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Christopher A. Preble

Christopher A. Preble



Articles by Christopher A. Preble

NDAA 2020: Congress Neglects Its Responsibility Once Again

2 days ago

There’s much to hate in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2020, which passed out of conference committee late yesterday evening (story here, summary in .pdf here). I suspect my colleagues will unpack or attack some of the details, but I’m generally annoyed by the top line – $738 billion – at a time when the annual federal budget deficit surpasses $1 trillion. The utter failure of elected officials in both parties to come to grips with our fiscal catastrophe, and align our overly ambitious strategy with our obvious resource constraints is frustrating in the extreme. If this NDAA passes, which seems all but certain, it will be yet another sign of how U.S. foreign policy is writing checks that Americans dare not cash.
But another part of the NDAA is utterly infuriating – the

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A Useful Corrective to China Fearmongering

6 days ago

In our book, Fuel to the Fire, John Glaser, A. Trevor Thrall, and I lament how "the fear of a rising China" was fast becoming "the most popular candidate for a new guiding principle in U.S. foreign policy." Indeed, in an era of hyper partisanship, it is notable how the idea of a new Cold War draws so many advocates on both the left and right.
There are some notable exceptions, to be sure. In July, a distinguished group of China scholars and U.S. foreign policy experts penned an open letter explaining "China is not an enemy." And, earlier this week, the just-launched Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft released its very first policy brief. Written by the esteemed American diplomat Chas W. Freeman, Jr., it warns that the United States is making a mistake by embarking on "a new era of

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Concerning the Killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

October 27, 2019

Upon hearing the news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed, I issued the following statement:
Even President Donald Trump’s harshest critics should welcome the news that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a raid in northwestern Syria Saturday evening. The operation, President Trump noted in his statement, reflects the bravery and professionalism of the men and women in the U.S. military, as well as U.S. intelligence agencies. President Trump also credited Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and the Syrian Kurds for varying levels of support.
With the passage of time, Baghdadi’s demise may be seen as a belated footnote to ISIS’s spectacular rise and fall. He had been reported wounded before, and appears to have spent most of the last few years of his life in hiding or

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Statement Regarding Trump’s Syria Announcement

October 7, 2019

In response to the White House’s announcement last night regarding the re-deployment of U.S. troops in Syria, and President Trump’s tweets early this morning, I issued the following statement:
President Trump’s decision amounts to a green light for Turkey to conduct military operations in northern Syria against a group, the Syrian Defense Forces, that the United States has previously supported. It is a stark reminder of the conflicting — and, at times, contradictory — nature of America’s commitments to foreign actors, both state and non-state.
Turkey is a formal NATO ally, a matter that should have elicited scrutiny long ago, but especially since the ascendancy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has systematically subverted human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. Meanwhile,

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Statement Regarding Trump’s Syria Announcement

October 7, 2019

In response to the White House’s announcement last night regarding the re-deployment of U.S. troops in Syria, and President Trump’s tweets early this morning, I issued the following statement:
President Trump’s decision amounts to a green light for Turkey to conduct military operations in northern Syria against a group, the Syrian Defense Forces, that the United States has previously supported. It is a stark reminder of the conflicting — and, at times, contradictory — nature of America’s commitments to foreign actors, both state and non-state.
Turkey is a formal NATO ally, a matter that should have elicited scrutiny long ago, but especially since the ascendancy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has systematically subverted human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. Meanwhile,

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R.I.P. Earl Ravenal (1931-2019)

September 20, 2019

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of Earl Ravenal, a one-time member of Cato’s board of directors, long-time senior fellow and distinguished senior fellow, and an important voice in the development of the case against global interventionism in the 1970s and 1980s.
He taught international affairs for many years at Georgetown University, and was the author of several books and monographs, as well as countless papers and articles, including Never Again: Learning From America’s Foreign Policy Failures (Temple University Press, 1978), and this gem, from way back in the Cato archives, "Reagan’s 1983 Defense Budget: An Analysis and an Alternative" (Policy Analysis no. 10).
In his sweeping history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism, Brian Doherty describes Ravenal as

