Trillion-dollar COIN

Trillion-dollar COIN

There’s a ridiculous debate going on in the wonkosphere about an outlandish idea: minting a trillion-dollar coin so that President Obama can avoid the upcoming debt ceiling, which Republicans are threatening to use as leverage to extract major entitlement cuts. To make a long story short, there’s supposedly a loophole in the law that allows the Treasury Department to mint platinum coins of any denomination, so the president could order up a trillion-dollar coin to pay the federal government’s bills. Et voilà — no worries on the debt ceiling.

I’m convinced that nobody — not even Paul Krugman — is actually serious about this, and in any case Kevin Drum succinctly dispenses with the idea here, here, and here. He writes:

Like it or not, the debt ceiling is legal. Congress has the power of the purse. On the other hand, using a ridiculous loophole in a statute about commemorative and bullion coins in order to evade the debt limit isn’t legal. Seriously, folks: just forget it. I know I’ll never have to pay up on a bet over this since it will never be tested, but this would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court.

But there’s a much more serious debate going on in Washington right now, one that could ultimately prove a lot more important: the debate over another trillion-dollar COIN operation, the war in Afghanistan. In a nutshell: How many troops will the United States leave behind after 2014, and what will they do? The White House is said to be deciding between 3,000 and 9,000 troops, according to the New York Times. David Barno, the retired lieutenant general who headed the U.S. war effort from 2003 to 2004, writes this week that President Obama might decide to go down all the way to zero — and White House Ben Rhodes acknowledged Tuesday that the "zero option" is on the table.

Supporters of the war in Afghanistan are apopleptic about this possibility. One of them told me today that even 6,000 U.S. troops would essentially be zero, since they would be generally confined to Bagram Air Base and Kabul. In his estimation, the CIA’s base at Khost would become untenable, and then the United States would have to conduct drone strikes inside Pakistan from much further away, with a concomitant decline in effectiveness. In other words, the notion that we’d be able to simply continue doing counterterrorism work at the same level is a chimera.

I have some sympathy for this view. There are a lot of bad dudes across the Durand Line in places like Waziristan, and they want to kill Americans. It would be naive to think that they would simply give up the fight because we left. Jihadi groups, including al Qaeda, will undoubtedly proclaim a huge victory, boosting their recruiting. They’ll be right.

And here’s where historical analogies break down. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, we weren’t worried about North Vietnamese communists and Viet Cong cadres blowing up car bombs in American cities. They took over the South, and that was a shame, but the so-called domino effect proved vastly overblown. You know the story: Henry Kissinger cleverly exploited the "Sino-Soviet split." And today, Vietnam is a budding American ally against a rising China.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, the bad guys really will come after us. That may sound alarmist. But left unmolested, they will increasingly have the means to do so. Drones are hugely unpopular in Pakistan; they don’t seem like a sustainable long-term option, particularly after the United States leaves. And what, then, will prevent al Qaeda and friends from coming back? The Afghan military? Eventually, the region’s poison will drain. But there will be many dangerous years ahead of us before then.

I’m not saying we should stay in Afghanistan. After all, it’s been more than a decade, and the U.S. military and intelligence community have achieved precious little for all the blood and treasure that has been expended there. It hardly makes sense to spend tens of billions of dollars propping up an ungrateful, kleptocratic narcostate. This ain’t postwar Germany or Japan, or even South Korea, however hard war supporters try to sell that analogy. "The juice ain’t worth the squeeze," as one officer put it. But recognizing that doesn’t solve our problem across the border in Waziristan.

Staying in Afghanistan doesn’t make much sense. Leaving doesn’t make sense either. What should we do?