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Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon Calling For Troops To Stay In Afghanistan Indefinitely

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HH: Joined now by Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. You can follow him @MichaelEOhanlon on Twitter. Michael, welcome, tensions, of course, in Jerusalem at a boiling point this afternoon, lots of clashes with police, a killing of a young Arab youth some suspect to be a revenge killing. There’s no conclusive pointing to that, yet. It could have been all sorts of different things. But if it is that, it’s going to get really rough before it gets better. This could spiral, do you think?

MO’H: Yeah, it always can, Hugh, and that’s why I think, you know, people will say well, how can they possibly make peace when they’re doing these sorts of things to each other, and especially when the three Israeli teenagers were brutally murdered in recent days. But of course, this is also exactly the reason why you do need a peace treaty. It doesn’t mean everybody’s going to love each other, but it means that you start from a basis where the security forces of the two sides are cooperating against threats like this so that they don’t necessarily escalate. That’s what you need, because you cannot afford to let these sort of things just happen and build on themselves. And as you point out, we’re at a very risky moment.

HH: Yesterday, I talked with maybe the most admired journalist in the world, John Fisher Burns. He was in Sarajevo, and we spent an hour talking about a hundred years ago less five days, and how things spiral. And it seems like there are a lot of potential Sarajevo moments going on right now, Michael O’Hanlon, in Syria, in Western Iraq, in Jerusalem. You’ve been at this quite a long time. Is that just what we always feel when we pay attention? Or is it in fact uniquely precarious at this moment?

MO’H: Well, first of all, hat’s off to you and your other guest for helping us all remember our history. I think it is a good year to think back and to understand the kinds of out of control nationalism, unlucky events, unwise military battle plans, and shifting and uncertain alliances that led to World War I, because it’s just a shock. You know, when you go back a little over a hundred years, and you saw a world that seemed to be doing pretty well, and most people at the time thought it was, and then you know, the next thing you know, they’re at each other’s throats, 20 million people die, there’s a brief period between wars, and then 50 million people die. So I think you’re right. I think it’s also correct that some of the specific issues we’re talking about harken back to that period, the fact that Syria and Iraq were essentially created in the aftermath of World War I, and also in the East Asian zone, you of course have a rising Chinese nationalism which I tend to hope and think is a little better controlled than some of the European nationalism of a hundred years ago. But I’m still worried about it, and I can’t be sure about that judgment. And so yeah, between Syria, Iraq and China’s rise in particular, I would say there are some echoes of what happened a century ago.

HH: Now Michael O’Hanlon, you mentioned the Pacific crisis. Yesterday, in a little noted story, Prime Minister Abe came out and said he had reinterpreted Japan’s Constitution. I think this is an enormous deal. It got very little coverage. What did you make of it?

MO’H: I like it. And I say that, I have some concerns about Prime Minister Abe’s overall style of leadership in foreign policy. He has people around him, and he himself sometimes may lapse into language that makes it sound like he’s not sufficiently attentive to the lessons that Japan should have learned after World War II, and that he’s not sufficiently apologetic, although he’ll usually correct himself after he lets that sort of sentiment, you know, sit out there for a while. So I am willing to be critical of him on that stuff, but these specific changes, I think, are overdue. Just to give an example, I’ll give two examples if you don’t mind. One of them is let’s say a Japanese ship and an American ship are sailing together on some kind of a joint patrol, and somebody shoots at them. You know, make up your own adversary, whether it’s a terrorist or North Korea or China or whoever. Right now, if there’s a missile headed for the American ship, the Japanese ship cannot help us protect ourselves. That’s under the old rules.

HH: Wow.

MO’H: The old interpretation, and so here you are, you’ve got two treaty allies, they’re out there doing a common mission, Americans are under attack, and possibly even suffer a violent attack and loss of life, and the Japanese can’t even use their missile defense system to help save us. That’s crazy. You know, there’s just no other word for it. Whatever your views about whether Japan should stay, you know, pacifist, keep limits on its military that exceed the limits that most other countries place on there, we can have that debate. But the scenario that I just mentioned, I think, is crazy. And then here’s another one. And I realize that Koreans and Chinese sometimes get worried about Japan, but let’s say that those three countries are all part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission somewhere with Japanese, Korean and Chinese soldiers working side by side. And even if their political leaders still have some tensions and disagreements, let’s say those three countries are working together side by side. And then, the Chinese and Korean forces get shot at. Right now, under the old rules, the Japanese could not come to their defense. So if the Japanese get shot at themselves, they can return fire. But if they watch their brethren, their fellow soldiers on the same side of this peacekeeping mission get shot at, they cannot come to their aid, even if, let’s say hypothetically, the ten Chinese soldiers have all now gotten wounded, and the only way to prevent them from being killed is for the Japanese troops to protect them. The old rules would not have allowed that. The new rules do.

HH: You see, that is crazy.

MO’H: Yeah.

HH: That is crazy. And it does come down to how much money, I think, he puts behind this, and the sort of posture that he assumes. So you’re encouraged that he did it. When will we know the Chinese reaction to it, though, which is part of the equation, obviously?

MO’H: You’re right, and I think you’re also right to raise the money, and let me say two quick things on that. One is that money is not that big of a deal. Abe is not pumping up the Japanese defense budget that much. You probably know, I’m sure you know, a lot of your listeners I know also are aware that Japanese defense spending is pretty modest relative to the size of the economy. It’s been about 1%, there’s sort of been an unofficial cap of 1% of GDP they’ll spend on their military, 1% of their gross domestic product. In our country, it’s right now around 4%, and we were up around, closer to 5% in the late Bush and early Obama years. We were up around 6% in the Reagan years. So the Japanese are doing a lot less than their fair share, and Abe is only increasing that by, you know, a few percent, like from 1.0 to 1.05%. So that part’s not a great deal. The Chinese and the Koreans will not like it. They’ll say bad things about it. But my prediction is they’ll deal with it, because they’ll recognize the kinds of scenarios we’re talking about are not threatening to them.

HH: That’s good news. Now the last question is we’re coming up to a decision about whether or not Americans are going to keep troops in Afghanistan, and I pointed out to John Fisher Burns yesterday Camp Bondsteel is there in Kosovo, and has been for 20 years, and the peace has been kept. We left Iraq, and the peace fell apart. What’s your advice to the President as he considers even the difficulties of dealing with a disputed new president, and it’s not going to be Ally ally in free in Afghanistan, no matter who is declared the winner, about keeping a substantial number of American troops for the long term in Afghanistan?

MO’H: Well, substantial, of course, is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. But I believe we should keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. And here, I do have a disagreement with the President on not only his most recent decision to pull out all those troops in 2016, but also the rhetoric, because he’s suggesting in his rhetoric that the most important thing for us is to “end two wars”, but as you pointed out, we may choose we’re going to end our role in them. That doesn’t mean the wars themselves end. In fact, they may get worse. And it’s not just about helping the Afghans, although I believe in doing that. It’s also about helping ourselves by going after al Qaeda. So if there’s an al Qaeda target in Pakistan, we need a place from which we can fly drones or launch a commando raid to go after it. And if we remove all those bases from Afghanistan, there really is not alternative. So I think for our own security, we should view this as a partnership we want to preserve into the medium to long term future with a few thousand troops. And it doesn’t take more than that, but I think we can do that and should do that indefinitely.

HH: Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, always a pleasure to talk to you. Have a great 4th of July.

End of interview.


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