many countries that depend on our strength to keep regional predators at bay.

Dakota Wood   March 14, 2014

A great deal of ink has been spilt over the evolving situation in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s de facto annexation of Crimea. At present, Crimea’s parliament has called for a public referendum to consider formal secession from Ukraine—the vote will be held on March 16.

The Ukrainian government holds that Crimea’s upcoming referendum is unconstitutional, but no one in the Crimean government cares what Ukraine thinks. Regardless, the “popular vote” will likely result in Crimea’s separation from Ukraine for four reasons: 1) Crimea’s population is nearly 60 percent ethnic Russian; 2) Russian troops and supporting local brigands control nearly all Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea; 3) Ukraine has no ability to physically eject Russia from its territory; and 4) Western governments are loath to intervene.

Despite its claims to the contrary, Russia invaded Ukraine under the flimsiest of pretexts to exploit a strategic opportunity presented by Ukraine’s recent political upheaval, a crisis created when its Russian-leaning leader rejected popular desires for Ukraine to ally itself with Europe.

Fresh off his success hosting the Winter Olympics, Putin’s confidence must be soaring; after all, he’s laid permanent claim to a key warm-water port for the Russian Navy; secured unfettered access to the agricultural and energy resources of the Crimean peninsula; and reclaimed territory he believes was wrongly lost following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In one swift, bloodless move he has also exposed Europe’s innate military and political weakness, as well as the continent’s inability to protect its broader interests; Central Europe’s shaky security situation; and Europe’s general dependence on Russian energy. All in all, it’s been a pretty good month for Vladimir.

And what has been the U.S. response to all of this? Indignant rhetoric from Secretary of State John Kerry, and much finger wagging from President Obama, both of whom are shocked that Putin would behave so boorishly. Herein lays the problem with America’s foreign policy: our leadership behaves as if the rest of the world hangs on enlightened philosophical pronouncements from the White House teleprompter.  In reality the world acts in its own self-interests—Russia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and China have no problem bullying other nations while the U.S. takes offense that our geopolitical foes aren’t interested in resolving differences over tea and cakes. One shouldn’t be surprised, then, when thugocracies exploit windows of opportunity created by American withdrawal from key regions or lack of will to push back against oppressive regimes.

To date, the U.S. has dispatched a handful of military aircraft to Lithuania and Poland, where it has also undertaken an exercise with NATO allies, and sent a destroyer to the Black Sea to participate in a naval exercise with Bulgaria and Romania. While these actions might have signaled America’s commitment to oppose Russia’s blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the Obama Administration immediately neutered them by declaring that these measures were scheduled well before the crisis in Ukraine.

The White House has, however, announced several new measures designed to buttress Ukraine: business summits, an innovation council, a special envoy to represent the U.S. in an energy working group, packaged meals to the Ukrainian military, FBI agents to help track down pilfered funds, and doubling the number of Ukrainian students brought to the U.S. under an academic exchange program—all of which are very nice but hardly constitute measures that will prompt Putin to reconsider his reckless disregard for reasoned statesmanship.

While direct military intervention in the Ukrainian crisis would be foolish, there are several things the U.S. could do militarily (in addition to diplomatic and economic measures) to send a strong message to Putin, including:
  • Commit to the deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) assets to Poland and the Czech Republic, something President Obama foolishly cancelled shortly after taking office;
  • Rapidly organize and execute a major NATO exercise (to include ground, air, and naval maneuvers) with the explicit purpose of showing the Alliance is healthy and won’t tolerate military intimidation of Europe by Russia;
  • Initiate a bilateral exercise with Georgia, an especially symbolic move, given Russia’s attack of that state in 2008; and
  • Conduct high-level defense consultations with Ukraine’s military leadership, again for the express purpose of establishing a principled boundary between the West and Russian belligerency.
Critics will argue such actions are provocative; that’s the point. If Russia doesn’t meet some sort of resistance, Putin will only be emboldened to continue to behave belligerently.

Putin’s gambit demonstrates the consequences of the Obama Administration’s wrongheaded approach to security affairs. Extended retrenchment, unanswered challenges to red lines, weakness in military affairs such as we are seeing the President’s proposed defense budget for 2015 and beyond—all invite geopolitical bullies to grab what they can while they can.

