Transcript: Is Trump turning Pentagon into a protection racket?

Burden sharing. Many American presidents have pushed this line, but Donald Trump has added a new dimension, arguing that allies of the United States have to pay more for “protection”. He has berated NATO allies, handed Anglo-America a handwritten bill for two trillion dollars on one occasion for money owed for Germany’s protection, and moved on to Saudi Arabia. Last week, it was South Korea’s turn.

Steve Clemons: Hi, I’m Steve Clemons, and I have a question. Is the Trump administration turning the US military into a protection racket? Let’s get to the bottom line.

So what does it mean for the US military forces spread all over the globe? And do America’s allies smell a shakedown?

Fortunately, we have three people in the room who have all the answers to these questions. Admiral William Fallon, who has headed both US Central Command and Pacific Command and served as a presidential envoy to Japan, Laicie Heeley, chief editor of Inkstick and host of a podcast on military affairs called Things That Go Boom, and Kevin Baron, executive director of Defense One, which covers US defence and national security.

Thank you all so much for joining us. Admiral Fallon, let me start with you. Burden sharing is not a new thing. Many presidents have been talking about it. I mean, I remember President Obama, President Clinton, both presidents Bush actually talking to our allies on numerous occasions and making the case that our allies needed to do more. So what is different about this moment?

William Fallon: Well, Steve, I think, before we get into this, it would be good to just keep in mind that this is a complex question, and the arrangements that we have with different countries are almost all unique.

So NATO, the NATO alliance has been around since 1949. Long-standing tradition of security. Very, very helpful to us in the Cold War days. Now it’s a different era. But there are long-standing NATO agreements and arrangements that touch crosstalk 00:02:00

Clemons: Real quick, the NATO ally was very helpful to us after 9/11, too. It was article five invoked.

Fallon: Many things, but you go to other places in the world, and these are different. They are not the same. So the arrangement we have with Korea is different than the one with NATO, and the arrangements in Japan are different, again, with Korea. You go around the world, Singapore with Qatar almost every place. These are not the same deals. And so to approach them as it is one thing you pay or else is not, in my opinion, the right way to do this. And you have to keep in mind that when these agreements are negotiated.

Clemons: And you negotiated a bunch of them.

Fallon: I have done a number or been a part of those negotiations. They are best done in my experience offline out of the limelight because some of the issues become very sensitive and they are unique to the individual countries involved.

Clemons: Well, let’s listen to President Trump for a moment as he has talked about what he is trying to do on this front.

Donald Trump (archive): We will insist on fair burden sharing with our allies. I’ve made it clear we are protecting many, many wealthy, wealthy, wealthy countries. We protect all of these wealthy countries, which I’m very honored to do, but many of them are so wealthy, they can easily pay us the cost of this protection.

Clemons: Kevin, the admiral just laid out that many of these are different, that if you are like looking at Korea, that is a different deal than NATO. Qatar, today, where central command has a huge base in the Middle East. So are there some places where a burden sharing becomes protection where essentially we are loaning out our military muscle for pay, running the Pentagon at a profit, if you will.

Kevin Baron: Yes, if that is what you listen to the president’s word, but when you ask –

Clemons: Well, wait a minute, the president’s words matter, right?

Baron: I say it depends on how you look at this. Then, when you ask anyone in the military about why all of these agreements exist, it is because the United States has an enduring interest that these things exist. But if you want a United States military that is able to react to a threat abroad or just act as a deterrence abroad, then the United States needs partners and allies.

Baron: That is just basic one-on-one defence doctrine, right? So you need an agreement to have basing, you need an agreement to have access to ports and overflights with all these individual countries. But I think we are already way down the weeds from the bigger question here, which is, Donald Trump has brought a new way of doing business, a new way of doing foreign policy and he has done it by the will of the American people, or at least the electoral college and a new era. And I think we are arguing a lot about the means, not the ends, like you said in your opener – Obama and every other president and every other defence secretary and joint chiefs chairman before then all had the same message to NATO; please, you guys should pay a little more. You said meet your debts a little more. And Democrats like Carl Levin were pressing the Koreans to do more. But not like this.

