The Afghan money pit

A recent NYT piece reports

The United States spent up to $28 million more than it had to on camouflage uniforms for the Afghan National Army because of the sartorial tastes of a single Afghan official, an American government watchdog said on Wednesday.

report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstructionfound that the Pentagon needlessly spent millions to license a proprietary camouflage pattern that replicates lush forests. Most of Afghanistan’s landscape, however, is desert, and the Defense Department owns dozens of similar patterns it could have used free, the report said.

“They picked the pattern based on a fashion preference, not by experts, but by the minister of defense,” said John F. Sopko, the special inspector general. “That was a dumb decision.”

And we are sending 4,000 of America’s best and brightest to defend this lot.

Utterly unbelievable.

Fear and Saudi Reform

Walter Russell Mead writes

So what is behind the new Saudi activism? Fear. It’s an emotion that comes naturally to an oil-rich kingdom with a relatively small population in a neighborhood full of predatory rivals. For years fear made the Saudis cautious, since they felt they could take shelter behind a strong and confident America. Now they aren’t so sure.

There is more here.

The Middle East will have the most interesting politics of any region in the near future. The piece doesn’t even mention the Arab Spring.

America is treating Iran “disgracefully”

The language is over the top but Ryan Cooper as a good point when he writes

Whatever Iran has done, when it comes to arming and supporting morally odious nations and factions in the Middle East, the United States simply doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And now we have elected President Donald Trump — our very own Ahmadinejad, except more inept. Worse still, many of the economic benefits for Iran predicted by the nuclear deal have failed to materialize, in part due to business worries that American hardliners will clamp down again.

 

Remarkably, the Iranian public did not respond to these developments by electing their own conservative hardliner in the May elections this year. On the contrary, they returned Rouhani to office again — and by a larger margin than his first term. It’s a triumph of willful optimism.

I think May 19, 2017 should be a viewed by Trump administration as a confidence building measure. Rouhani is a moderate. I’m aware that term isn’t all the meaningful when compared to the ranting clerics of Iran, but this election was a choice between a moderate path towards reconciliation or rigid ideogloy. Plus, he does have an Instagram. The Iranian populace is largely moderate and are becoming less thrilled with the ruling clerical regime. year by year. The governing grip of the religious body just seems to get weaker and weaker with each generation and the United States should be start preparing the groundwork for when the distribution of political power favors the moderate masses and not the religious nuts currently in charge.

Why Is the U.S. Killing So Many Civilians in Syria and Iraq?

That is the title of a NYT Op-Ed today.

Here is the second half of the piece, noting that there are low hanging fruit in reducing these tragically high numbers.

One reason for the huge increase in noncombatant deaths is that the United States is dropping more bombs — a more than 20 percent increase from the last four months of the Obama presidency to the first four under Mr. Trump.

Also, more strikes have occurred in populated areas, like Mosul, the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Iraq. A 500-pound bomb aimed at two snipers there detonated stored explosives, which collapsed a building and killed 105 Iraqi civilians on March 17, according to Centcom. Since the Islamic State is using residential buildings as command posts, storage depots and fighting positions, noncombatant deaths are more likely.

Yet far more troubling factors have emerged.

Even as the American military has accelerated its bombing, there is no independent assessment of the intelligence used to identify targets. Brig. Gen. Richard Coe, who investigated a mistaken attack on a Syrian military convoy in September, acknowledged that there was no “red team” to critique the decision-making process, a common approach in many commands. “Each person is expected to do that on their own,” General Coe said, “and then, in the process, funnel up the pros and cons to decision makers.” Individuals immersed in identifying enemy targets cannot simultaneously evaluate their own judgments.

Until June 13, the American military had only two people investigating Iraqi and Syrian civilian casualties full time. There now are seven full-time investigators, still a meager commitment given that around 10,000 troops are stationed in Qatar at the command’s headquarters for the air war. A dozen people investigated such claims at the height of the Afghanistan surge in 2011. If the military were concerned about civilian deaths, more investigators with training and experience in targeting would be assigned to those teams.

