Economists like to talk about Japan’s lost decade – two decades actually – when no bright fiscal or monetary policy ideas could jumpstart an economy that was stuck on slow, or stalled. There were all sorts of ways to look at this – the absolutely wrong response to an asset bubble bursting, a classic liquidity trap, a demographic disaster caused by their massive aging population that slowed down or retired and started collecting what their lifetime of work had earned them, or too much respect for tradition, or drinking too much green tea, or those new versions of the old Godzilla movies. It doesn’t matter. Their economy was stuck in an endless loop of slow growth, or no real growth, and whatever they’d been doing we’d better not do. Conservative economists would say we should stop all intervention in the economy, end regulation of everything and get rid of all the laws against fraud and such – the Japanese government had foolishly tried to fix something the market would fix itself – and their Keynesian counterparts would say no, borrow a bit more now to create programs to get everyone working again, at anything at all, to inject liquidity into the system, with people buying stuff again, and others thus selling stuff again, and pay back what was borrowed when the economy is humming again – and tighten up regulation to make another asset bubble impossible, unless some shady executives wanted to go to jail. Sure, it was all self-serving, but everyone agreed on one thing – the last thing you want is a lost decade or two.
That made it easy to pick on Japan, as a nation that got it all wrong and lost all those many years doing useless crap that fixed nothing, but then we did the same. It’s just that it has nothing to do with economic policy. It was geopolitics. We also lost a decade doing useless crap that fixed nothing. In response to those September 11 attacks more than a decade ago, we invaded and pretty much took over Afghanistan, to rid that place of the Taliban and that guy they’d hosted, Osama bin Laden, who had said he had been the one behind what happened. We took care of the Taliban, more or less, and nurtured a new if somewhat flaky government that would not let the Taliban run things again, hosting al-Qaeda again, but we didn’t get Osama bin Laden. He’d slipped away, but by then we were off to Iraq anyway, because of those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had – which he didn’t have – and because Iraq was a state sponsor of terrorism – even if that was a matter of their support for the PLO and other enemies of Israel and al-Qaeda had long despised Saddam Hussein for being too damned secular. George Bush was finally forced to admit that Saddam Hussein didn’t have anything at all to do with the September 11 attacks, but terrorism is terrorism, right?
That wasn’t going to fly – we’d lost years there by then, and far too many lives, and spent far too much money – so we shifted to talk about how the point had always been to build a Jeffersonian secular democracy in Iraq, as an example to the region, to show everyone over there the virtues of the American Way in the New American Century that the neoconservatives said was well underway. You see, it had been a demonstration project all along. Didn’t you know that? All we had to do was tamp down the Sunni-Shiite civil war that had exploded once we had settled in, and George Bush’s “surge” would take care of that – thirty thousand addition troops to stop the internecine violence, to give both sides “breathing room” to work out their differences and form a sensible inclusive government.
That didn’t work. The Bush administration finally just set a firm date for us to leave, and carefully negotiated a status of forces agreement, to keep enough of our troops in Iraq to keep al-Qaeda types from setting up shop there – but the Malaki government refused to sign that agreement and told us to just go away. They told Obama they just wouldn’t sign the Bush agreement – their own parliament would never ratify it – and we left. We really had no choice, because we had said they were now a sovereign nation and all – and now Iraq is a sovereign nation run by a Shiite strongman, Malaki, as opposed to a Sunni strongman, Saddam Hussein, and closely aligned with their two Shiite neighbors, Iran and Syria, our current nemesis-twins in the region. The major Sunni power in the region, Saudi Arabia, is infuriated, and the internal Sunni-Shiite civil war still rages on in Iraq too. That’s what we had to show for eight years there – not quite a lost decade, but close enough. It was many years of doing deadly useless crap that fixed nothing. At least in Japan no one died.