Clemons: I get all that, I want to push you just an inch more before I get to Laicie, and she is going to correct all of us on this. But I want to ask you, if you set up the regime that our allies that we have strategic interests in partnering with and deploying US force of war, that we have someone out there that says we are not going to pay because paying for US military bases and installations is sometimes a controversial thing in these countries. It is not an easy deal.

Baron: Absolutely.

Clemons: It is not an easy deal. And as the admiral said, most of these are dealt with without the spotlight on them and they’re done enclosed just because it is domestically controversial. So what happens? But what happens if a country does not pay?

Baron: Well, I don’t know that. We will find out if anyone does not pay, you know, they could try to call Trump’s bluff. But look, I think there is a reason why the admiral was involved in negotiations like this and not the president of the United States. This is not presidential business usually, but Donald Trump has made it his business. Another dimension of this I think is we are in a generational change. There are populations of, you know, American voters and populations in these countries that weare dealing with that don’t remember the last 50 years or don’t maybe appreciate the reason why American troops are stationed there to begin with. And so the controversies of places like Okinawa or Korea, where local populations may have had beefs, maybe changing over time. And the more that Donald Trump framed this as a protection racket, as you know, we are going to protect your countries and I am honoured to do it, rather than it is in America’s security interest that we protected these, not just these countries, but American interests in these countries and our economic interest and our social interest, you name it.

Clemons: Right, Laicie, I was amused at one point in our history that, and Admiral Fallon may have been involved in this, I’m not sure, but in the early 1990s in the first Gulf War, the Japanese did not participate. Then the assistant secretary of state, Richard Solomon, made a big deal that the Japanese did not participate in sort of in blood and force on the line. So, the Japanese wrote a cheque. They wrote a $13bn cheque, you know, $13bn went further than at that time. And we actually made a profit. The United States made a profit off of that war. And it was the first time I ever thought about running the Pentagon at a profit. But how does this feel? I mean you are a specialist and you kind of talk about our American military commitments today. Does it make sense that President Trump is putting pressure on allies to contribute more, after all the United States is less of the size of the economy that it once was? It is still maintaining a global infrastructure of security. Shouldn’t these nations pay a lot more?

Laicie Heeley: Yeah. I can’t say that I agree with that. Running the Pentagon at a profit, I don’t think that is exactly what we want to be doing. There is absolutely, I agree with Kevin that it is in the US interest for us to have these bases overseas. It is basic 101. We have to have allies. But what Trump is doing I think is actually turning this on its head and he is going down a road that many presidents, many lawmakers have gone down before saying, yes, our allies need to share more of this burden. And he understands that this is a super political situation. He understands that people inside the US are not going to be excited about closing any bases, whether those are overseas or domestic. He understands that some of our allies do not actually want our bases there. And so, if he turns this on its head and he says, well, this is a protection racket, like I’ll do it if you really want me to. Then it allows, and it is dangerous because it puts the onus on our allies to say, sure, we don’t want you here.

Clemons: Well, it does exactly what ambassador, sorry to give you a different promotion, but Admiral Fallon just talked about, which is to drag this out in the limelight, it becomes controversial everywhere. Let’s listen to President Trump talk about his latest conquest.

Donald Trump (archive): But South Korea’s costing us five billion dollars a year and they pay, they were paying about 500 million for five-billion worth of protection. And we have to do better than that. So they have agreed to pay 500 million more and over the years, it will start going up.

Clemons: Admiral Fallon, you know the Pacific region very well. The real numbers are that Korea paid about $900m in change last year. But what is the issue that we’re really trying to drive at here? Should we be asking the Koreans to amp up what they are doing at the level of five billion dollars a year? What does that do to the integrity and solvency of that alliance?

Fallon: So, without getting into the details of the numbers, what I believe we are seeing here frankly, is the behaviour of the president from his past life in which it is pretty well documented that his MO is to go in and hit them in the nose with a big number or a big threat or a big something and intimidate them and they will back off. But my experience, this is not the way you do international diplomacy and particularly in Korea.

