Jim is 76 years-old, lives on Capitol Hill, and says hi when we see each other in the local Firehook coffee shop. Firehook was crowded this morning, so I asked Jim if I could join him at his table. Jim was more than happy to let me join him.
We have only had a few words in the past. I once commented on his Korean War veteran hat,1 and he returned the favor when he saw me, on another day, wearing a National War College one. As fellow military veterans, we feel a kinship that allows for common and easy exchange of pleasantries. Today we had a full-blown conversation.2
Jim is an Irish boy who grew up in a rough Philly neighborhood. This childhood prepared him for his 2 years of combat in Korea. Following Korea and his Army enlistment, he spent the next 30 years working for the same company that allowed him to marry and raise a family. This retirement now allows him to get coffee every morning before he starts his daily projects. “Daily projects and discipline are the reason I get out of bed in the mornings” he said with a smile. Jim had a stroke a few years ago and his speech is slightly slurred, but I understood him easily.
He asked me about my life and then, as most veterans will do, we talked about our military service. The good and the bad, the funny and the stupid. “Discipline and strength, yep discipline and strength that is what the Army taught me” is how he ended our conversation as I got up to leave. Unfortunately, I don’t have tons of discipline3 or strength.
Discipline is not hard to define, but strength is more amorphous. Strength can mean lots of things. David Ignatius asks “What does American ‘strength’ mean in the 21st century?” in today’s Washington Post. Ignatius recommends Zbigniew Brzezinski’s new book Strategic Vision4 which has the following argument: There are “alarming” similarities between America today and the Soviet Union before its fall, including a “gridlocked governmental system incapable of enacting serious policy revisions,” a “back-breaking” military budget and a failing “decade-long attempt to conquer Afghanistan.”
Ignatius further discuss Brzezinski’s argument that the U.S. needs to work closely with a democratizing Russia and Turkey to build a “larger West.” Brzezinski, in Ignatius’ words, then argues that “if the United States tries too boldly to go it alone or too meekly to accommodate the rising powers, it’s headed for trouble.” Following this, Ignatius addresses the debate of American strength in the GOP presidential nomination process.
GOP rants include muscle flexing. This muscle flexing includes more military pressure on Iran; more CIA operations against Iran, Syria, and “other rivals”;5 and tough trade policies against China. Ignatius states that this muscle flexing is already the American way and it is a problem. America needs good allies instead of more carrier strike groups. The GOP exceptionalism rhetoric is counterproductive, which Ignatius calls “little more than vain boasting.”
Romney’s dismissal of negotiating with the Taliban, and Newt’s disdain6 of a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel are what Ignatius uses for examples. Arguably, this type of talk is outside the “mainstream” and Ignatius compares it to the “strategic equivalent of walking off the plank.” President Obama isn’t given a pass though, and Ignatius says his talk is better than his bite. Congressional deadlock is an excuse according to Ignatius and not a strategy no matter how hard the President attempts to blame Congress. Finally, Ignatius states that President Obama has “flopped” on the Palestine issue and muddled in Afghanistan.
I find the discussion on American strength in the 21st century highly interesting. I have some issues though with Brzezinski’s comparison of America today with the Soviet Union of the late 80s and early 90s. Brzezinski compares the Soviets’ and America’s gridlocked government, military spending, and their supposed common desire to conquer Afghanistan.
Late 1980s and early 1990-1991 Soviet government policy “gridlock” was not one of competing political parties or agendas. Instead it was an issue of government ownership and artificial demand. It was the result of decades of repression and failed economic policies. Additionally, the Politburo had lost all power in ruling the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev, through Congress of People’s Deputies, had increased presidential power. Gorbachev’s attempts to regain control of the Soviet Union did not work and unrest surfaced. In January 1990, Azerbaijanis rioted. Moldavians demonstrated in favor of unification with Romania. Gridlock in the Soviet Union was actually a fight over the scraps that had become the carcass of the union. An attempted August 1991 coup and the aftermath of the attempted coup was the end of the Soviet Union. Political “gridlock” in today’s America is not even in the same ballpark as this type of disunion. America’s fiscal reality today does not compare to the financial situation the Soviet Union found itself at the end of the 80s. Present politics in America are not the result of decades of artificial demand, nor is it the result of governance through kleptocracy. The Soviet Union was a kleptocracy that rivals any organized crime family in history.
In the mid-80s, the Soviet Union spent 16% of GDP on their military. In 1988, the Soviets spent $33 billion on defense. Today, Russia and the other Soviet Republics collectively expend approximately 2.5% of GDP. In 2009, the United States spent approximately $687 billion on defense which was 4.7% of GDP. The comparison of the Soviets’ 16% in mid-80s to America’s 4.7% today is misleading and is a broad stretch by any comparison. I am not, however, advocating a continued increase of U.S. military spending. Forecasting future military threats is important, and there is a need to ensure that America is capable of countering these future threats. However, until there is another country that can get remotely close to the power projection capabilities of the U.S., I feel there is no need to fill the pockets of defense contractors. China has resorted to buying four used aircraft carrier landing systems from Russia, but there is disagreement in whether or not these “carriers” are to be put to sea or used as a model for the development of their own carrier.
I do agree, however, with Ignatius’ take on GOP rhetoric about America’s strength. Unilateral expeditionary warfare mired American military forces in present day Iraq for nearly ten years. Neoconservative desires for world-changing wars resulted in Iraq facing an internal struggle and civil war. This bullshit about the U.S. going it alone is nothing more than silverback gorilla chest thumping. Talk of American exceptionalism may work in the voting booth but it doesn’t work in the realpolitik world of international affairs.
Finally, Brzezinski’s Afghanistan comparison seems tenuous at best. It is true that both countries got involved in fighting a mixed bag of tribal and religious groups. The Soviet Union main purpose of intervention was to support a communist Afghan government. At the time, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan shared a border along which is now the borders of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan. The United States initial intervention was in response to the Taliban’s support of al-Qaeda. U.S. intervention today is now Pottery Barn policy: you break it, you buy it. Obviously, there are lessons that America has and should learn from the Soviet intervention, but American policymakers both within the Bush and Obama administrations didn’t and don’t seem interested in establishing a puppet state. The Soviets wanted a friendly and mailable neighbor, the U.S. wants to fix what it broke.
Discipline and strength are important factors in men’s lives and the actions of nations. Neither one is easy and both are the result of experience. Discipline is necessary to ensure that one doesn’t flex strength in an inappropriate or vain manner. My suggestion to the GOP nomination candidates: get some discipline over your mouth. Also one should never follow a bear over the mountain, but it is too late to fix that.
1. Veterans love their ball caps.
2. We each had a newspaper with us, but neither one of got much reading done since we decided to talk instead.
3. I pick my nose when no one is looking.
4. Bet the National War College Class of 2012 is reading excerpts from this book.
5. North Korea? Yemen? I’m still trying to figure out who really are America’s rivals.
6. Newt calls the Palestinians an “invented” people who don’t deserve a state.