The Chat Room

Words of Warcraft

Fred Kaplan takes readers’ questions about fixing Bush’s military, U.S. national security, and foriegn policy.

Slate contributor Fred Kaplan was online at to chat about how the next president could fix the military and repair U.S. foreign policy after President Bush leaves office. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Fred Kaplan: Fred Kaplan here. Glad to be back. Let’s go to your questions.


Paris: Reading the article, one gets the impression that the only thing to be fixed in the foreign policy realm is the approach to the broader Middle East. What about multilateralism? Relationships with China and Russia? Getting the Transatlantic alliance back on track? Attention to Latin America? Stopping nuclear proliferation (e.g. India)?

Fred Kaplan: Good question. (At least one other reader submitted a very similar one.) Three comments. First, I think the criticism is overstated. The first part of the piece, discussing general trends in international relations, and the last part, about the need for “public diplomacy,” apply to our foreign policy broadly. But you’re right. I did focus perhaps inordinately on the Middle East. To that, I would say, second, I had only 1,200 words; there’s only so much one can do. And third, realistically, the next president—whoever he or she is—is not going to be able to get a whole lot done unless some sort of solution, or coherent approach, is worked out on Iraq. That depends, in part, on a sensible policy toward Iran, Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


South Range, Wis.: Is it possible to fix U.S. soft power without fixing the corporate control that has come to dominate every aspect of American culture, in particular the media? Can the world still differentiate between American values and corporate policy?

Fred Kaplan: Yes, I think it is possible. The United States Information Agency was just such an instrument all through the Cold War, when arguably corporate control of American society and politics was far more pervasive than it is now.


Jacksonville, Fla.: Four part question here: How much of the military spending problems (unnecessary extravagant carriers, fighter jets, etc.) are because of the fact that they support the military-industrial complex of highly connected contractors? Can this problem be corrected without harming a now huge part of the American economy? Would any president be willing to take on this risk? How could they manage this collateral damage?

Fred Kaplan: Good question. I think the Military-Industrial Complex is sometimes an overrated factor, but it’s often an underrated factor as well. (You would be hard-pressed to find references to it, or to a euphemism for the same phenomenon, in mainstream newspaper articles.) It’s worth recalling that it was a great general, Dwight Eisenhower, who first uttered the phrase and warned of its dangers. But it’s not just industry. It’s also congressional districts (for a half-century now, the services have sagely distributed contracts and subcontracts for controversial weapons systems to as many districts as possible, the better to build up legislative support). It’s also the stranglehold that certain subcultures within the services have over the weapons-procurement process. For instance, the #1 priority of the Air Force these days is the F22 fighter jet—perhaps the only airplane that has not been used in any of the wars we’ve fought lately. Why? Because the Air Force procurement machinery is still dominated by fighter pilots. Ditto for the Navy and aircraft carriers (and submarines), the Army and tanks. A rethinking of the role of military power in the post-Cold War world might overhaul these priorities. But as long as the politics of the services remain the same, little is going to happen.


Plano, Texas: Do the liberals at Slate get angry when good news comes out of Iraq? Are all of you mad now that it looks like Iraq is on it’s way to becoming a stable democracy?

Fred Kaplan: Let me ask you a question: Do you really believe the premise of your question? Do you really think we jump for joy with each report of a suicide bomb going off? Do you really believe that we want to see the Middle East remain in the hands of authoritarians or Islamic fundamentalists? If you’ve read my columns over time, you may have noted that I have expressed hope—increasingly cautious hope, but hope nonetheless (not dismay)—when trends seem, even slightly, to be going our way. I would question, by the way, your premise that Iraq is “on its way to becoming a stable democracy.” What papers do you read? I should also add that some writers at Slate—for instance, my colleague and old friend Christopher Hitchens—are unequivocal in their support for the war.


Stop-truth-decay : I can justify high tech weapons in one word: China.

