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Doing us a favor

Published: February 5, 2010
Section: Opinions


The Russian and Chinese governments probably didn’t plan to do the United States a huge favor last week that would enable the country to quickly improve its strategic posture. But, whether they intended it or not, they did. As in the way of international politics, of course, they expressed their goodwill in a manner more indirect than most intentional gift-givers, so it remains to be seen whether American leaders will ride their gift-horse or kick it in the teeth.

Russia’s generosity began on Jan. 29 with its first public display of the new T-50 fighter aircraft. The T-50, a product of Russia’s military modernization program, is considered the first non-American stealth aircraft. It is also the first result of non-American efforts to build what writers on military hardware call the “fifth generation” of jet fighters, a field that the U.S. itself entered only in 2005 with the deployment of its most modern current fighter, the F-22 Raptor.

Not content to merely show off its plane, the Russian government added to its gift to the U.S. government when it sold a cache of arms to Libya. The weapons, according to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, were “not just small arms.” Perhaps Libya’s ruler, the mercurial Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi, was in a bad mood on Jan. 29 when the deal was struck, because he had recently learned that he would be denied a second consecutive term as African Union president. Or maybe he acted as a middleman for someone in neighboring Sudan who wants weapons even more than he does. Whatever was on the colonel’s mind, Russia’s state-run arms exporting firm took advantage of his loose purse strings to the tune of $1.8 billion.

Russia was not alone in its show of affection towards the U.S. When the U.S. announced the long-anticipated sale of a $6 billion package of arms to Taiwan on Jan. 29, the Chinese government flew off the handle. Rather than confine itself to a temperate protest, China sanctioned certain imports from the US, suspended military exchanges, and threatened retaliation against American-run businesses situated in the districts of members of Congress who supported the sale.

Never mind that President Barack Obama’s administration was, for practical purposes, compelled to sell something to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. And never mind that Obama carefully put off the sale of F-16 jet fighters—which, given the age of the jets and that Taiwan had already bought some of the aircraft from the U.S. 18 years ago, should have been uncontroversial. China’s dictators didn’t want their gift to the Americans to go unnoticed, so they loudly projected unmistakable anger and resentment.

The Chinese and Russians may have sought to give American leaders a hard time, but the Americans have actually received room to maneuver politically—if only they can grasp that fact. To be sure, there may seem little reason to thank Russia when it sells arms to tin-pot dictators or makes weapons to rival America’s. Nor is there much reason to applaud China’s saber-rattling and assertion of a right to menace and ultimately destroy Taiwan in order to reclaim it.

Still, the obnoxious Russian and Chinese activities offer the year-old Obama administration a way to end the continued waste of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq and the overspending on those wars and homeland security.

If the U.S. is to compete with big, resource-rich countries like Russia and China which continue to modernize their armed forces, it must spend less money using old hardware to occupy poor, weak countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the U.S. should spend more on building new hardware to deter real threats in the future.

The need to spend more selectively is clear. On Monday, Obama proposed a record-breaking 2011 U.S. budget deficit of $1.56 trillion, which is projected to amount to an unsustainable 10.6 percent of America’s gross domestic product.

The recent Russian and Chinese moves together provide the perfect political cover for a review of American military commitments that would result in a shifting of defense priorities. An American exit from Afghanistan could be initiated, the exit from Iraq could be accelerated and future U.S. military spending could be directed toward countering real future threats rather than fighting Bush’s—and Obama’s—bogeymen. All this the administration could accomplish without being accused of retreating, appeasing, cutting, running or anything of the kind. Russia’s and China’s actions might ordinarily leave a sour taste in one’s mouth, but lemonade can still be made of their lemons.