Thursday, March 20, 2008

Uninformed Comment: Josh Marshall on American Military Power

John McCain's taking heat on the left for his assertion that Iran has ties to al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni terrorist group. As Iran's a Shiite nation, many have questioned McCain's claims to national security expertise.

In fact, McCain's on solid ground on Iran and al Qaeda, as
Eli Lake points out today at the New York Sun:

Senior military officials from Multinational Forces in Iraq have said on the record that Iran provides support for Sunni terror outfits in Iraq, but they have not identified them as Al Qaeda in Iraq. A former commander of a group that has at times aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic Army of Iraq, Abu Azzam al Tamimi, told Al Arabiya television on January 18, 2008, that Iran "interferes in every aspect in Iraq." When asked whom Iran supports, Mr. al Tamimi said, "Everybody — it works with the government, with the opponents of the government, with the opponents of the government's opponents, with Al-Qaeda, with the enemies of Al-Qaeda, with the militias, with the enemies of the militias ... Iran spreads its investments everywhere – with the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds," according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
But the purpose of this post isn't to parse the various statments of Iranian influence in Iraq.

Instead, let me shift over to the poorly informed attack on McCain by Josh Marshall, the publisher of
Talking Points Memo.

In a post yesterday, "
Unfit for Duty," Marshall called into question not just McCain's foreign policy acumen, but the entire economic-military foundations of America's policy in Iraq. After announcing McCain's unfitness for the Oval Office, Marshall offers his reasoning:

The idea that fighting jihadists in Iraq or policing the country's sectarian and ethnic disputes is the calling of this century is one that is belied in virtually everything we see in flux in today's world and which seems certain to affect us through the rest of our lifetimes and our children's.

It is very difficult to draw practical lessons from history. But one of the closest things to a law is that military power is almost always built on economic might. And the former seldom long outlasts the latter. Indeed, countries with sound finances have routinely been able to punch over their weight -- great Britain and the Netherlands during different periods are key examples. So fiscal soundness even over the medium term is much more important than any particular weapon system or basing right.

Then you step back and see the huge number of dollars we're pouring into Iraq, the vast mountains of capital being piled up in China, the oil-fueled resurgence of Russia, the weakness of the dollar (not only in exchange rate but in its future as a reserve currency), the rising tide of anti-Americanism around the world. I don't think I've ever heard anything from John McCain that suggests he's given serious consideration to any of these issues, except as possible near term military challenges -- i.e., is China building a blue water navy to challenge the US, Russian weapons systems, etc.

Candidly, I do not think I've heard sufficient discussions or solutions to these challenges from my preferred candidates. But neither has the myopia that McCain has about Iraq. Or the willingness to spend -- how else to put it -- like a drunken sailor in that country at the expense of everything else now going on in the world.

Hillary Clinton has stipulated to McCain's qualifications as Commander-in-Chief; and Obama, implicitly, does the same. But his record actually shows he's one of the most dangerous people we could have in the Oval Office in coming years -- not just because he's a hothead in using the military, but more because he seems genuinely clueless about the real challenges and dangers the country is facing. He's too busy living in the fantasy world where our future as a great power and our very safety are all bound up in Iraq.
That's a big takedown, with a lot of claims.

Note first that the notion that we're in a long-term conflict with the forces of Islamic terror is not controversial among foreign policy elites.

The normal criticism of current policy is that the U.S. relies too much on military power to fight what should be a multi-pronged campaign, using cultural, diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military instruments in a wider, more diversifed war on Islamic terror (for some expert opinion to that effect, see Audrey Kurth Cronin, "
How al-Qaeda Ends. The Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups").

Further, some have argued that Islam at base is a
religion of victory, as revealed in scripture, and that the ulimate goal of the faith is to render the infidels asunder.

So, while there's certainly room for debate, to make the sweeping assertion that the imperative of "fighting jihadists in Iraq" is belied by "everything we see" in the world today is a miserably unspecified claim, if not a matter of crazed ramblings outright.

