A happy Christmas? All we have is hope

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Dec. 25, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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Dec. 25 (UPI) -- Tis the time of year for good cheer. Or so the slogan goes. The real question is whether this is truly a happy Christmas and for whom.

In the United States, the vital signs seem to be positive. The economy is growing, although slowly. Unemployment is at a low 4 percent and the stock markets are roaring.

The Tax Reform Law is being hailed by Republicans as a great engine of prosperity that will increase wages of the middle class and by cutting corporate tax rate to 21 percent fire up GDP and the economy. While the tax cuts are forecast to produce an additional $1.5 trillion in debt, a growing economy lifts all boats and hence will generate revenues that will eclipse this projected debt.

Abroad, the Islamic State has been ejected from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria seemingly single-handedly by American force of arms. North Korea has been put on warning to denuclearize or face the "fire and fury" of Washington's wrath.

Despite Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the last presidential election, relations between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seem warm.

While China has been targeted for trade policies that reduce the imbalance in its favor, Trump still believes President Xi Jinping will negotiate.

The administration's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital brought a firestorm of protest and an unprecedented and non-binding U.N. vote criticizing that action, which included many of America's allies. But as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told her colleagues, the U.S. will "remember who voted against us."

Meanwhile, the White House reversed the Obama administration's policy of halting shipment of lethal weaponry to Ukraine. The first shipment of sniper rifles is meant to be a precursor of even more lethal weaponry, although surely the Russian Ministry of Defense would not be troubled by this shipment. What follows if anything may be a different matter.

In a Dickensian sense, if this were a rosier description of Christmas Present, what might an alternative view of Christmas Future resemble? First, the record low level of Trump's job approval ratings at home is matched by even far lower regard abroad. In private, many foreign leaders and senior officials are appalled by the huge errors, missteps and general crudeness and boorish behavior of the president. Some take seriously the warning that "we have run out of time" regarding North Korea and believe that military action is not far removed.

More importantly, the Tax Reform Act could be a giant ticking time bomb. One principal concern is whether the economy will grow sufficiently not only to cover the $1.5 trillion in revenue reductions but to deal with the nasty little secret of the some $10 trillion of debt that will accrue over the next decade as the cost of entitlements swells. A second is the effect these budget realities will have on defense.

The U.S. military is headed toward becoming a hollow force. The reasons stem from 16 years of war that have multiplied deployments; cost trillions of dollars; and have produced fiscal requirements to fund the forces at levels far beyond what the country will appropriate. The current proposed authorization of $700 billion for next year is perhaps $100 billion short of what is needed. And neither amount will be approved by the Congress given the increases in debt and deficit produced by tax reform.

The self-evident consequence will be a military that is not fully trained, equipped or ready for the missions it is required to fulfill. Happy Christmas, Pentagon.

For most Americans, if or when the promised economic growth does not increase wages and income disparity continues, the consequences for the Republicans will be serious. Even if Congress returns to Democratic control in 2018, that may even worsen the gridlock at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Hope is never a plan. However hope may be the best that Christmas Future can bring.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His newest book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts," is just out. Follow him on Twitter@harlankullman.

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