James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Quick Takes: Must Reads on Libya and Defense Spending

by James M. Lindsay
September 15, 2011

Members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group smile when they meet their relatives upon their release from Abu Salim prison near Tripoli August 31, 2010. Libya freed 37 prisoners late on Tuesday, including at least one former detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, who had been jailed for links to radical Islamist groups but have since renounced violence. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

Members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group greet their relatives upon their release from Abu Salim prison near Tripoli on August 31, 2010. (Ismail Zitouny/courtesy Reuters)

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both have front-page stories worth reading. One is about the future of Libya and the other is about the future of U.S. weapons systems.

First the Times’ story on Libya. The headline captures the gist: “Islamists’ Growing Sway Raises Questions in Libya.” The passage that stands out for me is a quote from Adel al-Hadi al-Mishrogi, whom the Times identifies as “a prominent businessman who begain raising money for the anti-Qaddafi insurgents early in the revolution.” He makes the point that Michele Bachmann has made repeatedly in opposing U.S. military intervention in Libya: the Islamists will hijack the revolution:

Most Libyans are not strongly Islamic, but the Islamists are strongly organized, and that’s the problem….They’re not very popular, but they’re organized.

The ability of organized and passionate ideological minorities to impose their will on disorganized majorities is a problem with all political systems, but it can be especially pernicious at fluid, revolutionary moments when new political institutions are being forged. The general will doesn’t always triumph, and what follows the dictator (or monarch) can be as bad or worse. Just think Russia in 1917 or Iran in 1979. This doesn’t mean that Libya is destined to follow the Iranian path. It does mean that celebrations of NATO’s triumph in Libya are wildly premature.

The Journal’s story discusses how the effort to cut federal spending is coming just as the services need to replace and modernize an aging fleet of ships, planes, and other weapons systems. How “geriatric” is the U.S. arsenal?

The Air Force says the average age of F-15 C and D models, which make up about half of the fleet, is 25 years. That’s sprightly compared with the average age of the service’s strategic bombers, 34, and refueling aircraft, 47.

Planned retirements mean the Navy has fewer ships today than it had on Sept. 11, 2001—284 now, 316 then. The USS Enterprise, the Navy’s oldest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was commissioned in 1961.

Of course, it’s expensive to build new weapon systems. So is trying to keep old and increasingly unreliable ones operational. But defense spending will be flat at best going forward and it may even fall. Something will have to give. The question is what.

The optimistic scenario is that the budgetary pressures force the services and the country more broadly to rethink roles and missions, retire expensive legacy platforms, shift to new and less costly weapons systems like unmanned drones, contain rising military healthcare costs, and squeeze out inefficiencies. The result would be a leaner but just as effective and capable fighting force.

The pessimistic scenario is across-the-board cuts that fall on good and bad programs alike, horse-trading among services to protect favored weapons systems, and congressional protection for programs that do more to create jobs than protect citizens. The result would be a less expensive but also less capable and effective fighting force.

Your guess is as good as mine as to which scenario plays out. Two things are certain, though. First, with the exception of Ron Paul, most presidential candidates won’t talk about how deeply they are prepared to cut defense or what they will cut. (Paul participated in the Sustainable Defense Task Force, which argues that defense spending can be cut by more than $900 billion dollars over the coming decade without harming national security.) Second, whoever wins in November 2012 is going to face some tough political and bureaucratic fights over defense spending during his or her presidency.

Update: The Washington Post also had a story on the emergence of Islamists in Libya yesterday. Do the Times and the Post share an assignment editor?

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Tony

    Regarding :Libyan’s Muslims: I agree, I bet Muslim brother hood and other factions that are funded from Saudi are infiltrating the region.
    How can we overcome that? I believe it would rely on:
    1. The future government of Libya and how organized and established would be.
    2. How a new modern Islamic style government can function,perhaps follow the blue print of Turkey, Morocco or even Tunisia can be used a s a go-by!

    Regarding Defense spending:
    I agree, we have old equipment which must be replaced with new systems. However ; the new system cannot be designed based on 30 years ago- pre soviet union strategy.
    The new style should be designed on urban warfare, more unmanned systems ( planes, armory vehicles, robotics, etc…) and less boots on the ground.

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