The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: global democracy wanes as the U.S. debates more military aid for flawed democracies; Washington boasts that weapons exports are good business; nuclear nightmares grow; salute our veterans Saturday!; and more.
DEMOCRACY ON THE DECLINE
Around the world, and here at home, too
Democracy is shrinking around the globe — and the U.S. seems increasingly leery of doing anything to halt its slide. Leaders and wanna-be leaders, including Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Donald Trump in the U.S., are edging the world from democracies to autocracies, according to the Global State of Democracy 2023 report by the Swedish-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
“Across every region of the world, democracy has continued to contract,” the November 2 study concluded. Last year “was the sixth consecutive year in which more countries experienced net declines in democratic processes than net improvements.” That’s the longest downturn since IDEA began tracking democracy’s ebbs and flows in 1975.
A century ago, Woodrow Wilson led America into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.” That ended with World War II. The U.S. fought in Vietnam and Iraq to help democracy flourish. A half-century later, Vietnam remains a communist country — and increasingly a U.S. ally when it comes to China. Twenty years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that nation is increasingly becoming an Iranian puppet.
The U.S. is now weighing in more and more with military aid to allies that are often at best imperfect democracies.
But if the U.S. decides to pull back from helping fellow democracies, perhaps it’s time to recalibrate the mission, size, and scope of the U.S. military and its arsenal as well.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
U.S. wages war without troops while pocketing profits
War, or the prospect of war, has always been a two-sided coin. It’s good to defend against foreign threats — but it’s also good for the domestic economy. It’s even better when military spending is earmarked for wars being fought by U.S. allies without U.S. troops.
Keeping the defense industry humming wins bipartisan praise. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) made that clear October 31, during an appropriations committee hearing into President Biden’s $106 billion supplemental budget request largely earmarked for aid to U.S. allies. “The supplemental request includes more than $30 billion to replenish our military’s weapons stockpiles and invest in and strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base in many states,” Collins said. “None of this funding goes overseas or to another country. It makes America stronger by modernizing our arsenal of democracy right here in our country.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin marshalled the same argument at the same hearing. “When we send our friends munitions from our stockpiles, the money to replenish our supplies strengthens our military readiness, and we invest in American industry and American workers,” he said. “Some $50 billion of this supplemental request would flow through our defense industrial base, creating American jobs in more than 30 states.”
Austin’s boss makes the same pitch. The increased aid would pay for “new equipment that defends America, and is made in America,” Biden said October 20. It includes “Patriot missiles for air defense batteries made in Arizona; artillery shells manufactured in 12 states across the country — in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas — and so much more.”
It’s a lousy way to justify war-making.
Trends are moving in the wrong direction
“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned in 1985. Last week offered clues that that solemn declaration is eroding.
The U.S. Air Force announced a $996 million contract to build a new “re-entry vehicle” (PDF) designed to drop nuclear warheads into what is now Russia, and other targets. These vehicles will be the cherry atop the new LGM-35A Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile. Meanwhile, 5,000 miles away and three days later in Moscow, Putin revoked his nation’s ratification of the global treaty that would ban nuclear testing. It’s Putin’s latest example of nuclear saber-rattling, designed to throttle Western aid for Ukraine by highlighting an itchy Red trigger finger (and, on November 7, NATO and Russia essentially scrapped a treaty limiting non-nuclear forces along their shared borders).
The U.S. and Russia signed the atomic pact in 1996, joining 184 other nations. Moscow ratified it in 2000. But the U.S. never has, along with other states including China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen (The Bunker’s Mom always warned about hanging out with the wrong crowd). Nearly 30 years after the UN launched the effort, it hasn’t entered into force because key nuclear-capable states, like the U.S., haven’t ratified it. Putin has said Russia is leaving the pact to “mirror” Washington’s refusal to ratify.
Given that, the New York Times dubbed Putin’s action “more symbolic than practical.” Speaking of symbolism, the Pentagon said shortly before Putin de-ratified the atomic deal that it had to destroy a California-launched Minuteman III missile in mid-flight over the Pacific. An unspecified “anomaly” forced the military to “safely terminate” the missile during a routine test, it said.
Such aging Minuteman ICBMs are slated to be replaced by Sentinel ICBMs beginning in 2029. It’s part of the Pentagon’s plan to spend up to $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years buying new nuclear-firing missiles, bombers, and submarines. Nothing says “we need new missiles” like having one go astray. But the Pentagon, as always, put the best spin possible on the snafu. “Minuteman III test provides vital data,” read its headline announcing the failure, “before termination.”
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
The U.S. desire to fight ISIS terrorists in the Middle East with thousands of artillery rounds instead of thousands of GIs has left those who fired such weapons struggling with depression, hallucinations, and suicide, Dave Phillips reported November 5 in the New York Times.
As Western arms makers plan to co-produce weapons in Ukraine, the U.S. government needs to make sure it has the proper safeguards in place, colleague Julia Gledhill here at the Center for Defense Information wrote November 2 at Responsible Statecraft.
The Pentagon posted this form October 31 (of course) for authorized personnel to report UFOs they may have seen.
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