Fred Kaplan: Well, that IS the rationale. If someone had fallen asleep in say 1985, woken up today and looked at the defense budget, he (or she) would infer that the Cold War must still be going on. Look at the budget. About $600 billion—NOT including the money spent on Iraq, Afghanistan, and “the longer war on terror.” What is that $600 billion going for? Well, a lot of it is for people. But much of the rest is for aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter jets—remnants of the Cold War. What threat today is best answered by lots of such weapons? There is no such threat. Ah, but 20 years down the road, many say, China MIGHT emerge as a great military power, and these weapons will be necessary to deter or fight China. Two replies: First, China’s military power is strengthening, but it still doesn’t amount to much. (Do me a favor and click on a Slate column I wrote a while back, detailing the contents of a Pentagon report on the military power of the People’s Republic of China. An interesting document: The first half tries to raise your hair by describing all the things China seems to be wanting to do. The second half calmly notes how far away they are from succeeding at any of these ventures.) Second, to the extent China wants to dominate the world, I think they’re on track BUYING the place. We need to devote more attention to trade policy if we want to stave off China.


Clifton, Va.: Bubba, has there been a terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11? No. Do I care what the rest of the world thinks about our military and foreign policy? No! What is most important is this country’s national security and protecting U.S. citizens. I dont care what the rest of the world thinks. If anything, we need to spend more money on covert ops and chasing tangoes! If we are unlucky and Obama or Clinton wins in November 2008, then be prepared for ten of thousands of deaths from terrorist attacks here in the U.S. Dick Cheney is right! So!

Fred Kaplan: Hmm. The dollar’s going down, our deficit and debt are spiraling out of control, we have a hard time maintaining 150,000 troops in Iraq and another 30,000 or so in Afghanistan. And you don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of us. How are we going to lure allies to join our causes and contribute to our defense—yes, our defense (and our national-security interests abroad)? This is not a gooey liberal question. It’s a very hard-headed one. We do not have the money, the manpower, or the stomach to do the things you would like us to do all by ourselves. Meanwhile, because the Soviet Union—the common enemy that held the Western alliance together—no longer exists, our erstwhile allies have realized they can go their own way, pursue their own interests, without much regard for what Washington thinks. We have no choice but to pursue allies—not at the expense or sacrifice of our vital interests or bedrock principles, but with active diplomacy, which sometimes mean tactical compromises.


curiousgemini: What Carter and Kaplan forget is that a lot of these expensive cold war era weapons put a lot of money in defense contractors’ pockets. These companies lobby hard and have close connections to the Pentagon. Also, many members of Congress have a political stake in the jobs these bloated programs create in their districts. This is all part of the “Military-Industrial-Congressional complex.”

Fred Kaplan: Well, we don’t exactly “forget” these facts. We spend a lot of time in our essay coming up with ways to deal with them, to form semi-rational policies despite these obstacles. Take another look. You’re right, though: it’s a very serious problem, especially at a time when we need to overhaul the military structure, if we’re to retain our solvency and recover much of our influence.


Orion838: Good ideas, but unlike what the authors suggest, Congress doesn’t just sit around and passively go along with Pentagon plans to buy Cold War relics like aircraft carriers, nuclear subs, high tech fighter planes, etc. Congress mandates that these purchases must be made, even when the Pentagon would prefer to spend the money elsewhere. The reasons are job for constituents and campaign contributions from defense contractors. Given these congressional priorities, it’s hard to see how we can ever find the money the authors show is needed.

Fred Kaplan: You’re right—sort of. Many times, the Pentagon or one of the services will put forth a budget that cuts, even slashes, some of these much-cherished weapons systems—KNOWING that Congress will restore the budget fully, if not more. There’s gamesmanship all round.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Mr. Kaplan: I noticed that your brief piece in Slate did not address the absurdly long time it takes to design, test and arrange for production of weapons systems and other defense platforms, or the added costs and security risks involved in having their production spread across the country instead of concentrated in a few places. I recognize that both these problems are to some extent imposed by Congress, but it’s unlikely that we will get a more effective, less expensive military by ignoring them—meaning that at some point a President will need to confront Congress. Do you agree? GAO Blasts Weapons Budget(Post, April 1)

Fred Kaplan: This is a serious—and very old—problem. If the president wanted to order the cancellation of, say, a big fighter-aircraft program—or wanted to defer production of another $3.2 billion aircraft carrier—we would have to pay enormous delay or cancellation costs. Weapons contracts, quite reasonably, are loaded with these clauses. Then a defender of one of those weapons programs would argue: If we cancel this program, we will lose the skilled work force, we will lose the industrial base; if we want to manufacture it sometime in the future, there may not be the laborers—there may not be the corporation—to make it. For this reason, a lot of officials and legislators who have a lot of other things on their mind simply let it go; it’s a fulltime job, plus some, to tangle with these obstacles. But for this same reason, somebody’s going to have to do it, at some point, before the excess costs and anachronistic allocations send us into the poorhouse and wreck the army.