At least Osama bin Laden died. We got him, far too late, and curiously, without a major war and occupation. A small team slipped into Pakistan and shot him dead, not that it mattered that Obama did what George Bush had vowed that he, George Bush, would do. By then Osama bin Laden didn’t matter. Al-Qaeda had become a loose affiliation of independently owned and operated franchises, or really, a trademark appropriated by all sorts of terrorists organizations calling themselves Al-Qaeda in This or Al-Qaeda in That. Osama bin Laden wasn’t even a figurehead by then. The thing had metastasized. We lost a decade there. Japan’s got nothing on us.
All that’s left now is waste management:
President Barack Obama told Hamid Karzai that he is now planning for a full US troop withdrawal because of the Afghan leader’s repeated refusal to sign a security pact. But in a rare telephone call with President Karzai, Obama also held out the possibility of agreeing a post-2014 training and anti-terror mission with the next government in Kabul.
The US threat was the latest twist in a long political struggle with Karzai, who appears intent on infuriating Washington until the day he leaves office, sometime after elections in April. The Obama administration said its preferred option is to leave behind a residual US force when its combat teams depart Afghanistan after America’s longest war at the end of this year. But it will not do so without legal protections enshrined in the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) agreed between the two governments, which Karzai will not endorse.
“President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning,” a White House statement said, detailing the call.
“Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.”
Karzai isn’t going to sign any agreement. The local politics won’t allow it. He’d be a dead man. Those folks never wanted us there in the first place. Karzai will let his successors worry about such things, but that leaves us in an untenable position. Obama rang up the Pentagon. Dust off those total-withdrawal plans, guys. It’s a waste management thing, and Karzai is quite a pip:
The row over the BSA is the latest lurch in the deteriorating relationship between Washington and the mercurial Karzai, who was once seen as a savior after the toppling of the Taliban but is now viewed as unreliable. Recently, Karzai’s release of 65 alleged Taliban fighters and warning to Washington to stop “harassing” his judicial authorities further alienated US officials.
Well, yeah – we showed up there, in force, just about a decade ago, to rid the place of the Taliban, and then there’s this minor note from ABC News:
The so-called “zero option” – the complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by year’s end – could result in a civil war and a mass desertion of Afghan security forces, a senior Pakistani official warned Tuesday. … The official considers Afghanistan’s security forces to be so weak that he fears a full U.S. troop withdrawal could lead 30 percent of Afghanistan’s 352,000 security forces to desert.
That has their next door neighbor worried:
The senior Pakistani official indicated that a full withdrawal of U.S. troops could also have “drastic effects” inside Pakistan as it could lead to a spillover of terrorist activity. Pakistan also fears that renewed violence inside Afghanistan could trigger a new refugee crisis, with the official estimating that as many as 2 million refugees could flood into Pakistan, which is already home to 2.5 million Afghan refugees.
This wasn’t a lost decade. We made things worse, and maybe it’s time to rethink what we’ve been doing. One lost decade is enough. Maybe the idea of fixing the world – one or two trouble-spots at a time, through a massive shock-and-awe invasion followed by a long occupation – isn’t the best way to fix the world. Japan couldn’t break out of their self-generated economic trap, but maybe we can break out of our self-generated geopolitical trap. That’s what the new defense budget is about – far fewer troops and far more gizmos and special operations teams, and cyber-warfare efforts. Abandon the idea of having enough troops to fight two major wars on two different continents simultaneously – at lower troop levels you won’t be tempted to fall into that useless foolishness. Don’t be fooled, however. As James Joyner explains here in some detail, Secretary of Defense Hagel is asking for MORE money than Congress intended – just not for troops. He doesn’t want another lost decade, and the real issue now is China. The Middle East is as fixed as it’s going to be fixed, at least by us.
Of course, this infuriated Dick Cheney:
They peddle this line that now we’re going to pivot to Asia, but they’ve never justified it. And I think the whole thing is not driven by any change in world circumstances, it is driven by budget considerations. He would much rather spend the money on food stamps than he would on a strong military or support for our troops.
The “he” here is Barack Obama, who in the year or two before he was first elected president, famously said that he wasn’t opposed to all wars, just dumb wars, like the Iraq War – and that war was Cheney’s war as much as it was anyone’s. Cheney thinks nothing was lost here, there was no lost decade – and now Obama wants to undo it all, and spend all that money on food stamps for lazy bums who refuse to work.