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Statement on President Trump’s Decision to Impose Additional Sanctions on Iran

September 18, 2019

This morning, President Trump announced via Twitter that he had directed Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to "substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!"
I issued the following statement in response:
The problem with the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign isn’t the pressure. No one doubts that U.S. policy is imposing considerable pain on the Iranian people. Additional U.S. sanctions will likely increase this suffering, as my Cato colleague John Glaser predicted here.
But to no good end. The Iranians will never give in to U.S. demands; to do so would amount to utter capitulation, the complete surrender of Iranian sovereignty, and the de facto end of the Iranian government. This has been a fervent hope among certain hawks for decades, but hope is not a strategy.

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Striking Iran In Response to Abqaiq Attack Would Be a Mistake

September 16, 2019

The smoke hasn’t yet cleared from the attack on Saudi Aramco’s facility, but U.S. officials were quick to pin blame on Iran, with some even going so far as to suggest that military strikes could be – and should be – in the offing.
Such a move should upset constitutional purists; Congress hasn’t authorized military action against Iran for these purposes. The case that the Trump administration might present to Congress in an attempt to build support for strikes is unlikely to be compelling. Indeed, the story of the attack and what U.S. military strikes in retaliation would achieve is a lot more complicated than the war hawks would have you believe.
First, everyone should keep the likely economic impact in perspective. The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that production losses from

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How to “Salvage Community” after Military Base Closure

September 5, 2019

It has been nearly 14 years since the Pentagon trimmed its excess base capacity through a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. Despite repeated requests by various Secretaries of Defense, Congress has blocked the military services from reallocating resources away from unnecessary overhead and toward more urgent priorities.

Much of Congress’s reluctance comes from the perception that base closures are devastating for nearby town and municipalities. In the immediate term, job losses follow whenever a base closes, and the cost of transferring and redeveloping property can be daunting. In most instances, however, elected officials, civic leaders, and interested businesses and non-profits join forces to convert former defense facilities into something else. The best cases deliver

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How to “Salvage Community” after Military Base Closure

September 5, 2019

It has been nearly 14 years since the Pentagon trimmed its excess base capacity through a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. Despite repeated requests by various Secretaries of Defense, Congress has blocked the military services from reallocating resources away from unnecessary overhead and toward more urgent priorities.
Much of Congress’s reluctance comes from the perception that base closures are devastating for nearby town and municipalities. In the immediate term, job losses follow whenever a base closes, and the cost of transferring and redeveloping property can be daunting. In most instances, however, elected officials, civic leaders, and interested businesses and non-profits join forces to convert former defense facilities into something else. The best cases deliver

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A Different Sort of 4th of July Celebration

July 3, 2019

On July 4, 1821, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, delivered a now-famous address here in Washington, DC. I discuss the speech in my latest book, Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy, and it is featured in this “Liberty Chronicles” episode (dramatic reading starts around the 17 minute mark).
If you haven’t read the speech in its entirety, you might find it worthwhile. Some are familiar with Adams’s admonition that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The veteran diplomat and scholar George Kennan invoked that passage in an essay in Foreign Affairs, and it even serves as one of the founding principles for a new organization named after John Quincy. Others have scorned Adams’s sage advice as synonymous with “cowardice and dishonor,”

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A Left-Right Alliance to Stop the Forever Wars – Led by Veterans

May 24, 2019

Earlier this week, over 50 veterans of America’s seemingly endless wars fanned out across Capitol Hill to make the case for ending these wars. The organizers of the initiative, VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), have been on opposite sides on many issues. But, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, they’ve come together to call on members of Congress to take responsibility, and revisit the nearly 18-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed immediately after 9/11.
CVA’s Dan Caldwell explains in a new video that the groups’ members share “a common bond through military service.” Both groups would now like to see Congress “use the powers given to it in the Constitution to help America pursue a more restrained foreign policy.”
VoteVets’

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Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy

