NATO Is Indeed Obsolete

WASHINGTON – The Atlantic Alliance, or NATO, is an old security arrangement (founded in 1949) that no longer has a clear purpose. In his habitual blunt style Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in the upcoming presidential elections, recently said that NATO “is obsolete”. In fact, while Trump is certainly not a leading foreign and defense policy expert, he is mostly right.

No mission

Indeed, what is NATO’s mission today? And, related to that, what means does NATO have at its disposal to execute this mission? On the first question, now that the Soviet Union is gone, the mission of a military alliance created to face it is murky. On the second question, NATO has very few military means, as defense budgets in most members states have been shrinking, year after year. (In the US, despite cuts, the Pentagon’s budget is equal to 3.6% of GDP. Germany’s defense spending is 1.2% of GDP. In Belgium it is 0.9%, in Spain 0.9%, in Italy 1.0%)

The old rationale

The initial rationale for the creation of Atlantic Alliance, the very first peace time integrated military structure, was the Soviet threat against Western Europe at the beginning of the Cold War. Europe’s proximity to the expanded Soviet Bloc, (it included all of Eastern Europe and East Germany), combined with Europe’s economic and military weakness, (due to the lingering effects of the destruction caused by WWII), prompted America to commit itself to the defense of Europe. Hence the creation of NATO in 1949, with tens of thousands of US troops permanently stationed in West Germany and elsewhere in Europe, with tanks, guns, aircraft, and nuclear weapons.

No more Soviet Union 

But then the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Cold War ended because the Soviet Union imploded shortly thereafter. The Warsaw Pact disappeared. The New Russian Federation lost control over all of Eastern Europe. Germany was reunified. Moscow also lost large pieces of the old Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Belarus and the three Baltic States.

NATO is still here 

However, NATO was not disbanded in response to the withering away of the old existential threat to Europe’s security. Perhaps it was prudent to keep the old institution in place, just in case. And may be it was a good idea to allow the former members of the Soviet Bloc to join NATO, even though the new Russian leaders saw this as an eastward expansion of NATO, and therefore a potential threat to them.

Still, be that as it may, an Alliance’s strength is based not on how many members it has, (28 countries), but on its shared purpose and on its ability to deploy the military tools to secure them. And here NATO shows its inherent weakness. No clear purpose, and drastically reduced military forces.

A new threat from Russia? 

If we fast forward to today, many will argue that NATO is still quite relevant because Putin’s Russia has demonstrated to have aggressive tendencies. in 2008 it went to war with Georgia. More recently it grabbed Crimea, a piece of Ukraine. Many say that, if unchecked by NATO, Russia would keep moving westward into Poland, the Baltic States, and may be beyond.

I believe that Russia is mostly interested in neighboring regions that historically were part of Russia. The idea that Ukraine is just the appetizer for a famished Russia, while Portugal or at the very least Germany will be the pudding seems quite preposterous.

Inadequate military means

But even if we assume that this unlikely theory of Russian resurgent expansionism were in fact correct, then where is NATO’s demonstrable military deterrent to counter it?

Indeed, if NATO is still standing and operational because Russia is a threat to its members, then we should also see robust defense spending aimed at creating a war fighting force that can credibly deter aggression by showing Russia that any threat to NATO members’ security would be met by a formidable force.

Unfulfilled commitments

Well, it is not so. Because of economic weaknesses and competing social spending priorities, most European countries have allowed defense spending to go into free fall. In theory, all NATO members are unequivocally committed to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. In practice, only 5 countries, out of 28 NATO members, have honored this pledge. Most of the others spend around 1% of GDP on their military, or less. This is half of what they promised. If you take the U.S. out, The European members of NATO have only limited air power. Practically no sizable expeditionary forces. No meaningful airlift capabilities.

During the Libya mission, confronted with a third-rate enemy, the French and British air forces run out of smart bombs only a few weeks into the conflict. Even that limited operation could not have been executed without US support in key areas such as air defense jamming and suppression, and overall logistics.