Peace really does come through strength. “Soft talk” absent a “big stick” is just statecraft reduced to whimpering—not really what one expects from a Great Power, and certainly not conducive to maintaining peace and prosperity for the U.S.  Obama’s geopolitical timidity has created strategic opportunities for Russia, China, Iran, and numerous militant factions to reorder regional balances in their favor. To the extent America refuses to shoulder the burden of being “the best hope for mankind,” we will find ourselves, and so many others around the world, poorer, increasingly challenged by our enemies, and with fewer prospects for better tomorrows.

March 5, 2014

The Gathering Storm

While reading a paper at work today, I was caught by this observation from Churchill and couldn’t help but think on our present circumstance…not just the most current problem in the Crimea but more broadly too:
“It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days, to show how easily the tragedy of the Second World War could have been prevented; how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; how the structure and habits of democratic states, unless they are welded together into larger organisms, lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to humble masses; how, even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued even for ten or fifteen years at a time. We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster. We shall see how absolute is the need of a broad path of international action pursued by many states in common across the years, irrespective of the ebb and flow of national politics.”
Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 1948

His point, of course, was to emphasize the importance of constant attention to the necessary investments of defense, fiscal restaint, political awareness, and the courage to stand up to aggression even when things seem to be going along quite well. These elements are essential to the preservation of a country's economic vitality, its cultural health and resiliency under pressure, and the strength to confront challenges before they grow to dangerous levels. When people do not attend to such things for too long a time--which typically happens during extended times of plenty--they eventually find themselves unprepared, perhaps fatally, at the worst possible time when the need is greatest, their resources have been squandered, and their competitors sense opportunity.

March 3, 2014

America's Defense Death Spiral

The National Interest has kindly published a longer version of my commentary on the unwillingness of Congress and the Administration to deal with the fiscal challenges facing our country, choosing instead to compromise the ability of our country to respond to challenges to our security interests. One can never know for sure when and where such threats will arise but they inevitably do. The list of opportunists is quite long: Putin, Iran, China, al Qaeda and its affiliates, and regionally destabilizing problems like we're seeing in Venezuela, Syria, Nigeria, and North Korea among others. Do we have to respond to every crisis? Certainly not! But we should have the ability to respond to crises that we feel rise to a level of concern to warrant a response. If we continue with our current "death spiral" we will soon find ourselves without the ability to respond when we most need to and then it will be too late to raise the forces needed. Last point - Reagan clearly understood the value of "peace through strength." When one maintains a strong posture the rest of the world, and certainly our competitors, understand the implications of such and modify their behavior accordingly. Strength keeps things in check. Conversely, weakness--even perceived weakness--invites trouble. The worrisome headlines about Ukraine are but one example.

Dakota Wood, March 2, 2014

From invective-laden commentary about the near-fatal compromise of America’s security, to those fearful of how reduced defense spending will affect local economic conditions, to those who feel not enough was cut, the Secretary has taken flak from all sides. Frankly, you have to feel some measure of sympathy for a man who is dutifully carrying out the unenviable task of reporting to Congress—and to his boss, the Commander in Chief—the logical consequences of their institutional irresponsibility in failing to provide for the security of our nation.

Much can be said for the Secretary’s thoughtful description of the various challenges confronting the Department of Defense. But what was truly fascinating about his presentation was its mixture of Orwellian doublespeak, dire warning, and blunt realism—all bookended by notes of assurance.

The Secretary was quite candid when speaking about the growing uncertainty in world affairs, the worsening of the threat to U.S. security interests, and the increased levels of risk the U.S. will need to accept as our military forces are reduced. He pointedly noted that "the abrupt spending cuts...imposed on DOD" were so severe in scope, scale, and timeline that we would reap a force "not capable of fulfilling assigned missions." For example, we will be left with an Army capable of addressing only a single major contingency at a time.

But the Secretary also ladled out large doses of happy-talk. A much smaller force facing an uglier world would somehow be a “more capable force.” The cuts, delays, and terminations "will help bring our military into balance." And, although our military "will continue to experience gaps in training and maintenance" while facing a "dynamic and increasingly dangerous security environment," it would still be able to "protect our country and fulfill the President's defense strategy."

Poppycock! A smaller, less resourced force will be able to do less. And a smaller, less capable force will have a more difficult time successfully engaging a more dangerous world where, to use the Secretary’s words, “American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.”