April 30, 2019

Americans have debated how to engage with the world since our nation’s founding. These discussions often went well beyond questions of war and peace, and of what was required to keep us safe and prosperous; we have also pondered what we can and should do to advance the cause of liberty globally. 
In recent years, however, more and more Americans have come to doubt our capacity for accomplishing great things, or even the wisdom of trying. The trauma of 9/11, followed by nearly two decades of inconclusive military interventions, casts a cloud over the conduct of U.S. foreign relations. The Cold War once seemed to unite Americans around a single, common purpose; today, foreign policy is subject to the same “blue team vs. red team” dynamics that cripple honest, frank discussions of

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The Pentagon’s Accounting Problem

April 8, 2019

The Pentagon’s inability to pass an audit, after years of outright stonewalling, followed by many more years of foot-dragging, is suddenly a hot topic. A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone featured a scathing exposé highlighting the Pentagon’s inability to count.
Writer Matt Taibbi explains
Ahead of misappropriation, fraud, theft, overruns, contracting corruption and other abuses that are almost certainly still going on, the Pentagon’s first problem is its books. It’s the world’s largest producer of wrong numbers, an ingenious bureaucratic defense system that hides all the other rats’ nests underneath.
These and other stories seem to have prompted House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) to deliver a stern message to officials in the Department of Defense. The Trump

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Americans Love the Military — but They Don’t Think It Needs More Money

April 3, 2019

Those who call for the United States to pursue an ambitious grand strategy of global dominance (aka primacy) also believe the American people will willingly tolerate much higher Pentagon spending. Some even spell out where the additional money will be found. The members of the National Defense Strategy Commission, for example, declare that policymakers must arrest the rise of non-defense spending, and increase tax revenues, in order to “fully fund America’s defense strategy.” 
Such claims do not square with political reality. As Gallup’s Frank Newport points out “Americans clearly respect and appreciate the military, but generally perceive that the nation’s national defense is strong enough (or even too strong), and that current defense spending is about right (or even too much).”

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Trump’s Crazy Military Budget

March 11, 2019

The White House unveiled its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2020 and, to the apparent surprise of some military planners, the White House is calling for a top line national defense budget of $750 billion. Pentagon officials had reportedly anticipated a budget of $733 billion, which would have been a 2.4 percent increase over last year’s. They got a 4.7 percent increase instead. According to the supporting documentation, the request is intended to provide the Department of Defense with the resources to “remain the preeminent military power in the world, ensure balances of power in key regions remain in America’s favor, and advance an international order that is the most conducive to U.S. security and prosperity.”
The United States spends more than twice as much on its military as

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Trump and America’s Longest War

February 6, 2019

Today’s high schoolers don’t know a time when the United States was not at war in Afghanistan. Conservative estimates find that U.S. taxpayers have spent almost $1 trillion in the country since 2001. Of this amount, $126 billion has gone toward Afghanistan reconstruction – more in inflation-adjusted dollars than was spent to rebuild Europe after World War II. At least another $750 billion has been spent on warfighting. Despite such efforts, the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since the war began. It is obvious that reversing these trends would require a level of effort that Americans will not abide.
President Trump was correct, therefore, to call attention in his State of the Union address to the “constructive talks” that his administration was engaged in “with a

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Regarding James Mattis’s Tenure and Departure as Secretary of Defense

December 21, 2018

The timing of James Mattis’s resignation as Secretary of Defense may be as significant as the particulars cited in his letter announcing it. It came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s announcement that U.S. troops would be swiftly removed from Syria, and amidst rumors that a similar withdrawal was in the offing for Afghanistan. Trump’s Syria decision alone might have proved the last straw, but there have been countless other occasions since January 2017 when Mattis might have taken a stand on principle. Why this decision? And why now?
Mattis’s resignation letter mentions neither Afghanistan nor Syria, but hints indirectly at both: “the 29 democracies…fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America” and the “the Defeat ISIS coalition” that supposedly includes 74

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Some Early Reactions to the Reactions to President Trump’s Syria Announcement

