The Closet Moderate: August 2009

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Robert Gates Regulates

So, before I use the termination of the F-22 program to talk about larger issues related to defense procurement, I'd like to ask our readership how many F-15s they think have been shot down, in total.


That's right, nobody has ever managed to so much as shoot the wing off a F-15 jet. Our air superiority is so complete that referring to it as "superiority" seems like something of a misnomer. It's like priding yourself on being the best singer in a world of mutes, or being the best wrestler on a team of quadriplegics. It's not that you're the best, it's that everybody else lacks the tools to even compete with you. When the F-15 entered service in 1972, people were still dying of smallpox. In Europe. In the 37 years since then, the F-15 has never been shot down. Moreover, nobody's really had the moxie to even try. Col. Cesar Rodriguez (Ret.) had the most air-to-air kills of any active pilot in the USAF when he retired two years ago with a total of 3. That's two kills shy of the 5 kills required to earn the title "ace" and not a patch on the ace-of-aces, Major Dick Bong, who shot down 40 planes before slamming an experimental aircraft into some North Hollywood pinkos on the same day we bombed Hiroshima.

Aside: let's take a moment to process that--on a day when the leading story was "Japan's shit totally fucking ruined by world-historical bombing" the LA Times also thought that the second most important thing we needed to know that day was that a hardass named "Dick Bong" had plowed a furrow into Southern California using his eerily cock-shaped plane.

Anyway, it took a man as crazy as Saddam Hussein to challenge American aerial hegemony, and in 1991 the IrAF was on the the receiving end of a red-assed beating so severe that the Iraqi pilots took their planes and fled to Iran. It should be noted that the Iran-Iraq War had just ended in 1988, and featured the gassing of some 100,000 Iranians by Iraqi forces. In other words, they fled into the arms of the enemy rather than fight the USAF.

So, given our overwhelming advantage why did SecDef Gates and President Obama have to fight so hard to end the funding for the F-22 at 187 planes?


The answer is both structural and political.

Structurally, defense contractors rely on congressional approval to fund their projects and making it as painful as possible for congress to cancel them is just sound business strategy. Accordingly, parts for the F-22 are manufactured or assembled in over 40 states. Yes, that's horribly inefficient, but Lockheed Martin can just pass the cost of those inefficiencies on to the American taxpayer. That accounts for part of the >$300m/plane pricetag and the caviling of numerous representatives when Gates announced his intention to end the program.

Additionally, the RFP for the F-22 went out in 1986. You know what was still around in 1986? That's right, the USSR. The F-22 was intended counter to the Soviet Sukhoi Su-27. The Su-27 was itself intended to counter the F-15 and F/A 18 Hornet. Such is the logic of arms races. In April 1991, a few short months before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lockheed Martin F-22 design won the contract. The F-22 was first deployed in 2005, over a decade after it's raison d'etre had, well, stopped existing.

A related factor is the enduring political myth that runaway US defense spending was instrumental in causing the collapse of the USSR. Proponents of the "Ronald Reagan and SDI ruined the USSR" myth argue that it was our escalation of the arms race that was the proximate cause of the fall of the Soviet Union. (That fable hints at a larger issue of Americans inserting themselves into what are fundamentally national narratives of other countries, often to our detriment.) As a result, defense spending is often politically invisible, unless it's about to be cut. At that point, the interests of defense contractors and the narrative of "more $$$ = safer" align, and the catchy hook of "Sellin' out 'Merica" by the Jee Oh Pee begins to echo in the media. Yes, that happens even when overall defense spending is still increasing. Democrats, who live in fear of being seen as "soft on defense," generally are unwilling to take on the entrenched interests around this issue, cleverly avoiding being called wimps by actually being wimps.

In the end, the F-22 was a plane we didn't need, designed for a war we never fought against an adversary that no longer exists. Despite all that, Robert Gates still had to give a major speech that was half history lesson and half fist to the groin of the defense industry just to halt production at 187 planes.

[Photo: A cloud braves airplane skin temperatures measured in hundreds of degrees just to hang out briefly with an F-22 Raptor.]