This, in turn, infuriates Andrew Sullivan:
So a former vice-president is out there, saying the president prefers to spend money on food stamps than on “support for our troops.” He could have made an argument why he thinks we should maintain the stratospheric levels of defense spending that have been in place since 9/11; he could have argued that the US needs to maintain the ability to fight two major land wars simultaneously in perpetuity. He could have said a lot of things. But he decided to accuse the commander-in-chief of not supporting the troops and actually wanting to keep people in poverty. There is this belief out there that Republican extremism comes from the base and not the elites. But Cheney proves otherwise.
Now we get the extreme religious liberty bills across the country that are clearly a function of gay panic among fundamentalists and a decision to capitalize on it for electoral gain; we have a Republican lobbyist pulling a publicity stunt by drafting a law to ban gay players from the NFL; we have a state senator, using sarcasm in such a way as to describe mothers as “hosts” of unborn children; we have gubernatorial candidates proudly campaigning with a man who called the president a “subhuman mongrel”; and the list goes on and on…
This is beyond nutty, and Sullivan just doesn’t get the part about the righteousness of major war:
I’ve tried at times in my head to engage the arguments, and have consistently found myself at a loss. It’s not the arguments for this or that military or diplomatic intervention that stump me. It’s the entire premise behind them.
At times, I’ve put it down to a very different response to the Iraq War. Many of these voices decrying Obama’s restraint in the face of evil or distant conflict have not drawn the same lessons I did from that defining episode in American foreign policy in the 21st Century. I saw that war as an almost text-book refutation of the logic behind US intervention in this century. The Iraqis were not the equivalent of Poles in 1989. They were deeply conflicted about US intervention and Western liberalism and came to despise the occupying power. The US was not the exemplar of liberal democracy that it was in the Cold War. It was a belligerent state, initiating Israel-style pre-emptive wars, and using torture as its primary intelligence-gathering weapon. Its military did not defeat an enemy without firing a shot, as with the end-game of the Soviet Union; it failed to defeat an enemy while unloading every piece of military “shock and awe” upon it. A paradigm was shattered for me – and shattered by plain reality. A realist is a neocon mugged by history.
But the more I ponder this, the more I wonder if it isn’t also rooted in an entirely different response to the end of the Cold War as well.
Maybe that’s the problem:
For me, the fight against Communism was not a fight against Russia. They were separate entities; one was a global, expansionist ideology, capable of intervening across the planet; the other was a ruined but still proud regional power. Indeed, if we were to prevent a return to Communist norms, I believed we should expect Russia to flex some muscles in its area of influence, for the Orthodox church to return as some sort of cultural unifier, for Russia to return to, well, being Russia, with some measure of self-respect. Magnanimity in victory was a Churchillian lesson I took to heart. I hoped – and hope – for more, but came to understand much more vividly what I had unforgivably forgotten after 9/11 – the perils of trying to force democratic advance in alien cultures and polities.
For me, the end of the Cold War was a blessed permission to return to “normal”. And “normal” meant a defense of national interests and no countervailing ideological crusade of the kind the Communist world demanded. In time, it seems to me that the basic and intuitive foreign policy for the US would return to what it had been before the global ideological warfare against totalitarianism from the 1940s to the 1980s. The US would become again an engaged ally, a protector of global peace, but would return to the blessed state of existing between two vast oceans and two friendly neighbors. The idea of global hegemony – so alien to the vision of the Founders – would not appeal for long, at least outside the Jacksonian South. As Islamist terror traumatized us on 9/11, however, I reverted almost reflexively to the Cold War mindset – as did large numbers of Americans. It was the rubric we understood; and defining Islamism as the new totalitarianism helped dispel what then appeared as the delusions of the 1990s, when peace and prosperity seemed to indicate an “end of history”, in Frank Fukuyama’s grossly misunderstood and still brilliantly incisive essay.