December 20, 2018

President Trump’s Syria announcement yesterday has sent the foreign policy community into orbit. The distress is mostly bipartisan, although the real vitriol seems to be coming more from Republicans than Democrats. See, for example, the stories of Vice President Pence’s meeting with GOP senators, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s meltdown on CNN.
A few, however, appreciated the president’s decision. See especially, Cato’s John Glaser (here and here), Defense Priorities’ Benjamin Friedman, Win without War’s Stephen Miles, and timely tweets from Democrat Ted Lieu and Republicans Rand Paul and Justin Amash.
Rather than simply rehash these statements, here are a few brief observations related to the president’s decision:
It should not be a surprise to anyone. Donald Trump has been railing against

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A New Cold War with China?

October 29, 2018

Picking up on Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute several weeks ago, Hudson’s Seth Cropsey detailed a plan in the Wall Street Journal on “How to Win a Cold War with Beijing.” At the center of Cropsey’s op-ed is a dramatic increase in the U.S. presence in Asia that would require, among other things, accelerating the current naval buildup, increasing naval patrols, and bolstering naval and Marine forces in Australia. In effect, Cropsey wants to apply the strategy that helped end the former Cold War to America’s growing conflict with China. Quoting Ronald Reagan, Cropsey explains “The objective in this strategic competition [is] ‘We win, they lose.’”
Cropsey’s approach, however, is based on several flawed assumptions, including about the inevitability of conflict

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Preparing for Peace? Or Just More War?

August 13, 2018

In yesterday’s Washington Post, George Will makes a familiar argument: “if you want peace, prepare for war.”
Drawing mostly on key episodes from the late Cold War period, Will suggests that Ronald Reagan’s military buildup was instrumental to bringing down the Soviet Union. He places particular emphasis, with an assist from John Lehman, on the importance of a massive naval buildup in the 1980s.
As it happens, I served in the Navy during this period. Lehman was the Secretary of the Navy when I was an NROTC midshipman at George Washington University. I witnessed what such a force could do when it was called upon to fight – not the Soviet Union, but rather Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991. And that war was over in a matter of weeks.
But fast-forward to today, and the picture is more

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A Visit to San Diego’s Liberty Station

August 2, 2018

San Diego, CA – Over the course of my research into the conversion of former military bases, more than one person has suggested that I take a look at Liberty Station, the former Naval Training Center located in the Point Loma district of San Diego, that is now a thriving mixed-use community.
Operated for over 70 years as a Navy training base, NTC San Diego was included in the 1993 BRAC. It officially closed in April 1997. The city designated a master developer, Corky McMillan Cos. in 1999 to execute the reuse plan, and the site now hosts shops and businesses, schools, a megachurch, private homes, open spaces, and a vibrant arts district.
I visited there for the first time this week, and now I understand why the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment calls Liberty Station “one of the

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Early Thoughts on the Trump-Putin Meeting

July 16, 2018

As a historian of the Cold War, I have a passing knowledge of a number of meetings between Soviet/Russian leaders and U.S. presidents. Some are famous for getting relations off on the wrong foot (e.g. Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961); others set the stage for great breakthroughs, but were seen as failures at the time (e.g. Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986); still others are largely forgotten (e.g. Johnson and Kosygin at Glassboro, NJ in 1967). It is impossible to predict how we will remember the first substantive meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
We can see, however, what President Trump wants us to remember. “I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly,…have not been getting along very well for the last number of

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Clashing Generations

June 28, 2018

I’ve written before about the worrisome gap between the American people and foreign policy elites (see e.g. here and here). Whereas most Americans believe that the U.S. military exists chiefly to defend the United States and its economic and security interests, the intelligentsia is committed to a broader set of objectives, including defending the security of others, shaping the international system, and advancing the cause of democracy and human rights. These slightly differing impulses often worked hand in hand. A large and active U.S. military that was focused mostly on U.S. security and prosperity typically helped others.
But that wasn’t always the case. And military interventions initiated with lukewarm public support (e.g. Somalia 1993), or sold on phony pretenses (e.g. Iraq