Clemons: But this is South Korea, right, on the border of North Korea, which is threatening the region with nuclear missiles and weapons and warheads threatening Japan. So, the one that gets the bloody nose is our ally.

Fallon: So Korea is a very interesting situation. Again, gets back to this point about each of these arrangements with different countries around the world and the US are unique. So in Korea, the history here goes back since the Korean war in 1950 but as a result of that war, the UN was asked to go to the defence of Korea, after the armistice. And it is worth noting that in Korea there is no end to the Korean war. It has not been adjudicated. It has not been settled. There is just an armistice that has been in effect since 1953, pretty interesting? So, the war could start again at any time. The point is now we are there and we have a very different arrangement in Korea than in other places. The US forces there and there are not that many, particularly compared to the past, in the mid twenties probably 2,000 something like that. And most of those are support people for the bases and headquarters.

Fallon: But in Korea the command relationship is different than most places. So you have, what is known as a combined forces command in which US and Korean leaders are totally integrated on the staff. So, it is not like in most places where the US will go in with the staff of officers, usually it will be the commander and others will bring their staffs. This is completely integrated from top to bottom. So, they are very close together. If this is going to be effective, if the defence of the grand peninsula is necessary in the future, it has to work. So the idea that you go in and just bludgeon them and say, we want five times as much money to do this, wait a minute, what are we doing here? The Koreans just spent a lot of money at their behest to move us out of Younsin the major facility in Seoul.

Clemons: To Camp Humphreys.

Fallon: To Humphreys, OK. That actually is to our advantage because it is a lot further back from the DMZ than the previous place was. And in military terms outside the range of current North Korea and artillery, significant difference. So we have these facilities in Korea, they are designed to be integrated with the Koreans in case of an emergency. And I think it is very important that we keep these arrangements as long as we have an interest in Northeast Asia, which we certainly do.

Clemons: So, Kevin, I heard everything admiral said, but again, going back to the words of the president that you said we should questionably, listen to, on occasion, as I shared with you earlier, we watched President Trump at Camp Humphreys during his first trip to Korea. It was about 3:00am in Washington, DC, time, I remember it very well, gave a speech about how important the US Korea relationship was about the American presence in Asia, and then when he finished his speech and the teleprompter was off, he said he could have built that base far cheaper than it was built for and faster and that this base was not for America security anyway. It was only for a Korea’s and so without one line undid, what I think was the purpose of the trip was to demonstrate to the Koreans that America’s security was also Korea security and I’m interested in whether or not we should be listening to that president of the United States or should we be listening to the command structure, the Pentagon that has been saying and arguing as as best it can differently.

Baron: I think you better listen to both. I think absolutely you need to listen to the commanders in the Pentagon and around the world who give their advice and they are the ones on the front lines saying this is what we believe is needed to remember to execute the policies that they are given by the president, by the White House. They are lobbying in their own way for the forces and equipment and agreements that they need. But you better listen to the president, too, because again, he reflects a large percentage of the population, whether you agree with it or not, whether you think they understand the world or they are not even, they don’t understand the world. A lot of people, I think even in the international relations circles, they are starting to say, you know what, they have a legitimate grievance.

Baron: There’s a lot of people that think, yeah, most countries around the world could chip in a little bit more. What is unique is this president’s bull in a China shop kind of way comes in and like you said, will bloody the nose of an ally publicly in their own country just to say, you know, he has a little upper hand and politically to make himself look tough. Like the deal maker that he is. It is the New York, you know, real estate mogul language that he knows that he is bringing to something as sensitive and complex as international diplomacy. But when you ask American people or voters in the population, they are not in the weeds until all these, you know, agreements that we know. All they hear is, look, he is fighting for us, he is doing what we asked him to do.

Fallon: I think there’s a fundamental assumption that is inherent in words like that, and that is that these deals are one way that somehow we are benefiting all of these countries by our presence. And in fact most of these arrangements are very definitely two way deals in which we get something out of this as well as the other country. And if you lump these all together and take the view that they are all the same and it is all the US the great and powerful mighty US and we are here to take care of things and save you. That’s absolutely the wrong view.

