Kori Schake

Kori Schake

Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She is also Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Her areas of research interest are national security strategy, the effective use of military force, and European politics.

Back to the (Uncertain) Future

President Obama has not taken our country’s precarious debt situation seriously. When forced by Congress to revise his budget earlier this year, Defense was the only department targeted for cuts. Last summer’s Budget Control Act legislated further reductions for this year’s budget and portends even more significant cuts in the out years of the coming decade. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently unveiled a sensible set of choices for the coming year, but unfortunately failed to account for hundreds of billions of dollars that still must be found under the terms of last summer’s legislation. Unless they provide a better blueprint for spending, across-the-board cuts will come into effect in January 2013. And, as Panetta himself has said, not just the budget choices but the entire Pentagon strategy would collapse with any further cuts.

In addition to producing a budget willfully ignorant of further cuts, the White House has avoided any serious discussion of the hazards of cutting spending this deeply. The president is trying to have it both ways, cutting defense while pretending there is no risk associated with the cuts. At his Pentagon press conference in January, Obama said that “yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know—the United States is going to maintain our military superiority.” But neither he nor Panetta has produced a plan that gives credence to the claim.

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Slow waltz on Syria

The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, reported to the Security Council yesterday that the government of Bashir al-Assad has agreed to a cease-fire commencing April 10th. Annan also reported there has been no abatement of the violence by the government of Syria against its citizens. Assad’s government is estimated by the U.N. to have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, when Syrians began demanding the rights we Americans consider universal.

In that year, the Obama administration has gingerly moved away from defending Bashir al-Assad. When thousands of people had already been victims of murder by their own government in Syria, Secretary of State Clinton described Assad as a "reformer" who should be supported by the United States. Astonishingly, she contrasted him with Arab despots we supported protests against.

While Obama administration policy has improved somewhat with the advance of revolutions in the Middle East, it continues to chase rather than positively affect change. Our president now concedes that Assad should step down, but endorses a U.N. peace plan that would leave the murderer of nine thousand in power. Moreover, the Obama administration considers itself restricted from intervening in Syria because Vladimir Putin shields a fellow despot with Russia’s vote in the U.N. Security Council.

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It’s been a discouraging several weeks in the Afghan war, but we absolutely should not speed the pace of our withdrawal. All of the evidence suggests that if we walk away from Afghanistan without securing it, terrorists will return it to what it was in 2000 (or worse), their narratives about American decadence will be reinforced, and America’s trustworthiness as a partner to struggling societies will be badly compromised.

Counterinsurgency wars are difficult to win: they take a long time, rely on the indigenous government to develop the capacity to achieve our aims, and on our ability to persuade a war-ravaged society that we are better than our enemies — to trust us and not them. It’s difficult to see progress even when it’s occurring. But there’s a reason our enemies force us to fight this way: if they fought to our strengths, they would lose decisively and quickly. The
only way the states and organizations we are worried about can defeat us is by eroding our will to prosecute the war. And they are currently succeeding.

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NATO’s Doing Better Than We Think

Senators McCain and Shaheen hosted an event on Capitol Hill recently to discuss NATO issues in preparation for next month’s NATO summit meeting.  Here’s my statement from the record:

One of the very best historians of the NATO Alliance, Stanley Sloan, used to say that the most predictable refrain in the West was that NATO is in crisis.  Because persuading ourselves that the Alliance is in crisis is how we motivate ourselves to fix problems that emerge.  And problems always emerge, not because NATO is in crisis, but because the nature of the threats we address changes with time, and the partnership we have forged in NATO is deep and enduring.  NATO has become the means by which the twenty eight countries that constitute its membership manage their collective security.

Yes, NATO has shortcomings — they are numerous.  It fails to address many security problems.  Currently it is avoiding tackling cyber threats, even though a NATO ally has been the victim of a cyber attack.  It talks too little about emergent threats like Iran.  It has only barely overcome the tendency to indulge in theoretical debates the medieval Catholic church would marvel at for pointlessness.  It has not prevented the slide in defense spending by most of its members.

But that does not mean NATO is in crisis, going out of business, in desperate need of a new formula for burdensharing, or irrelevant.  Because the basic NATO bargain remains sound: the United States wants Europe secure and Europe wants American involvement in its security.  It was true in 1949, and it is true now.