There is also no longer any public accountability. On May 26, an American military press officer confirmed that the Pentagon will no longer acknowledge when its own aircraft are responsible for civilian casualty incidents; rather they will be hidden under the umbrella of the “coalition.” The United States military has been responsible for 95 percent of airstrikes in Syria and 68 percent in Iraq. Centcom should own up to its own actions rather than dispersing responsibility.

 

Congress has shown little interest in identifying the root causes of civilian deaths, holding commanders or lower-level officers accountable, or ensuring that the lessons learned from mistaken strikes are integrated into future operations. Congress could exercise its oversight role by mandating Pentagon reporting about what steps it has taken to mitigate civilian harm, funding additional awareness training for American and other coalition officers, and holding public hearings with senior civilian and military officials.

Since the air war began some 22,000 airstrikes ago, military officials have repeatedly claimed that they “do everything possible” to protect civilians. Making good on that promise is not only the right thing to do — it is also strategically vital to the longer-term effectiveness of the fight against terrorism.

“Medicare for all” price tag.

In May 2016, The Urban Institute, not known as being a bastion of free market thought, released their best cost estimates for Bernie style “Medicare for all.”

Below is the executive summary (minus a overview of their methods). You can read the report in its entirety here.

The Sanders Single-Payer Health Care Plan

Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has called for adopting a single-payer health care system in the United States.1 He proposes replacing the programs established under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as preexisting public programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, with the new system. Under his approach, all individuals in the United States would be covered by a single insurance program. Sanders’s plan would eliminate all private spending and replace all private and public coverage programs, except Veterans Health Insurance and the Indian Health Service. Benefits provided under the insurance plan would cover all medically necessary services, and cost sharing would be eliminated entirely. Coverage would include both acute and long-term care.

Our central findings of the effects of the Sanders approach are shown in table 1 and include the following:

  •   All American residents would be automatically enrolled in acute care coverage, increasing insurance coverage by an estimated 28.3 million people in 2017, from an uninsurance rate for nonelderly adults of 10.4 percent under current law in 2017. In 2026, the Sanders plan would decrease the number of nonelderly uninsured by 30.9 million, or 11.0 percent of the population, relative to current law. (The uninsurance rate under current law in 2026 is projected to be larger than the rate in 2017 as a result of demographic changes and a slight decrease in the rate of employer-sponsored insurance.) Although the intent is unspecified in the campaign’s materials, this finding assumes that the plan would cover the undocumented population as well as citizens and other legal residents.
  •   National health expenditures for acute care for the nonelderly would increase by $412.0 billion (22.9 percent) in 2017. Aggregate spending on acute care services for those otherwise enrolled in Medicare would increase by $38.5 billion (3.8 percent) in 2017. Long-term service and support expenditures would increase by $68.4 billion (28.6 percent) in 2017.
  •   Together, national health expenditures would increase by a total of $518.9 billion (16.9 percent) in 2017, and by 6.6 trillion (16.6 percent) between 2017 and 2026.
  •   The increase in federal expenditures would be considerably larger than the increase in national health expenditures because substantial spending borne by states, employers, and households under current law would shift to the federal government under the Sanders plan. Federal expenditures in 2017 would increase by $1.9 trillion for acute care for the nonelderly, by $465.9 billion for those otherwise enrolled in Medicare, and by $212.1 billion for long-term services and supports.
  •   In total, federal spending would increase by about $2.5 trillion (257.6 percent) in 2017. Federal expenditures would increase by about $32.0 trillion (232.7 percent) between 2017 and 2026. The increase in federal spending is so large because the federal government would absorb a substantial amount of current spending by state and local governments, employers, and households. In addition, federal spending would be needed for newly covered individuals, expanded benefits and the elimination of cost sharing for those insured under current law, and the new long-term support and services program.
  •  State and local governments could save $319.8 billion in 2017 and $4.1 trillion between 2017 and 2026 as the federal government absorbs these costs under the Sanders plan (not shown in table 1). A maintenance-of-effort requirement could make state and local funds available to help pay for the plan, but the legality of such a requirement is in question.
  •   Private health care spending by households and employers would drop as the federal government would absorb their spending under current law. Private sector expenditures for these groups would decrease by $1.7 trillion in 2017 and by $21.9 trillion between 2017 and 2026. These considerable savings would partially offset the impact on the private sector of new taxes required to pay for the Sanders plan.
  •   Analysis by the Tax Policy Center indicates that Sanders’s revenue proposals, intended to finance all new health and nonhealth spending, would raise $15.3 trillion in revenue over 2017 to 2026. This amount is approximately $16.6 trillion less than the increased federal cost of his health care plan estimated here. The discrepancy suggests that to fully finance the Sanders approach, additional sources of revenue would have to be identified; that is, the proposed taxes are much too low to fully finance the plan.