Not serious 

Quite frankly, this reluctance to field credible military forces makes NATO into a joke. You cannot say that we have to keep NATO together and strong in order to face an aggressive Russia and then have a virtually disarmed military alliance on account of the fact that nobody wants to spend diminished revenue on defense in economically weak countries.

Limited support to US-led operations 

As far as what used to be called “out of area” (that is possible threats outside of Europe) NATO does not have clear objectives and a credible strategy to achieve them. Yes, NATO countries participated in the difficult Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. NATO countries intervened in Libya. All true. But in all these efforts (Libya is a partial exception) the US was leading, and selected NATO countries followed.

At present, while the US (with little enthusiasm) is leading a military effort against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, some NATO countries are contributing some aircraft to the air war. But there is no clear NATO policy. And certainly no commitment by all NATO members to participate.

No clear purpose 

So, here is the thing. With the end of the Cold War, NATO lost its original purpose. What we have now is murky strategic objectives and lack of military means to accomplish even slightly ambitious missions.

The NATO Alliance is now mostly a talking shop with too many members who contribute almost nothing of value. While something may change after the US elections, it is unlikely that anybody will ask the hard questions about purpose, strategy and means.

No debate on difficult issues 

Nobody wants to have an open debate within NATO that would inevitably expose deep political divisions and embarrassing military vulnerabilities. For this reason, I suspect that the old institutional framework will be left as is, even though most analysts recognize that it is obsolete and virtually meaningless when it comes to core military capabilities.

In the future, if we are lucky, the US may be able to create ad hoc  “coalitions of the willing” and work selectively with the 4 or 5 NATO countries that still have modern armed forces.




An Academic Argues That We Need Socialist Policies in America

WASHINGTON – In the course of a TV program focused on economic freedom, a leftist university professor was interviewed to give her own contrasting point of view.

Tax the rich 

Predictably, she proceeded to recite a long list of capitalistic evils, including unfair distribution of wealth, lack of access to basic services for the poor, and so on. Her proposed remedies? Well, very simple. Tax the rich, force multinational corporations to bring back to America all the jobs they outsourced, expand regulations of most economic sectors, increase all social services for the poor, and more. Anyway, you get the idea: capitalism is bad, and therefore it needs to be controlled.

This is socialism 

“But all this sounds like socialism”, argued the interviewer, “And we know that socialism did not work. It failed”. This rather obvious observation unsettled the professor. For a moment, she did not know what to say.

But then, after an awkward pause, she replied –with a perfectly straight face, mind you– that we haven’t had that many attempts at establishing socialism around the world. And, sadly, one noble experiment, Chile under the late president Salvador Allende, was smothered by a military coup supported by the CIA. Therefore, we shall never know what great things Allende could have produced, because he was never given a chance.

We never tried it 

Got that? “We never really tried socialism.” Really? And what about the Soviet Union and all the socialist governments imposed on all of Eastern Europe? (That would include East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia). What about China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and Cuba? And what about socialist models imposed in Africa on Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola? And what about the Latin American variations in semi-destroyed countries like Venezuela?

Well, apparently the professor does not  know about them, or may be she believes that these were not real attempts to create socialist societies run by socialist parties.

According to her, the only genuine article was Chile. And, unfortunately the experiment was killed way before it could transform the society. Which is to say that we do not know how good socialism is, because –you see– we have not really tried it.

Not entitled to their own facts 

So, here we go. I believe it was the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

Well, this academic feels totally entitled to her own facts. She reinterprets history as she pleases, making things up, and saying really stupid things on national TV.

However, the worst thing is that this idiocy, (and many more), goes essentially unchallenged. (In this particular case, the interviewer –a savvy free market libertarian– did not challenge the absurd statement made by the professor that we have not really tried socialism. He could have done so; but he did not).

Set the record straight

I am not suggesting that we should have censors passing judgment on what people can and cannot say. This would be unconstitutional. (Yes, we do have the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech). But it would be nice if someone, speaking on the basis of factual evidence, would care to set the record straight and expose falsehood, whenever necessary.

Yes, in case we all forgot, starting with the Soviet Union many countries tried socialism. It was a horrible experience. It created cruel dictatorships. Those regimes killed or imprisoned all political opponents. They created stupid and horribly wasteful economic systems. Socialism caused enormous misery; and it was eventually rejected, because it had failed –totally and completely. 