Bethesda, Md.: “Bubba, has there been a terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11?” Hey, Clifton, I’ve got one word for you: anthrax. So, yes, there has been.

Fred Kaplan: I don’t think it’s at all clear that the anthrax scare was a terrorist attack. We don’t know where the stuff came from. I seriously doubt it was some foreign terrorist group—or if it was, the leaders must have given it up as an ineffectual approach: it killed very few people, sired panic but not of the sort that damaged our economy in the slightest; in any case, it has not recurred. Not to be complacent, but still…


kenl77: In regard to the Cold War era, the author says the following: “The world was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, and the countries in between often subordinated their own interests to accommodate—in the West by choice, in the East by force—the interests of their superpower protector.”

It seems to me that American history since 1945 involved a substantial amount of coercion, ranging from flat-out declaration of war to CIA subversion of governments and elections, assassination of foreign leaders, support of ruthless dictators and economic destruction of third-world countries. To believe that somehow the United States was the good guy in the Cold War is another fable that Americans must shed before they ever can understand why they so roundly are hated in much of the world.

Fred Kaplan: I think you’re misreading what I wrote, a bit. Or maybe I should have elaborated more fully (though I have in other columns and, even more, in my new book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power—hey, I have to get a plug in here somehow). I’m not saying that we were “the good guy in the Cold War” (though our sins were far less heinous than the Soviet Union’s, I think it’s reasonable to say—we did not suppress our European allies in the same way that Moscow suppressed, absolutely controlled, theirs, for instance). My point was this: During the Cold War, many Western (and in-between) nations subordinated their own interests in order to accommodate ours. In some cases this was not voluntarily; in other cases, as you point out, less so. Now, with the Cold War over and the common enemy vanquished, many of these countries are pursuing their own intersts again. My point is that the Bush administration’s initial premise—that we are “the sole superpower’ and therefore can do pretty much anything we want, and we don’t need allies to do it—is completely wrong. In a very important way, we are less powerful than we used to be, less able to get our way without trying much; the whole concept of “superpower” is obsolete.


Washington: Thanks for your columns—I have found them quite interesting. Any word on how the Central Command position will be filled? Is there any credence to the rumor that it will be Petraeus, with Odierno going to replace him at Multi-National Force Iraq?

Fred Kaplan: Thanks. I’ve read the same rumors you have. They seem plausible. But I have no inside dope on what’s for real—and it may well be that no more than a half-dozen people do.


U.S.: I’m very troubled by the extensive use of stop-loss orders and involuntary recalls of people who thought they’d gotten out of the military. While I realize military people signed on the dotted line, the use of these provisions in this way seems to me to be a clear violation of the spirit of the law. Are any plans being made to avoid this situation in future conflicts?

Fred Kaplan: I agree with you, but I see no end to it as long as the military doesn’t have any other way to keep the level of troops that the political leadership (i.e., the president) wants to keep deployed—especially in Iraq. And currently, there is no other way. Recruitment targets are being met only by lowering standards to perilous levels. Junior officers are getting out of the service in droves. This is why a lot of general officers are eager to find some way to cut our losses in Iraq—they fear that the Army might wind up broken.


Rockville, Md.: Regarding terrorist attacks, what about the Washington sniper, who roamed around the city for a month killing people at random? The entire city was paralyzed with fear. I guess if it’s not al-Qaeda or people with brown skin, we don’t consider that a “terrorist attack.”

Fred Kaplan: In fairness, the phrase “terrorist attack” usually implies foreign involvement. (Didn’t the sniper have brown skin?)


Tyrtaios-rising: Would it surprise anyone to know our embassies and consulates, worldwide, are where they are to represent our economic interests? What are those interests? Certainly not catering to distraught American tourists, much to many’s chagrin. A posting by cbarrett on The Fray discussed an interesting issue: oil and our foreign dependence on it.

It consumes us, we are held hostage by it and the competitive world demand for it. Everything else, the Palestine issue, proper dialogue with key players, not just in that region, but within our own hemisphere, let alone Africa. Something not lost on the Chinese incidentally. Have you been to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, recently? Would it surprise you to learn a lot of petroleum and natural gas exports come from there to us?