But more deeply, Marshall's argument on the fundamentals of military power demonstrates serious ignorance on international affairs, thus raising questions of his own qualifications.

He states, for example, that America's relative international fiscal weakness is illustrated by "the huge number of dollars we're pouring into Iraq, the vast mountains of capital being piled up in China, the oil-fueled resurgence of Russia, the weakness of the dollar (not only in exchange rate but in its future as a reserve currency), the rising tide of anti-Americanism around the world."

Each one of these points can be rebutted, and in fact I've touched on most of these points at various times at this blog.

For example, we are indeed pouring tremendous resources into Iraq. But miltary spending today is a fraction of what the United States spent in the 1980s. The United States can afford the war, and it's a political question - not an economic one - as to the extent that we're spending too much, or that the war spending could be used for other things (see, for example, "
Bear Any Burden? The U.S. Can Afford Iraq").

As for China's dollar holdings, good for them: The Chinese have amassed impressive capital reserves as a result of their increasing success as an export platform to the United States. That's not a threat to American interests, however: It's an indication of the power of the American market and U.S. consumer demand for Chinese goods found at various price levels and stages of manufacturing sophistication.

The Chinese have little interest in dumping dollars, because they've no interest in damaging the enonomy of their primary export market. Similar arguments were made regarding Japan in the 1980s, and within a decade Japan itself was struggling to excavate itself from the deepest recession in postwar Japanese history.

That's a historical comparison Marshall would do well to consider.

How about the U.S.dollar as reserve currency? Is the dollar on the way out?

Not at all. The fact is, in international comparisons there's no credible challenger today to the hegemony of the U.S. dollar in global financial markets. The Wall Street Journal wrote about this a week ago, "Dollar's Dive Deepens as Oil Soars."

Roughly 90 percent of the world's monetary transactions in finance and trade are conducted in dollars, and international actors have huge investments in current monetary rules and procedures which are not quickly replaced (inertia, basically).

Besides, the dollar continues to provide banking and sovereign institutions an unparalleled currency as a store of value and unit of exchange. The closest competitors are the euro, the yen, and the yuan. Yet not one of these currencies has any immediate chance of replacing the greenback - despite its weaknesses - as the world's dominant currency. All three suffer from substantial deficiencies, which limit their attractiveness as alternative world currencies (for some initial information on this, see Benjamin J. Cohen, "Global Currency Rivalry: Can the Euro Ever Challenge the Dollar?").

What about that global anti-Americanism?

It's not true that the United States faces anti-American hostility among the Western democratic nations of the world (see "
America’s Image in the World"). Even among the developing nations, the anti-Americanism that we do see is isolated to Arabic nations of the Midde East and South Asia.

The record's thus mixed, and not to be discounted, of course.

Still, the United States scores well on non-survey indicators of international goodwill in a great many countries. For example, notice the tremendous outburst of lasting respect for the United States in Indonesia following America's strong leadership in tsunami humanitarian relief efforts. Also, in Africa, the U.S. has generated tremendous goodwill through its global AIDS battle, a public health project unrivaled in size and scope among all the nations of the world.

So what to make of Josh Marshall's analysis?

He's not to be trusted, whatsoever. Which is too bad, because the Talking Points Memo's apparently
an award-winning online jounalistic project (so what does that say about the quality of TPM's peer evaulators?).

If one dissects his attack on John McCain's foreign policy expertise, we might conclude, at the least, that Marshall's the last person who should be making such sweeping dismissals of the credentials of the GOP nominee-in-waiting.

It's not just Marshall, of course. For all the buzz about the blogosphere emerging as a powerful force in politics, much of what's distributed as commentary and analysis is bunk. For example. Glenn Greenwald's touted around the left blogosphere as some big expert on the war on terror, but he's been debunked so many times
by specialists its not even funny.

In any case, I'll have more analysis later. In the meantime, don't doubt Iran's playing a substantial role in backing al Qaeda's operations in Iraq.