Lunacy 

If we knew all this, then we would also understand that listening to anybody who would like to repropose socialism, or anything like it, is sheer lunacy.

 




It Is Time For Kiev To Recognize that Eastern Ukraine Is Lost

WASHINGTON – I know that this is repetitive, but I have to say again that it is time for Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to acknowledge reality and let the Eastern Provinces go. Unless the Kiev government has some kind of death wish and therefore pledges to fight Putin to the end, whatever the cost, any attempt to regain control over the Eastern Provinces now in the hands of Moscow-backed ethnic Russian rebels is a really stupid idea.

Ukraine cannot win

Ukraine cannot prevail militarily against forces backed by Russia. It is crystal clear that neither the EU, nor NATO have any intention to  support Kiev with weapons and ammunitions. America has shown how far it will go by offering Meals Ready to Eat, (MREs), blankets and socks (yes, socks) to the Ukrainian armed forces.

Give up the East

Now, whatever the formal diplomatic arrangements, timetables and what not that should lead to some form of autonomy for the East, the reality is that these Provinces are gone –for good.

Sure enough, the rebels are not respecting the agreements they signed in Minsk not too long ago. They are fighting the Ukrainians. They held “elections” won by separatist leaders.

Kiev in turn has sent in again its own troops. And, guess what, Moscow responded by sending into Ukraine its own forces, even though without official uniforms and insignia. This is technically an invasion of a sovereign country. But, beyond German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressing “surprise”, nobody will do anything about it.

The fact is that Moscow will not give back any territory it now controls via the rebels.  If Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko still does not want to accept this reality and insists on fighting Putin’s armies, he is a fool.

This war is lost, and he should let go.

Ukraine is alone in this fight

Let me say it again: Ukraine has and will have support from the West when it comes to economic assistance, IMF and EU loans, and other forms of aid. But neither Europe nor the US want to get entangled, directly or indirectly, in a military confrontation with Moscow.

Translation: Poroshenko is all by himself in this ugly fight with a far more powerful enemy.

Therefore, let it go. Grant independence to the East and close this sad page, so that the rest of the country will be able to focus on rebuilding a comatose economy.

A green light to Putin?

Many say that this is a terrible idea. Giving Putin a green light in Eastern Ukraine means that his appetite will grow. He will soon gobble Moldova, may be Estonia and even Poland.

Well, I do not think so.

I do not believe that there is any substance to the notion that Putin is bent on reconstituting the old Soviet Empire, just like it used to be. Sure enough, Putin and most of Russia believe that the end of the Soviet Union was an epochal catastrophe, a true national disaster.

In an instant, Moscow lost control over all of Eastern Europe, (East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria), and over huge chunks of what it considered to be its own territory. The Baltic countries, (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), are gone. The Central Asian Republics are gone. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are gone. And, last but least, Ukraine is gone.

Change the map, up to a point

In Putin’s mind, the post Soviet, post Cold-War settlement was unfair. The new Russia got a rotten deal. And therefore he is looking for ways to rearrange the political map of Europe on more favorable terms.

This is true.

However, Russia is not about to go to war with America in order to regain control over Poland, a NATO country.

Russia will instead take advantage of opportunities, such as chaos in Ukraine, to reclaim a piece here and a piece there, especially when large chunks of land are inhabited by ethnic Russians, like in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine.

Putin acts rationally

That said, Putin may be a ruthless revanchist, but he is not a crazy maniac.

He gambles; but only within certain parameters. He knew that Ukraine was outside of NATO, and therefore not protected by this US-led security arrangement. (He had made the same calculation regarding Georgia, just a few years ago).

Having observed President Obama, he calculated that the US would make a lot of noise, but would not take any action about Crimea and about Eastern Ukraine. And he was right.

Let’s face it: allowing Putin to get away with this naked aggression is not a good thing. But forcing him to give back Eastern Ukraine, let alone Crimea, would require a degree of fortitude that neither Europe nor the US have at this time.