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Adapting U.S. Foreign Policy to a Changing World

April 21, 2018

The dramatic news that CIA Director Mike Pompeo met in secret with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over the Easter weekend has renewed hopes that one of the world’s most dangerous stand offs might be resolved without war. President Donald Trump confirmed via Twitter that details for a summit meeting were “being worked out” and predicted “Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!” The good feelings continued during the week, with Kim announcing on Saturday that the North no longer needs to conduct nuclear or missile tests.
Americans should welcome such prospects, but South Koreans have reason to be wary. They have the most to lose from conflict on the peninsula, a real possibility if negotiations fail. After all, President Trump has an uneven track

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Bolton In, McMaster Out

March 23, 2018

Americans who voted for Donald Trump believing he would be disinclined to start new wars should be puzzled by his decision to tap John Bolton as his third national security adviser. The rest of us should be concerned.
Bolton has been one of the most reliably hawkish voices in American politics in recent memory. In 2015, he openly called for launching a war against Iran. Earlier this year, he argued that the United States should initiate a war against North Korea. His faith in the utility of force, and his general disdain for diplomacy, is legendary – and apparently hasn’t been shaken by the wars of the recent past.
Most Americans – 67 percent in a recent poll – believe that the Iraq war failed to advance – or, worse, undermined – American security. Bolton appears to agree with

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An Unhappy Anniversary for the Iraq War

March 20, 2018

On the unhappy 15th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the Charles Koch Institute’s William Ruger and Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich offer important and timely op eds.
Writing in the New York Times, Ruger sees Iraq as “just the worst in a string of failures” of U.S. foreign policy in the past quarter century, a range of missions that have cost nearly 7,000 American troops killed, tens of thousands wounded, and trillions of dollars spent, with precious little to show for it. “Underlying all of these failures,” Ruger writes, “is the view, endorsed by both parties, that we need an active military presence around the globe to shape what happens almost everywhere.” He calls for an “alternate approach to the United States’ role in the world,” a “constructive but realistic

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Another BRAC Now

March 2, 2018

Last month, Congress authorized a massive increase in defense spending as part of a two-year budget deal. In 2018 alone, the Pentagon will receive an additional $80 billion, increasing the topline number to $629 billion. War spending will push the total over $700 billion. Though such a windfall might prompt Defense Department to ignore cost-saving measures, the White House pledged that “DOD will also pursue an aggressive reform agenda to achieve savings that it will reinvest in higher priority needs.” Noticeably absent, however, was another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), even though Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and at least four of his predecessors, have called for such authority in order to reduce the military’s excess overhead, most recently estimated at 19 percent.

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The Trump Administration and Preventive War

February 6, 2018

CNAS Senior Fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper has authored a first-rate take-down of the illogic of supposedly limited strikes (aka the “bloody nose” option) against North Korea at The Atlantic. Here are a few choice passages:
it makes little sense for American war planners to assume a “limited” strike like this would stay limited. A U.S. operation may not achieve its objectives, and even if it does, it would still leave the decision of whether or not to retaliate up to Kim. The North Korean leader would make that decision based on his own beliefs about the strike once it took place, not based on American wishes for his response. If he did decide to hit back, the result could be the most calamitous U.S. conflict since World War II.
[…]
If Kim is irrational on matters concerning his nuclear

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The Trump Administration Is Poised to Expand the U.S. War in Syria Without a Public Debate

January 18, 2018

In early September 2013, Americans rose up in opposition to the suggestion that the United States might undertake a limited military operation to punish Syrian President Bashar al Assad for using chemical weapons in the civil war there.
Even though Secretary of State John Kerry gave assurances that the punitive strikes would be “unbelievably small,” and were unlikely to draw the United States deeper into yet another Middle Eastern war, the mere possibility that they might do so was too great a risk for many Americans who had grown weary of inconclusive conflicts that didn’t serve U.S. vital security interests. They bombarded congressional offices with phone calls and emails saying “stay out.” At the time, Newt Gingrich was one of a very few Washington insiders who made a succinct case

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