Thursday, August 06, 2009

This Week In Stupid

Michael Gerson, "Death of a Doctrine," The Washington Post

In the linked article, Michael Gerson, a G. W. Bush speechwriter, opens with a shameless generalization about a new generation of Americans and proceeds to misunderstand diplomacy, foreign policy, and history.


...[T]he administration does have a doctrine. The defining principle of President Obama's foreign policy is engagement with America's adversaries.
This argument is just crap, and should be identified as such. The idea that "talking to adversaries" is a foreign policy doctrine is roughly equivalent to arguing that "employing soldiers" and "having guns" are national security doctrines. Only after 8 years of vapid "tell [nation] to knock that [expletive] off" foreign policy and profound intellectual laxity on the part of the Washington Post could such an argument stake a claim to editorial page real estate.

The problem is not engagement itself -- which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration.
Let's just let that claim sink in for a little while. It's takes serious chutzpah to imply anything resembling an equivalence between the "various forms" of GWB's engagement (hectoring, invasion, etc.) and Obama's foreign policy.

There are a few larger points here that needs to be addressed, though. In the two paragraphs that precede the excepted quote, Gerson lists the various supposed failures of Obama's foreign policy to date, including a statement by North Korea that he takes at face value. Embedded in those paragraphs are a couple of classic GOP ruses:

First of all, the right loves to scare people by assuming that the statements of dictators are a) sincere and truthful communications and b) going to be acted on tomorrow. Nothing the DPRK says should be taken as writ. Yes, they threatened us with a "storm of nuclear retaliation." If you go back a couple of entries, they mocked the Secretary of State for wearing frumpy clothes because she called them out on their adolescent antics. When we accept statements made by the DPRK without reflection, we're doing ourselves a disservice and inflating their sense of importance. In Iran--according to most GOP leaders, a nation of mad mullahs who can't be reasoned with--we've just witnessed the unfolding of some non-insane political drama. Khamenei is, contrary to what we'd expect, making a rational (if brutal) attempt to manipulate events and institutions in order to stay in power.

Gerson also attempts to lay every unfortunate event in recent months on Obama's doorstep, as if they were a-historical occurrences. In truth, the current state of affairs with North Korea and Iran owes a lot to the early Bush attempts to roll back Clinton-era engagement. And, it turns out, people don't just magically forget the past. As Gerson justly points out in later paragraphs, the regimes have come to rely on anti-American sentiment as a prop. Notably, he fails to explore how that state of affairs came to be.

The final and most tendentious claim is that any diplomatic overture that fails to produce immediate and outrageously positive outcomes for the United States is a failure. Citing a P.J. Crowley statement, he argues:

"Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran -- or with North Korea -- now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched.

The reason for the truculence of these regimes, according to Gerson, is that they care only for the maintenance of their own corrupt prerogatives and have no regard for their external image or interests. On a far less extreme level, that's correct. States take actions in service to their national interest, which is defined in part by powerful domestic constituencies. But even Iran and the DPRK have a stake in the international system. The DPRK needs to have powerful states listen when it throws a nuclear tantrum, and Iran depends on revenues from its oil exports. Those are potential leverage points around which we could craft a policy. The central problem lies not with the nature of the regimes (although that is a problem), but in getting other powerful international actors (China, Russia) to go along with our policy.

Seven months is not enough time to undo 8 years of incompetence. So, yes, it can be blamed on the previous administration.

But again, the larger question is--aside from the frustrating and incremental progress of diplomacy--what are our options? Should we just get in there and fuck them up, Conan-style? Well, we tried that, Conan is a movie, and Thulsa Doom didn't have nuclear weapons (Kim Jong Il can totally turn into a snake, though). It didn't work.

In the end, the United States is on the right side of a savage imbalance in wealth and power, and any foreign policy that doesn't lead to us hemorrhaging money and lives is certainly an improvement. Regardless of what Gerson thinks.

This Week in Stupid Archives:

Eliott Abrams
Leon Wieseltier
Max Boot