Poland is not the same as Ukraine

That said, by giving Putin a “pass” in Eastern Ukraine, the West is not signaling to Russia that from now on it can do as it pleases all over Europe.

Putin knows the difference between encroaching on “unprotected” territories inhabited mostly by ethnic Russians (Crimea and Eastern Ukraine) and stirring trouble in a NATO country.

Even this diminished and timid America knows when to say “enough”. Attacking Poland or Estonia, both of them NATO members, will not be treated in the same way as the invasion of Crimea.

I believe Putin knows the difference, and he will behave accordingly.

 




NATO Reaffirms Its Unity and Resolve – Yet Defense Budgets Are In Free Fall

WASHINGTON“[At the forthcoming NATO Summit in Wales] we will send an unmistakable message: Today and in the future, NATO means one for all, all for one”. This is the upbeat conclusion of a WSJ op-ed piece co-authored by Anders Fogh Rasmussen and by General Philip Breedlove, Secretary General of NATO and Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and Commander of US European Command, (A NATO for a Dangerous World, August 18, 2014).

We stand united

The gist of the piece is that NATO stands absolutely united, now as before, while the Alliance has done or is doing all that is necessary to strengthen the  political and military cooperation among its 28 members.

While the Cold War is over, the authors argue, there are many potential threats out there, from further deterioration in the Middle East to possible escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.

Well, it is nice to read reassuring words from the top civilian and military authorities of this old Alliance. The trouble is that most of what they say regarding NATO being ready to meet challenges is either grossly exaggerated, or not at all true.

Disconnect between commitments and budgets

The two authors vaguely hint at the enormous disconnect between declared goals and objectives (ambitious) and real defense budgets (ridiculous) when they write that: “The Wales summit is a key opportunity to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets and to share the responsibilities for security more fairly”. So, they admit that there is a defense spending problem. But they do not even begin to say how big it is.

Defense spending in free fall

The US is the NATO member that spends the most on defense: about 4% of GDP. No other European NATO member comes even close. Britain leads the pack with defense at 2.4% of GDP. France dropped military spending from 2.5% in 2004 to 1.9% in 2013. Germany is at 1.3%, Italy a bit less with 1.2%. Poland does better with military spending at 2%, while economically challenged Spain went down from 1.2% in 2009 to 0.9 today.

And do keep in mind that America is already cutting its military spending, with more cuts coming in the near future.

So, there you go. We stand united. Our resolve is unshakable, blah, blah, blah. Unfortunately, this is mostly “feel good” nonsense. The Alliance is there, and so are all the trappings of a peace time integrated military structure. The commitments are there, and nobody says they will not be honored.

Modest capabilities

However, the sad reality is that most European NATO countries cannot field credible armed forces. And even the best do not have that much. For example, shortly after the beginning of the air campaign against Gaddafi’s Libya, led by France and Britain, the Europeans were asking America to give them precision guided ammunition, because they had run out. And this was a small war against Libya, a third-rate military force.

And leaving aside the actual level of spending, if we look closely at the actual military preparedness of the armed forces theoretically fielded by –say– Romania, Estonia or Portugal, we are not going to be impressed.

Few synergies

Related to this, there is the perennial shortcoming resulting from a lack of real “military integration” among NATO countries. Which is to say that there is no way to get “more bang for the buck” because military spending is highly fragmented.

Indeed, many attempts notwithstanding, the individual European NATO members, plus America and Canada field separate armed forces. There are few if any effective synergies when it comes to procurement of new weapons systems.

Over the years weapons standardization and interoperability have improved some. But we do not have a fully integrated “NATO Army”. Which is to say that the little money that is indeed spent does not buy as much as it could in terms of joint NATO capabilities.

When the Soviet Union collapsed

The truth of the matter is that when the USSR disappeared back in 1991 the real rationale for the NATO Alliance –protecting Europe against a possible Soviet aggression– also disappeared. And so most European countries, whatever their public pronouncements, started cutting defense spending.

Today we have an Alliance which is actually much larger in terms of members, (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the 3 Baltic countries, and many more joined in recent years), but with minimal military capabilities.