Clemons: Laicie, let me ask you, what is the unrecognised dependency that the United States has on this global infrastructure basis that is not really being talked about?

Heeley: Yeah, I mean we are certainly dependent to this point though about certainly our two way, the two way importance of this. It is very important for the US to have these bases. But that also I want to point out, I very much agree with that, but we can’t make the wholesale assumption that all of these agreements and all of these spaces are necessary. And I think that’s certainly, I mean you mentioned in Turlock, we have US nuclear weapons stationed 100 miles from the border of Syria. There are some of these arrangements that could use revisiting and you know that I think often the conversation is boiled down into, ‘Oh, well the president doesn’t understand how NATO works. He doesn’t understand that they’re not just giving us money to do this thing and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I just don’t think he cares.’

Clemons: Let me bring up a tweet from Congresswoman Ilhan Omar which reads: “Our defense budget continues to fund endless wars that damage our reputation in the world and do not make us any safer in the US. We need to reduce our military budget, which totals more than the next seven countries combined.” This next seven countries combined is the part of this that interest me as though if you were basically trying to change the economics of how the United States basically makes the economic equation for defending the world and defending its interests, when you begin to increase the price tag of the smaller countries, it’s still a pretty small deal crosstalk 00:17:12.

Baron: What difference would it make to level the threat that is coming from the Middle East and North Africa from ISIS the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL and al-Qaeda or Afghanistan from the Taliban or anywhere else in Asia. What difference would it make if those seven countries started paying more? To me that sounds like a nice optics question, but it doesn’t get to the heart of, does America think it is to its interest and it’s, enduring security to have four deployed troops right at these bases and have these agreements of countries to go back to the topic with President Trump.

Clemons: So, the price tag doesn’t add up.

Baron: It doesn’t add up. Everyone would love to have some more equitable burden sharing in the world, but it is never going to happen because the size of the United States is just so exponentially larger and the capabilities are exponentially larger. Syria was the example. You can pull the United States out of Syria and Trump wanted to pull the US and let, let the Europeans handle the security there. But the Brits and the French, and there are others there can’t do the special ops missions without the Americans helping enable those missions. They can’t do this on their own without these partnerships, and the United States can’t either.

Fallon: So there’s some fundamentals here. Does the United States wish to be engaged in the world? Yes or no. The president feels, from my interpretation of his words, that we ought to be doing a lot less of that and just worry about ourselves. And I would say interesting proposition, but in today’s world it’s a nonstarter just doesn’t work. We are too interconnected, too interdependent. And the reality is the world depends on the US and our leadership and our willingness to engage. And if we were to withdraw from that and you would get into a deep political question, the fundamentals here-

Baron: I don’t think the president wants to pull out completely. I think he says it but then he doesn’t ever mean it and his actions don’t back up his words. crosstalk 00:18:58

Clemons: But we have seen troop increases, we have seen true increases in various bases abroad. But it does raise interesting questions ’cause I’m not sure I agree with you Kevin, and Laicie. I am going to, you know, give the floor to you for a moment to share this because I find it very issuing, I agree with the admiral that I think President Trump is less interested in being engaged internationally than even President Obama was who believed in strategic caution. In many ways Donald Trump is far more cautious than President Obama was. And I think that when we look at that tweet from Ilhan Omar, what it is basically saying is we are doing too much out there. And I am wondering if Ilhan Omar and President Trump are sort of covertly on the same piece of territory.

Heeley: That is an interesting suggestion. I really do think that, you know, folks like Ilhan Omar certainly also looking at our domestic situation, our domestic political situation, our spending and they are saying we need to be spending more on healthcare or student loans, whatever it might be. They are saying, you know, these things are potentially more important than all the money that we are spending that is so much more than our allies and, hey, couldn’t they be doing a little bit more? And I do, I agree with you. I think that if President Trump had his way, he would pull back some of our former deployments. He would bring us home and not entirely, I don’t know, I can’t speak for President Trump, but I think some of the think-tanks and the groups that he is working with, their perspective would be that we could do more from home.

