Fred Kaplan discusses fixing the military and foreign policy.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
April 3 2008 6:18 PM

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 Washingtonpost.com 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.

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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)?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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