Please, tell the whole truth

The pep talk-editorial authored by Secretary General Rasmussen and General Breedlove is in fact a disservice, as it hides the stark reality about lack of resources behind NATO-speak verbiage on theoretical commitments, coupled with a routine reassertion about steadfastness and unity.

 

 




Attempts At Injecting New Vigor Into The Atlantic Community Linking America And Europe Will Fail – US Short Of Breath, EU In Serious Trouble – Societies In Decline Are Inward Looking – No Interest In Cooperation

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

January 31, 2012

WASHINGTON – Wolfgang Ischinger, former German Deputy Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, former Russian Foreign Minister, and San Nunn, former US Senator, and once Chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, in their current role as co-chairmen of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative voice their concern about the future of the Euro-Atlantic community in an op-ed piece in The International Herald Tribune, (Euro-Atlantic Goals, January 31, 2012). The writers lament the lack of policy focus and poor coordination among the key players in this large area encompassing Europe, Russia and North America. At the end of the Cold War, It was hoped that this region could become the driving force for positive change based on new cooperation linking Europe and America, the old partners and a new democratic Russia. But this did not happen. Arguably, Europe and the US are drifting apart, while old enmities with Russia have resurfaced.

Revive the Atlantic Community?

The three former leaders advocate better military to military cooperation, a rethinking about the purpose of missile defense, and a joint, cooperative approch to the exploitation of the vast resources of the Arctic, among other issues. Their underataking is laudable. But the chances of success are dim, mostly because of the profound changes, all for the worse, affecting both Europe and America. Russia is a different story, but not a very good one either.

Impossible dream

Simply put, the old foundations are gone. The Atlantic bond and the NATO Alliance that shaped it were based on both a shared fear of a common foe, the old Soviet Union, and on an underlying optimism about the strength, vitality and moral superiority of Western nations. And look where we are now. Whatever the spats with Putin’s Russia, this is not the old Soviet Union, with armoured divisions stationed in East Germany, just a few miles miles from Hamburg, as former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt used to remind us, back in the 1980s. Today’s Russia represents no immediate threat to Europe. So, the old glue based on a shared security concern is no longer there, (even though it has not been replaced by a genuine new friendship with a post-Soviet Russia).

Loss of optimism

But the real impediment to the reaffirmation of a spirited and dynamic Atlantic Community is the loss of optimism. Forgive the cliche‘, but the West is in decline and the remedies advocated by politicians will tend to create a more inward looking political climate. Wounded societies will use their diminished resources to try and fix their domestic issues. There is now little spare capacity and even less political will to seriously engage with the outside world on anything that would demand steady commitments. Anything requiring effort and any type of coordination that may entail domestic sacrifices is now politically unwelcome.

In the US, focus on divisive domestic issues of social justice

Look, America, although doing a bit better than Europe, is saddled with a gigantic national debt and year after year enormous budget deficits that are already causing cuts in security spending. But, aside from Pentagon cuts, (in fact the three statesmen are proposing better security coordination, not new and costly security undertakings), the focus of debate in America has shifted away from growth strategies and confidence in globalization, and is now on who should shoulder the bigger burden of the downturn.

President Obama is running for re-election this November on a platform based on how he will guarantee that the rich pay a bigger share of the cost of fixing public finances. This new focus on “fairness” tends to fuel existing and partly justified social and political animosities that will end dividing Americans. Indeed, whatever the objective merit and the justifications for redistributive policies, a nation divided, in which different groups fight to determine who should pay more, will have no energy for foreign matters not considered absolutely vital. So, while we debate about how much the rich should be taxed, there is little interest in new efforts aimed at revitalizing transatlantic bonds with Europe whose value is not immediately apparent. (The fact that the otherwise laughable presidential aspirations of Texas Congressman Ron Paul who proposes complete withdrawal from foreign committments have at least some traction this year, especially among young voters, is evidence of a profound shift in America.)

Europe: the crisis of the welfare state

Well, if this is the new mood in America, in Europe it is much, much worse. Southern Europe is essentially a disaster area, with no one really facing the fact tat the fiscal and debt crises have been caused by costly state run programs and over generous welfare systems that could not be funded by anemic growth in increasingly non competitive economies. And, although right now the focus is still on putting out the fires and eliminating contagion in the banking systems, very few are willing to propose a rejection of the old societal models as a new way forward.