In fact, the NATO bargain has dramatically expanded to the benefit of the United States in the past twenty years.  With the end of the Cold War many on both sides of the Atlantic questioned whether NATO remained necessary.  The German government seemed willing to trade its NATO membership for reunification, the French eager to replace NATO with a solely European defense, the Russians ambitious to parallel the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact with removing the U.S. from Europe.

But instead of dissolving, NATO Allies persuaded themselves their security against all threats, not just the Soviet threat, was the purpose of the Alliance.  This expansion of the mandate was clearly beyond the original intent of the Washington Treaty.  The framers that would be most surprised by today’s NATO would be its American fathers.  The treaty describes the area of application because the U.S. refused to underwrite the colonial claims of its European allies.  We not only refused in principle, we refused in practice: President Eisenhower materially impeded Britain and France’s effort in the 1956 Suez war.

Wars in the Balkans were the first test of NATO’s broader vision of its security.  The Alliance passed, if just barely: the time we took persuading ourselves to intervene allowed brutality to take hold in the unraveling of Yugoslavia, the means by which we intervened was subject to ideological rigidities that reduced our military effectiveness and exasperated our politicians with each other.  But the Alliance was working through an understanding of a whole new kind of mission set, determining whether and how the practices that govern NATO would be applied beyond the NATO area.  Europeans seemed to predominantly want subjugation of NATO to other international institutions; the U.S. questioned why the influence Europeans have over the U.S. in NATO should be extended to wars that would not be fought on the territory of European countries.

For all the acrimony of those debates, the Alliance did negotiate its way through to a sensible and politically stable new pattern of cooperation.  NATO got past the doctrinal impasse over whether NATO was “AN essential pillar of European security” or “THE essential pillar of European security.”  Foolish as it sounds, the Alliance spent six months on that issue when it crafted its 1991 Alliance Strategic Concept.  But tiresome debates on these kinds of issues are the way NATO builds a collective approach to problems.  That actually is what NATO does.  And it’s incredibly important, because those internal negotiations are what make our political commitments in NATO durable.  We argue each other to a common understanding.

If the framers would be surprised by the expansion of NATO’s mandate, they would be deeply gratified that the result of the new mandate would be Europeans allies demonstrating their willingness to defend the territory of the U.S. and Canada, and fight alongside us in wars far beyond Europe.  They would be amazed to know the first invocation of NATO’s Article 5 guarantee that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all came in response to an attack on the United States.

NATO’s framers were signing up to commit American power to defend Europe; they had no real expectation that European military forces would be called on to defend the United States.  And yet, they did.  Not only did NATO invoke its mutual defense clause on September 12th, NATO countries also led the effort to bring other countries and international institutions into alignment supporting the United States, at a time when the American government was in shock and focused on preventing other attacks.  That, too, is an important benefit for the United States of the NATO alliance: our allies see what is in our interests even when we might not, and they work to help us.

Surely that help would come from some, even from many, NATO allies bilaterally.  For the U.S., it is often easier to work bilaterally, especially when considering military action beyond Europe.  We have military commands organized and involved in operations all over the world, with experience working closely with the countries in which operations occur.  To suggest (as many NATO advocates did in 2001) that a war in Afghanistan should be run by the European commander strikes Americans a unreasonable.  But it is illustrative that ten years into the war in Afghanistan, the ISAF commander is the NATO commander, it is NATO allies that remain the main force contributors, it is NATO governments that hold the strategy together when setbacks occur or domestic politics buffet a contributing country, it is NATO’s integrated military command that ensures contributing forces have the organization and training and equipment to be interoperable.

One last advantage of NATO is that it provides a legitimating stamp of approval for the use of military force.  We disagree both among Allies and within governments about the need for legitimation — the Obama Administration is currently in hot water with this legislative body about its stated belief that approval from international institutions is necessary but approval from Congress is not — but it is clearly preferable to have an institutional mandate where possible.  And for Americans, having NATO allies agree to fight alongside us probably matters more than approval from any other international organization.  We are less persuaded than other countries that the United Nations is virtuous; we know NATO is because it is comprised of democratic governments whose values as well as their interests drive their policies, and both their values and their interests are in large measure aligned with our own.