Afghanistan: It’s Too Late

That is from the New York Review of Books

 

When Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, was called before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week to testify about the conflict in Afghanistan, he was unusually blunt: “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” he said. The Taliban have been on a dramatic offensive, he acknowledged, the security situation continues to deteriorate, and the Afghan government holds considerably less territory than it did a year ago. In other words, prospects for any sort of positive outcome are as remote as they have been in this sixteen-year war—the longest war in American history.

 

Yet Trump—and Mattis’s—solution to this unwinnable war seems to be once again to send more troops. On Tuesday, Trump announced that the military itself would be given full authority to decide how many troops it needs. (By leaving all decisions in the hands of the military, he has abandoned the usual inter-agency consultations, especially with the State Department.) And Mattis is talking about a review to be completed in July that could add as many as 5,000 troops. It may be too late.

 

What follows is a convincing laundry list of obstacles to the American mission of state building in Afghanistan.

You can read the rest here.

Europe may no longer be able to rely on the US for defense against Russia. Here are its options

This is at Quartz.

Options discussed include

  1. European Army
  2. Increase spending and pool resources
  3. “Get good at what’s actually possible without the US”
  4. Convince the US it needs Europe
  5. “Don’t do anything drastic”

The issue with NATO isn’t that the allies are free riding. Don’t get me wrong, NATO is “welfare for the rich” and its utterly stupid that Americans are arguably paying more for European security than Europeans do, but to me the issue is that the alliance has been extended into areas into territories that produce the security dilemma from a Russian perspective.

Taking political stock of the past 18 months, It is becoming clear that 1) the original NATO is becoming more essential than we realized and 2) it needs the United States to lead. There is too much latent populism and nationalism on the continent to let Germany rise without some sort of outside check to manage it. And frankly, NATO can’t survive without the United States. You have clear evidence of shrieking now. If the United States were to transfer power to NATO and the alliance was actually somehow needed, why would we assume buckpassing wouldn’t emerge as the dominant response?

China as a Rising Power Versus the US-led World Order

That is the title of Suisheng Zhao’s short but informative piece.

Here is the abstract.

Although a rising China is not a status quo power content to preserve and emplace the US-led world order, it is not yet a revolutionary power discontented with and willing to undermine the existing order. Not only is China far from the position to overtake the US power, it has not articulated distinctive values to underwrite the world order. China is a reformist/revisionist power, dissatis ed not with the current order but its position in the order.

You can read the rest here.

On a different yet related note, in Zhao’s footnotes I was directed to David Cowhig’s Translation Blog, a translation blog from Chinese to English or what looks like mainland publications. Very much appreciated service and a Web site I expect to consult often.

Why does Trump prefer Dictatorships over Democracies?

Lots to disagree with this post from the American Prospect but here is one bit that I found interesting

 

What Trump clearly admires is a nation where the top guy, or guys, can give a clear yes or no, and that’s all it takes to make things happen. Indeed, he’d clearly like to get away with that here in the Good Old U.S.A., but those damn laws, agencies, checks, and balances all get in the way. He fires James Comey, and still the FBI continues its investigation. That’s not how they do it, apparently, in Dubai, or Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines, or Russia.

 

Which brings us to the third tendency shaping Trump’s foreign policy: his preference for autocracy over democracy. He admires strong men and tin-pot dictators in countries where those men (and they are always men) can declare, l’état, c’est moiThey can be illiberal democrats, like Hungary’s Victor Orban; monarchs, like the sultans of the oil emirates; or plain autocrats, like Putin. The key is that they are unconstrained by opposition, minority rights, or democratic obligations; their will is law. That’s why the eroding democracies of Eastern and Central Europe like Hungary and Poland appeal to him more than the established democracies of Western Europe that have been traditional U.S. allies