On the contrary, the idea is about doing more of the same, only reapportioning the costs. In the unfolding campaign for the French presidency, Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger to president Nicolas Sarkozy, would like to keep the old welfare state just as it was. He wants to go back to a lower age of 60 for full pension benefits. At the same time, just like president Obama, he put forward laughable plans to re-industrialize France by bringing back manufacturing that migrated long ago to low cost Asia. The idea is that it may be possible to reassert manufacturing, this time however with more aggressive protection against unfair competitors. And at the same a Socialist President would fight the domestic enemies: the fat cats, the bankers and financiers who have amassed vast fortunes, while the rest of the country suffers.

Populism and protectionism do not mix well with international solidarity

So, in France there is an unhealthy mix of populist class warfare and rising protectionist sentiment. Not a good base for grand new transatlantic initiatives. And do not expect bold new leadership from Germany either. The Germans, while better off economically, right now are mostly concerned with forcing rather recalcitrant Southern EU partners to adopt even more stringent austerity measures, so that there will be no more fiscal crises in the future.

All well and good. But the problem is that austerity without growth strategies will further weaken already weak Southern Europe. Even leaving aside the political fall out of a strong anti-German sentiment –something that does not augur well for intra-European cohesion– I would not count on Greece, Italy, Spain, (more than 20% unemployment), and Portugal to provide a vigorous contribution to any policy aimed at strengthening Euro-Atlantic relations. In the years ahead, they will do their best just to stay alive.

We thought we were better, thus bound to lead

After WWII victorious America and resurgent Europe forged a bond based in large part on the genuine belief that their countries shared the superior foundations of democracy and enterprise. And it was that very self-assurance, that sense of moral superiority that engendered optimism and a willingness to cooperate with other like minded Western nations.

But now that strong belief in Western superiority is gone and with that went the interest in cooperating in the name of the expansion of Western principles. Europe and (even if to a lesser extent) America are now inward looking, unsure and hesitant. Their politics are focused more on fighting over what is left at home rather than on dreaming about an expansive, bright future. The Atlantic Community, for many decades the driving vehicle of Western solidarity, is a major casualty of this new era of reduced expectations and no dreams.




Robert Gates Retires as The Last Defense Secretary of a Powerful America – The Erosion of the US Economy Will Cause Cuts in Defense and a Reduced US International Role

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

June 28, 2011

WASHINGTON– Robert Gates is about to retire as Secretary of Defense, (“SecDef” in Pentagonese), after a remarkably long tenure spanning two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama who could not be more opposite in terms of their basic approaches towards national security. Whatever his merits, Gates goes into retirement with a personal awareness that he may very well be the very last Defense Chief of America as a “Mighty Nation”. Gates knows his country and Washington too well not to realize that a diminished America, if its serious economic ailments are not reversible, in the near future will simply be unable to afford not just “wars of choice” but any extended national security commitment, let alone wars.

Defense spending no longer affordable

Gates gets this simply fact: “There is no more money”. Just like for everything else, Washington has to borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spends on defense. Gates tried to salvage what he could by initiating cost savings measures within the Pentagon. His aim was to preemptively “cut the fat”, (over-staffing, inflation of general officers, command centers that make no sense, untold sums spent on consulting services of questionable value), in order to avoid reckless amputations –cuts in force structure– down the line. But this is impossible.

US defense spending, while historically low at about 4% of GDP, (by Cold War standards), is unaffordable for a country now routinely running $ 1.4, 1.5 trillion budget deficits every year. As Herbert Stein used to say, “What cannot be sustained, will not”. Gates knows this. He has been around public policy way too long not to realize that in the end the vast military machine he presided upon will be deemed to be extravagantly expensive and it will be pared down.

Cutting defense as a matter of choice or as a matter of fiscal necessity

It should be clear to all that there is a huge distinction between reducing defense spending because of political judgment, (correct or incorrect as it may be), and reducing spending as a fiscal imperative, because there is no choice, whatever one may like to do.