That is why NATO isn’t actually in crisis, why it doesn’t really matter what the Chicago summit concludes about “smart defense” or expanding membership or command restructuring or negotiating proposals for limiting tactical nuclear weapons.  We should do those things, of course.  They are the sinew of Alliance management, the continual adjustment of our activity to the threats and opportunities we face.  But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that NATO is actually doing very well.  Prospering, even.  It has made the crucial realignment to the end of the Cold War and established a strong foundation for the future of security cooperation and operational effectiveness among its members.

To conclude, I’d like to briefly discuss two areas likely to get significant attention at the summit: the capability gap, and nuclear forces.  In both areas over-heated rhetoric has the potential to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Capability Gap 

We in NATO spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the capability gap between the military forces of our European allies and those of the United States.  It’s a serious subject, cause of difficulties in functional interoperability and risk sharing.  Interoperability is always a challenge.  But in our concern about the interoperability gap between Europe and the United States, we often overlook an even more important capability gap: that between Europe and any country our allies would be fighting against.  That is the more important comparison.  Our NATO allies have a war winning advantage against anyone they would conceivably fight.

They may not be able to fight wars in the ways we would fight them.  And these differences have consequences for the risk allies run, both individually and collectively. But we are very near persuading ourselves that nothing can be done unless it is done the way American military forces would, and that is both wrong and dangerous.

Libya operations exemplifies this: in an operation in which the US did not want to lead or play a major role, it fired nearly all of the cruise missiles that destroyed Libya’s air defenses in advance of allied strike missions, provided  the great majority of the aerial tankers and nearly all of the surveillance and electronic warfare elements on which allied flights depended, flew 25 per cent of all sorties, rushed precision munitions to allies, and loaned officers trained at identifying military targets to NATO headquarters.

Without American support, the Libya operation could not have been fought in the way that it was; but that does not mean that it could not have been fought at all. Can anyone really doubt that the military forces of Britain, France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, and Romania could force the capitulation of a dictator who was fighting a domestic insurrection?  Moammar Gadhafi spent $1 billion a year on his military, most of that badly; Britain alone spends $45 billion and well.

Twenty years of fretting about capability gaps is persuading us that Europe can do little militarily without that United States, and that is fundamentally untrue.  It is also corrosive to the willingness of Europeans to use military force.  The United States needs capable European allies.  We have capable European allies.  Denigrating their ability to fight affects their willingness to fight.  There are an awful lot of problems on the horizon that military force will be important in contending with, and the United States should be encouraging our European allies and setting them up to be successful.

Nuclear Forces

There is a strong tendency to avoid discussing nuclear weapons and their role in NATO strategy.  Political leaders in both Europe and the United States hesitate to argue the need for use of weapons that devastate large areas, kill indiscriminately, and raise difficult questions of proportionality.  But NATO has a great story to tell about its management of nuclear strategy and forces.  Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has unilaterally reduced its nuclear weapons by 90%.  It has had three rounds of reviewing its strategy, and in each instance reaffirmed the importance of nuclear deterrence in preventing war.  In the past two years, NATO government have persuaded themselves anew of the importance of NATO allies sharing in the risks associated with nuclear missions and the stationing of nuclear forces in Europe.

The Russians maintain a stockpile of deliverable tactical nuclear weapons more than ten times NATO’s, and continue to deploy those weapons predominantly west of the Ural Mountains.  Their military doctrine increasingly emphasizes nuclear weapons as a substitute for the crumbling capability of their conventional military forces, and they are unresponsive to overtures for negotiated reductions and increased transparency.  While Russia is no longer the main driver of NATO defense plans and activity, the Alliance yet has work to do on old-fashioned Article 5 threats like Russian nuclear weapons because Russia’s truculence continues to be a threat to us all.

Politics as Policy

Michele Flournoy’s extravagant campaign spin on the president’s foreign policy is politics, not policy, which inclines me against replying. But the outsize claims the campaign is attempting to peddle that America is “more secure, safer and more respected” deserve to be tested. The president’s record is not nearly as good as this campaign puffery suggests, nor is it as thoroughly bad as his most boisterous critics claim, in part because the Pentagon has been effective in shaping policy on the war in Afghanistan and other key areas. Some of the credit for that is due to Michele herself, who handled her portfolio is a creditable way. But Michele Flournoy the policymaker is much more credible than Flournoy the campaign spinner.