Our foreign policy extends to the use of military force projection in enforcing an outline called the Carter Doctrine. Look it up and draw conclusions why we focus so much on the Middle East. What are our future economic priorities going to be? That will drive our foreign policy. In many cases, the use or misuse of our military strength as a form of foreign policy as well. Which future president has even hinted at addressing our dependence on foreign oil? I’m aware it’s more complicated then that. But it’s a start.

Fred Kaplan: As you say, it’s “more complicated” than oil (and other resources), but certainly that’s a large part of it. Most wars over the centuries have had something to do with resources. You’re certainly right in your main point—(a) that weaning our dependence on foreign oil should be regarded as a vital national-security priority and (b) that no politicians are talking about this very much.


wayhey1: Is it too much to expect the current president to do all of these things that Kaplan suggests? Bush still has time left in office to get the ball rolling. Of course, to regain other nations’ trust he actually would have to admit to making mistakes. As a graduate of a 12-step-type recovery program, he should understand this better than most—yet he hasn’t shown any inclination to apply life’s important lessons to foreign policy, and that is disappointing. Machismo and claiming infallibility is the opposite of diplomacy, as well as the opposite of personal healing.

In that same vein, Fred said one thing I just can’t let go by without making a comment: “The world was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, and the countries in between often subordinated their own interests to accommodate—in the West by choice, in the East by force—the interests of their superpower protector.”

This is a myth that has gone on far too long. Western Europe went along willingly with the United States—thanks in large part to the Marshal Plan, in my opinion—but the same is not true of many other U.S. allies during the Cold War. Coercion and CIA-sponsored coups were used all over Latin America and the Middle East as tools to build anti-Communist alliances. The continued refusal to face this reality and own up to past expediencies fuels her current enemies and weakens her internally. Any president admitting to these facts would disarm many of America’s most vocal and most radical opponents, and America would emerge again as the great model to which other nations aspire.

Fred Kaplan: Good point. I would say two things, though. First, Europe was the centerpiece of our Cold War policy. Second, as for the other countries, many of their governments went along with us by choice—though it’s certainly the case that some of those governments were installed or bought off. I may have used the phrase “by choice” too cavalierly.


Seattle, a military town: Given the massive outsourcing to Blackwater and other nonmilitary “contractors” by the Bush misadministration—usually at triple or quadruple pay—is it likely we can fix our military, given how much of its hardware has been chewed up in Iraq and the lack of noncontractor resources? And do you think this was a plan by Red China that Bush and McCain enabled with the help of John Yoo and other plants?

Fred Kaplan: I think we’ll be seeing much less involvement by contractors in the near future. Don’t think that reduced contracting will save us money. Somebody has to do the jobs that the contractors have been doing. Where are we going to get these people? As for the Red China plot: No.


aix42: The U.S. must admit its use of torture and apologize. It must stop use of black sites and Guantanamo and the ridiculous notion of “unlawful enemy combatants.” The people of the U.S. also need to become fully aware of how the actions of the U.S. against other nations of the world have hurt many people and have caused great animosity toward this country.

Fred Kaplan: OK, but then what do we do after the self-flagellation. I don’t mean to minimize the point. This IS a basic prerequisite to boosting our image and restoring much of our power—which, as I point out in the Slate column, amount to much the same thing (if done properly).


Nike: An even better idea! Instead of squandering the wealth of the nation down one black hole after another in the Middle East, why not spend that cash on education, building roads, health care, reducing the deficit, etc.? Nah, forget it. How would helping Americans serve the cause of the war pigs? God bless America.

Fred Kaplan: Just curious: “black holes” aside, are you opposed to any US activity overseas?


Seattle: No politicians are talking about the foreign implications of oil dependency? Last time I checked, both Obama and Clinton were talking directly about it—and we here in the 17 states dealing with global warming are doing something about it, with people like me buying 100 percent green power from Seattle City Light from wind, solar and hydro, for example, and all made in America! Half of war is economics—so, is not the major threat the Red Chinese taking global oil, coal and mineral resources worldwide while we dither?

Fred Kaplan: I think you’re right. Thomas Friedman had a fascinating story in the NY Times Magazine several months ago about U.S. firms manufacturing energy-saving devices—large-scale devices—explicitly for export to the Chinese market. This is another way to go.


Fred Kaplan: That’s all, folks. Thanks for the lively forum.