Let me illustrate this point. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and the end of Russian domination over Eastern Europe, it made sense for the Clinton administration, (January 1993 – January 2001), to reduce defense spending. After all, the historic existential threat, the USSR, amazingly was gone –for good. Therefore it appeared sensible to reduce spending on an enormous peace time military machine built mostly to deter the Soviets, relying primarily on deployable forces that had to be “ready” at any given time. So, no more Red Army, no need to spend so much to defend ourselves from a threat that had vanished. Time to enjoy the “peace dividend”, as policy makers used to say in the 1990s.

The post 9/11 defense build-up

Then we had the post 9/11 defense build up, the need to augment the standing forces and to replace equipment worn out or destroyed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence the growth of the Pentagon budget to sustain two costly wars. Now the military commitments may have peaked. In Iraq for sure, while the deployments in Afghanistan will be diminished, starting now. These may or may not be wise decisions. Time will tell.

But the deeper reality that Gates knows is that, assuming no vigorous American economic renaissance and consequent fiscal re-balancing, these and other withdrawal decisions will not be part of a range of options. As I said, “There is no more money“. $ 1 trillion is the very conservative estimate of the total cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, so far.

If you thinks that America can have a $ 14 trillion national debt, (and counting), with yearly budget deficits of $ 1 trillion or more, AND a large expeditionary force in Afghanistan, (70,000, even after the cuts just announced by president Obama), that needs to be armed, fed, and supplied, think again. By the same token, the extreme reluctance displayed by Secretary Gates himself, when it came to providing a US contribution to the European military efforts against Gaddafi in Libya, underscores the same point. Even though the enemy is puny and the “war” would have been smallish, the very thought of opening another theatre of operations with all the inevitable cost that would follow appeared too much.

The US administration finessed its decision to sit Libya out as an issue of fair division of labor between America and Europe. May be. I suspect that the decision was driven instead by fiscal considerations. If this is so, then Libya will be remembered as the campaign America could not lead because Washington was short of cash.

Of course, critics of US security policies may say, perhaps with cause, that, given the incredibly bad decisions made by George W. Bush regarding military invasions, it would have been better if America did not have the financial resources to start anything. May be so. But we are not arguing here about the wisdom of policies, we are realizing that lack of money will severely restrict the range of viable policies.

No money, reduced national security options

Now, now we are entering an uncharted territory. In the “American Century”, the US used to have abundant resources. The resilience of Pax Americana was in large part due to the awareness in Washington and across the world that America was wealthy and thus it had options in foreign and security policies.

But now it is different, as the incredible economic vitality that generated the resources that could be devoted to defense is in serious doubt. So much in doubt that it has now become conventional wisdom to say that the most basic US national security asset is the strength of the US economy.

And so everybody, starting with Admiral Mike Mullen, soon to be retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, remind us all of how important it is to restore a vibrant US economy. Indeed. So, we have established the connection between wealth creation and a strong military. But what if this economic renaissance does not happen? What if we continue with anemic growth and no political consensus on significant cuts in welfare programs obligations that will eventually bleed America to death?

No more carriers, no more bases around the world

Well, then you can kiss good bye to replacing Nimitz class super carriers (the last one is the George H. W. Bush). If you take into account the whole carrier group with cruisers, frigates, destroyers, submarines and the full complement of aircraft, each carrier runs at several billion dollars a copy, not to mention the cost of keeping it operational. You can kiss good bye to perennially forward deployed troops in Japan, Korea and whatever is left in Europe. And the enormously costly Iraq and Afghanistan operations will be remembered fondly (or angrily) as actions that America could undertake when it still had money. The projected spending cuts already indicate downsizing of the Army and Marines.

Leaving now, when the going is still good

Bob Gates knows all this. He understands America, and he knows how budgets are done in Washington. May be this is why he is retiring now, when there is still some semblance of prestige for a country entering a new era of diminished means that will inevitably translate into diminished options and reduced horizons. Who knows, may be all this will be reversed and America will go back to its glory days. However, looking at a rather low key, almost somber Bob Gates, one might get the feeling that he does not think so.