First and foremost, it merits remembering that the counter-terrorism policies that made America safer are almost in their entirety policies that Barack Obama opposed in the Senate and campaigned against when running for president: long-term detention of terrorists, trial by military tribunal, support for the Patriot Act, Executive Authority to kill American citizens engaged in terrorism. Where he sought to change those policies, such as closing Guantanamo or prosecuting intelligence agents for torture, he was prevented by the Congress from doing so.

Second, the administration’s claim of the president’s unique courage in approving the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed is deeply unfair to President Bush. Can they really believe their predecessor, who bears the scars of having been in command during the attacks of September 11th, would not have made the same decision? It is uncharitable in the extreme, especially for a politician who claimed he would return civility to our public life.

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It’s been an alarming few weeks for the Afghan war: American servicemembers videotaped disrespecting Afghan corpses, coalition forces assassinated by Afghan National Security Forces, American servicemembers burning Quran provoking deadly Afghan riots, an American shamefully killing Afghan civilians, and President Karzai demanding Coalition forces be confined to bases. Given all these events, Americans can be forgiven for doubting we are making any progress in the war effort, or that the mission in Afghanistan is worth what we are paying for it in lives, effort, and money. Which makes it all the more meritorious that President Obama and his national security team have not used these events to rush for the exits.  It is easy to imagine the president reprising his Iraq end game: summoning a stentorian tone and explaining that we can’t want this more than Afghans do, that the time has come to give Afghans the opportunity to determine their own future, etc. Thankfully, he did not. Because the mission in Afghanistan really does matter, and difficult as it is, remains worth the effort. The United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan not simply to retaliate for an attack on our own country, but to ensure the territory of Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist training ground and operating base. Our military operations have forced al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations to focus on their survival, which diminishes their attention to plotting, training for, and conducting attacks. There should be no doubt that the objectives of these groups remain deadly and directed at us. Continue reading Kori Schake…

(photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza)

A hugely consequential development in the Obama Administration’s “sanctions only” strategy for Iran has been Saudi Arabia’s assurance to purchasers of Iran’s oil that Saudi — the only country with the capacity to do so — would meet all calls for supply.  That has given buyers the confidence to forego contracts with Iran knowing their needs will be met.

The Saudi pledge was essential in persuading EU countries to commit to shifting away from Iranian oil purchases.  Europeans are among the largest purchasers of Iranian oil, and the biggest purchasers are Europe’s shakiest economies.  Even with their economic worries and the deadline for giving up Iranian oil not kicking in until June, Italy has already reduced its purchases by 12% and Spain by 37%.

But Saudi Arabia’s oil minister appeared to be drawing back from their substitution pledge, saying, according to the Wall Street Journal, that the kingdom will respond to its customers’ demands for more oil, but “it doesn’t want to get involved in the politics behind the sanctions.”

What accounts for the recalibration of Saudi Arabia’s position on Iran?  News reporting has focused on posturing in advance of a producers meeting that includes Iran at which quotas will be renegotiated, but that is an unlikely precipitator.  The Saudis are pretty far down the road of supporting both sanctions and the threat of military force against Iran (recall the memorable leak from U.S. diplomatic documents in which the Saudis tell us to “cut the head off the snake.”)

It seems likelier an incidence of timing in the wake of President Obama’s declaration to American-Israeli Political Action Committee that U.S. policy will not settle for containing a nuclear Iran.  The President’s earlier basketball court tough talk that he doesn’t bluff wasn’t adequate to dispel concern that has bluffing about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and so at the AIPAC meeting he publicly disavowed the policy option favored by many in his administration, and many of his supporters outside it, who argue that Iran can be contained as a nuclear-armed Soviet Union was contained, as a nuclear-armed China is contained, as a nuclear-armed North Korea is being contained, as a nuclear-armed Pakistan is being contained.

That President Obama felt the need to rule out acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran is not at variance with Saudi policy.  But the Saudis may be getting uncomfortable at the extent to which talk of Iran is a tense and visible U.S.-Israeli dialogue.  More than once the Saudis (and other Arab states) have suggested they would look the other way if Israel were to attack the Iranian nuclear program.  But it is significant that they are beginning to hedge their political support even for the sanctions regime.  We may be reaching the limit of what the Saudis are willing to sign up for, and that will place significant restrictions on the Administration’s current strategy.