Clemons: So, let me ask you in the last bit of time, we have asked you just for short snapshots, that if you were given the task, if you were working for this president, and part of your task was to recognise that we are in an inflection point and I see this as an inflection point after World War II, we can’t maintain the same level of global bases and global presence. Where would you roll back? Where would you roll back and book, but maybe where would you raise the price, if you were going to keep American presence to our allies? Admiral Fallon.

Fallon: Steve, I would disagree with the premise there. I think first of all, we’ve-

Clemons: Thanks.

Fallon: Sorry, but we have substantially reduced our overseas presence in numbers of troops, the forces, particularly in the last few years, most in fact are back in the continental US. The challenge for us is that we cannot respond or reach out to places that may become troublesome without access to certain places in the world. It is just too difficult, too hard.

Clemons: We still have 200,000 troops abroad though.

Fallon: And for different reasons in different places. And I give you a one example back to kind of where we started in Northeast Asia. The arrangement with Japan, is a result of the end of World War II. And the basic deal was this, we, the US will provide your security, Japan, we don’t want you to have another military because we don’t want a repetition of what we saw in the early 20th century. Therefore we will protect you. In exchange for that, we need access, right? And so we got these bases facilities.

Fallon: But I would throw one more thing in into this mix here and this is something for the Congress. So there are a lot of criticisms, you know, president does this, dah, dah, dah, right? Are the majority of people in this country aware we don’t have a budget, we do not have a real budget in this country, that Congress has not passed one in years. What does this mean? It means we are going to waste more money in defence and other things because the law says that the way this money has to be spent is not smartly, not with forethought and planning, but in incrementals that don’t exceed whatever was done last year. So if you did something last year, you can do that. It is absurd, it is absolutely nuts.

Clemons: It is called inertia. Laicie, real quick, your thoughts, Admiral Fallon says let’s keep it all.

Heeley: To the budget point, I agree it’s, it’s ridiculous that we can’t pass the budget, but we also have not just passed things in incremental same as last year. We have significantly ramped up the military budget over the last few years.

Clemons: OK, where would you roll back real quick?

Heeley: So I mentioned US nuclear weapons before. I think that is one of the most obvious places we have gotten, you know, nuns walking into airbases and putting stickers on bombs. I think that, you know, some of these places we could reconsider whether or not we would even use those B 60 ones.

Clemons: Kevin, where would you roll back or where would you charge a higher price for the Pentagon’s love?

Baron: I’m going to agree with Admiral Fallon to disagree with the premise of your question, but instead say, look, go back to that Ilhar Omar tweet. But the first part of it, when she mentions Forever Wars, look, the president is more closely aligned with a rising democratic left who believes that there are too many wars and there is too much American military power overseas and it is costing too much money and the middle, which a lot of people think is the sensible national security expert middle is getting shrunken out of the debate more and more every time President Trump goes out there and makes these kinds of speeches, that undercuts his own policy about why the United States needs to have or wants to have troops abroad, able to defend America’s security interests, economic interests, the voters’ interests that as long as the voters hear that message, they don’t get the policy and you’re not going to have the support ever, and this is all mote.

Clemons: Is Korea a forever war?

Baron: Is Korea … That’s a good question, I don’t know, let’s ask the Democratic candidates. I’d like to hear what Elizabeth Warren says.

Clemons: This is a wonderful conversation with, thank you so much. I’d like to thank our panel to for being with us today. Heeley, chief editor of Inkstick, Baron, executive editor of Defense One and Admiral Fallon, former commander of US central command and Pacific command. Very cool discussion. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Clemons: So what is the bottom line? A wise man once said: Nothing says, I love you, like a shakedown. The Trump administration is demanding South Korea pay billions more to keep US troops in their country. Japan is next, and it is all part of a plan Donald Trump laid out during his campaign when he promised to force America’s allies to pay for American protection. My guests have more confidence than I do that this will blow over. That American security is woven in tightly to the security of our allies. But to me, this sounds like an American force becoming a mercenary operation. Alliances, a la cart, you get it if you pay for it. And that’s the bottom line.

Source Al Jazeera

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