From the perspective of 2014, however, the delusions seem to have been far more profound in the first decade of the 21st Century than in the last decade of the 20th. The conflation of Islamism with Communism was far too glib – not least because the former was clearly a reactionary response to modernity, while the latter claimed to be modernity’s logical future; and the latter commanded a vast military machine, while the former had a bunch of religious nutcases with box-cutters. And the attempt to use neo-colonial military force to fight Islamism was clearly doomed to produce yet more Islamists – as the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions proved definitively.
Sullivan then points to the polling – Americans get it now. We had our lost decade. Support for both wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, collapsed for good reason:
Military power can achieve less and, more importantly, its success or failure in any specific context matters less. Obama’s restraint is not weakness; and trying to match Putin’s militarist bluster is a mug’s game. The most important thing the president says about Iran is not the need to prevent its developing an operational nuclear weapon, but the articulation of the truth that, compared with America’s global enemies in the past, Iran is a puny power, a failing economy, and a bankrupt ideology. Yes it can still do damage, and we should do our best to restrain it as best we can. But a full-scale war to disarm it? The costs would so vastly exceed the tiny benefits that you really have to be stuck in 1984 to contemplate it. We had the first iteration of this debate in 2008 – between the 20th Century nostalgic, John McCain, and the 21st Century realist, Barack Obama. And Obama won. And won again…
That verdict has not yet changed – and for good reason. What lies ahead is simply the task of resisting some primal impulse to return to the Cold War mindset. Which is what, I’d argue, Chuck Hagel’s plans for slimming the military are really all about.
Yeah, sure, but then there’s Bill Kristol:
Kiev is ablaze. Syria is a killing field. The Iranian mullahs aren’t giving up their nuclear weapons capability, and other regimes in the Middle East are preparing to acquire their own. Al Qaeda is making gains and is probably stronger than ever. China and Russia throw their weight around, while our allies shudder and squabble.
Why is this happening? Because the United States is in retreat! What is the Obama administration’s response to these events? Further retreat!
PM Carpenter is probably right to call this “a magnificent send-up to flamboyant despair and rhetorical folderol“:
Regional history needn’t be consulted, complexities needn’t be pondered, alternatives needn’t be explored. All trouble spots can be explained by America’s “retreat” in confronting what Kristol obliquely calls the world’s “barbarians” – a perilous legacy, he warns us as well, which is at our gates: “Rome fell not to the majestic Hannibal but to groups of unimpressive barbarians.” You might think Rome fell because of a bloated military complex that had extended its imperial borders beyond both affordability and defensibility – by which point those “unimpressive barbarians” were indeed remarkably impressive – but you would only be committing the error of consulting history.
Michael Brendan Dougherty adds this:
The idea that America is in retreat is hysterical gibberish. It can only be made plausible if one takes the immediate years after 2001 as the normal state of American foreign policy, or if you consider the emergence of any regional power (whether it be Iran or Russia) a dire threat. The U.S. still maintains 20 large foreign military bases around the globe, including some 70,000 troops stationed throughout Europe. Any diminishment of our war-footing initiated by the Obama administration over his last years in office will leave America far and away the largest military force on the globe, better equipped and more easily deployed than any of its rivals.
Daniel Larison chimes in:
It is absurd to pin these events on American “retreat,” since for the most part this isn’t even happening. So-called U.S. “retreat” didn’t cause any of these things, and all of them would probably still be happening whether the U.S. was “retreating” or “advancing.” The U.S. is responsible for the effects of its own actions and policies, and to a lesser extent the actions of its allies and clients that it supports, but it isn’t responsible for what authoritarian and illiberal regimes do inside their own countries, and for the most part it can’t be held responsible for how other major powers behave.
Larison and Carpenter are onto something here. We lost a decade – actually a bit more since this nonsense began in 2001 – doing useless crap that fixed nothing. But who’s counting? Japan’s lost decade lasted two decades. The point is to stop doing useless crap that fixes nothing, and manage the waste from the odd things that were done, and then move on. Japan is now doing just that – so maybe we can do the same thing.