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"Foreign Policy, Economy Interconnected"

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks about the role of economics in U.S. foreign policy to the Economic Club of New York on October 14, 2011, at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City
AP Photo

"Foreign Policy, Economy Interconnected"

Op-Ed, The Boston Globe

October 17, 2011

Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security


DO YOU know where "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" is? According to Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who seemed giddy in promoting his lack of knowledge on foreign affairs, it’s somewhere out there with a lot of other insignificant countries. It doesn't exist, but even if it did, the details don't matter: How, Cain wondered, is knowing about the world "going to create one job?"

Cain's view of economic policy and foreign policy as entirely separate realms — leading to a choice between domestic jobs and engagement in foreign affairs — was laughable, but seemed to reflect the attitude of almost the entire Republican field. It's a false dichotomy, even a dangerous one. The economy and our national security are inextricably linked. What we pay for and how we pay for it are qualitative decisions that are not simply about economic policy. They are also tied to the choices we make about our commitment to two wars, our willingness to engage in future wars, and the substance of the foreign-policy agendas of the candidates.

Unfortunately, the idea that it all comes down to an easy choice — we must focus on here, rather than there — was on full display during last week's debate on the economy. Bloomberg News, the financial network, hosted. Viewers could assess the candidates based on their answers to questions on unemployment and US competitiveness. These are not easy issues, but the debate still managed to provide an incomplete picture. In focusing solely on domestic concerns it furthered the dangerous perception that foreign and defense policy play no role in the economy — that candidates can be tough on spending while proposing wildly costly initiatives at the Pentagon or in overseas wars.

Thus, candidates such as Mitt Romney could stroll out of last week's debate about tax cuts and fiscal austerity and then wax eloquent about beefing up the military in other settings. We should know better. In 2002, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey estimated the Iraq war would cost between $100 billion and $200 billion. Mitch Daniels, the head of President Bush's budget office, dismissed Lindsey's estimates, saying the number was closer to $50 billion. Lindsey was shown the door, but his only error was in guessing so low.

Today, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard's Linda Bilmes argue that the total costs of the Iraq war alone, including disability and veterans' support costs, may pass $2 trillion. Brown University's Costs of War project estimates that the United States has spent between $3.2 trillion and $4 trillion on the "war on terror."

Because we waged wars without paying for them with new taxes, we took on greater international debt, setting the stage for last summer's debt-ceiling debate. The failure of war planning in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which led to substantial violence in both arenas, caused unease in the global oil markets leading to higher prices. Global instability in foreign affairs is tied to global instability in economic affairs.

By understanding these basic facts, the real debate can begin. If Rick Perry wants to send US troops to Mexico in the war on drugs, as he said last month, then a good domestic debate would ask basic questions about how he would pay for them, how many troops, and for how long? If Romney wants a "multilayered national ballistic missile defense system," as he stated in his national security speech last week, from which funds would such as system come, given that both President Obama and Republicans in Congress now agree that defense spending cannot grow without blowing out the deficit?

"Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" could prove to be far more relevant in the future than we can ever imagine. And understanding how the candidates plan to deal with unexpected scenarios is not simply a foreign policy issue. The future war against that fictitious country might cost anywhere from $50 billion to over $2 trillion. That discrepancy seems very germane to the presidential debates, even one strictly "on the economy."


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For Academic Citation:

Kayyem, Juliette. "Foreign Policy, Economy Interconnected." The Boston Globe, October 17, 2011.

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