(photo credit: A. Davey)

Crying Wolf

In the course of Congressional testimony this week supporting the Obama administration’s $525 billion defense spending request for FY 2013, the Pentagon leadership was dire about the consequences of any further cuts to defense. In particular, Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey are seeking to prevent the law going into effect that would require an additional $500 billion to be cut across the coming decade.

The Pentagon leadership professes itself fine with this year’s cuts. Panetta has said "the United States military will remain capable across the spectrum. We will continue to conduct a complex set of missions ranging from counterterrorism, ranging from countering weapons of mass destruction, to maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. We will be fully prepared to protect our interests, defend our homeland and support civil authorities." General Dempsey fully endorsed the new guidance. Yet they both insisted no further cuts were possible without grave damage to our national security.

In seeking to persuade members of Congress to repudiate the 2011 Budget Control Act that established the topline spending levels, Panetta’s tactic was to shame: "We have made no plans for sequester because it’s a nutty formula, and it’s goofy to begin with, and it’s not something, frankly, that anybody who is responsible ought to put into effect." To be clear, he is declining to comply with the law.

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A Good Deal, Perhaps

North Korea surprisingly has agreed to stop enriching uranium, not to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, and to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to return to the country.  In return, the U.S. has agreed not to advocate the overthrow of the North Korean government and to deliver 240,000 tons of food aid.  This has the makings of a good deal, if the North Koreans comply.

It is dissatisfying to hold off calling for the overthrow of one of the world’s most repressive governments.  But the United States clearly has no intention of overthrowing the North Korean government.  To the contrary, the last three U.S. administrations held their breath and did nothing while the venal dynasty of the North built and tested nuclear weapons, disseminated their knowledge and parts and delivery systems and laboratories to countries like Pakistan and Syria.

That’s even before getting to the repugnancy of North Korea starving and removing any vestige of human rights from its own people, provoking South Korea with military aggression, kidnapping South Koreans and Japanese.  Still, there has been no indication across the past fifteen years that the United States would do anything that might provoke a collapse.

Since we clearly aren’t interested in turning the screws on the North Korean government, a deal that reduces the suffering of the North Korean people and gains some information on — and even possible control over — their nuclear programs is worth having.

But North Korea is a serial violator of agreements.  Their pattern under Kim Jong Il (predecessor of the current leader) was to provoke an international crisis and then barter away the provocation they had changed the status quo with, so that every deal gave them a little more money or food for returning to the status quo.  Like father like son may yet prove true.

What does the North Korean deal tell us?  Where this most foreign and isolated country is concerned, it is almost impossible to know.  It could mean the Great Successor, in power less than two months, is firmly in control of the security apparatus.  Or it could mean the exact opposite: it acted while he was too new to be in control.  Or he may never gain control but instead be a puppet shielding from view the forces making decisions.

It could mean the leadership feared they could not control public outrage over food shortages.  Or — more likely — there were rumblings from the military about too little food even for them (you will recall the Great Successor’s first act was to declare the military had first priority on food).  Or it could mean Kim Jong Un is a new kind of North Korean leader, genuinely interested in ruling his country beneficently.

It could mean the North Koreans no longer value nuclear weapons.  Or it could mean their nuclear arsenal is now so large they have concluded there is no need for further uranium processing.  It could mean they intend to diversify their economy away from proliferation of missiles and nuclear components as their sole export.  Or it could mean they have diversified their program sufficiently that allowing inspectors into the facility at Yongbyon is no constraint on their enrichment activity elsewhere.  It could mean they have been priced out of the proliferation market.  Or it could mean non-proliferation regimes and financial tracking are tight enough to squeeze them beyond even their profit margin.

The agreement was preceded by weeks of nasty propaganda about South Korea.  That could indicate North Korea’s leadership was shoring up its anti-South credentials before compromising on its nuclear program.  Or it could mean they are seeking to separate us from South Korea, increasing the danger to our long-standing ally in the south.

The talks were held in Beijing, the Chinese midwifing this deal.  That could illustrate the influence of China’s diplomacy, delivering to us something we could not achieve for ourselves these past ten years.  Or it could illustrate the limits of China’s influence, if the North Koreans crave our acceptance or need our material assistance.  It may show growing tensions in the Chinese-North Korean alliance that Pyongyang, the Chinese incapable or unwilling to support them.  Or it may show growing trust that Kim Jong Un trusted Beijing enough to make this deal with us.

The truth is that we just don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

(photo credit: Karl Baron)