Tag: quadrennial defense review

U.S. Military Power: Preeminence for What Purpose?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question focuses on the recently released Hadley-Perry “alternative QDR.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. of NationalJournal.com asks:

The U.S. military is already unaffordable – and yet it needs to be larger to sustain America’s global leadership, especially in the face of a rising China. That’s the bottom line from a congressionally chartered bipartisan panel, co-chaired by Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defense secretary. The report, released July 29, is the independent panel’s assessment of and commentary on the Pentagon’s own Quadrennial Defense Review, released earlier this year.

Frequent expert blog contributor Gordon Adams, among others, has already blasted the Hadley-Perry report for making the underlying assumption that the U.S. can and should continue to invest heavily in being a “global policeman.” Is Adams right that the Hadley-Perry report calls for an unaffordable answer to the wrong question? Or are the report’s authors correct when they argue that the U.S. must be the leading guarantor of global security? And if the U.S. must lead, has the Hadley-Perry panel laid out the right path to doing so?

My response:

Dan Goure says that U.S. military preeminence is not unaffordable. That is probably correct. Even though we spend in excess of $800 billion annually on national security (including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs) we could choose to spend as much, or more, for a while longer. We could choose to shift money out of other government programs; we could raise taxes; or we could continue to finance the whole thing on debt, and stick our children and grandchildren with the bill.

But what is the point? Why do Americans spend so much more on our military than does any other country, or any other combination of countries?

Goure and the Hadley-Perry commissioners who produced the alternate QDR argue that the purpose of American military power is to provide global public goods, to defend other countries so that they don’t have to defend themselves, and otherwise shape the international order to suit our ends. In other words, the same justifications offered for American military dominance since the end of the Cold War.

Most in Washington still embraces the notion that America is, and forever will be, the world’s indispensable nation. Some scholars, however, questioned the logic of hegemonic stability theory from the very beginning. A number continue to do so today. They advance arguments diametrically at odds with the primacist consensus. Trade routes need not be policed by a single dominant power; the international economy is complex and resilient. Supply disruptions are likely to be temporary, and the costs of mitigating their effects should be borne by those who stand to lose – or gain – the most. Islamic extremists are scary, but hardly comparable to the threat posed by a globe-straddling Soviet Union armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. It is frankly absurd that we spend more today to fight Osama bin Laden and his tiny band of murderous thugs than we spent to face down Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao. Many factors have contributed to the dramatic decline in the number of wars between nation-states; it is unrealistic to expect that a new spasm of global conflict would erupt if the United States were to modestly refocus its efforts, draw down its military power, and call on other countries to play a larger role in their own defense, and in the security of their respective regions.

But while there are credible alternatives to the United States serving in its current dual role as world policeman / armed social worker, the foreign policy establishment in Washington has no interest in exploring them. The people here have grown accustomed to living at the center of the earth, and indeed, of the universe. The tangible benefits of all this military spending flow disproportionately to this tiny corner of the United States while the schlubs in fly-over country pick up the tab.

In short, we shouldn’t have expected that a group of Washington insiders would seek to overturn the judgments of another group of Washington insiders. A genuinely independent assessment of U.S. military spending, and of the strategy the military is designed to implement, must come from other quarters.

QDR: The Pentagon Hedges

As usual, Ben Friedman beat me to the punch regarding the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) (.pdf), and, as usual again, he nails it.

I do see some value in the exercise, however. So let’s not “forget it” just yet.

By constructing a rationale to justify our existing defense posture, and providing a blueprint for force planning into the future, the QDR can be particularly useful for taking on some sacred cows. For example, the proposals to cancel the CG(X) cruiser, shut down production of the C-17 and the F-22, restructuring the DDG-1000 destroyer and the Future Combat Systems program, are sure to rile up members of Congress who continue to treat the defense budget as just another vehicle for dispensing pork barrel goodies to a handful of constituents. By singling these programs out as inconsistent with our strategic objectives, the QDR forces the advocates of these programs to come up with different rationales, beyond the inevitable “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra.

But the QDR can only do so much. The real culprit driving an enormous defense posture is a national security strategy which presumes that the United States is, and always will be, the world’s indispensable nation. We need a different grand strategy, one that would shift some of the burdens on our friends and allies around the world who have grown too comfortable under the U.S. security umbrella.

There is vague language in the QDR about evolving our strategic posture in different regions, and emphasis on building capacity, but the bottom line is the same as it has been for decades: a de facto permanent presence for U.S. forces in Europe and Asia, and continued attention to security in “key regions” (a phrase that appears seven times), which could be construed as everywhere in the world.

For nearly two decades, the United States has been the policeman for the world. If the senior civilian leadership in the White House had decided to push other countries to take responsibility for their own security, and for security in their respective regions, the QDR might have become a vehicle for responsibly shaping a smaller military that is explicitly oriented toward defending U.S. security. Instead, because the military is convinced that they will be expected to answer all of the world’s 911 calls for the foreseeable future, the Pentagon hedged its bets.

I can’t say that I blame them.

Forget the QDR

There is a lot not to like about the Quadrennial Defense Review, which comes out today (the National Journal posted a leaked copy Friday). Like past QDRs, this one uses vague, trendy ideas about international relations to inflate threats and justify our massive defense budget. As usual, we hear the evidence-free claims that non-state actors are getting more powerful and that the world is getting more complex and unpredictable (“change continues to accelerate”). I believe that states are hanging onto or even gaining power relative to other sorts of social organizations and that the world is no less predictable than it was in 1900 or 1950. The QDR also says that climate change is a national security problem. That’s a popular line, which as near as I can tell is a marketing gimmick. Then there the usual tripe about how great our alliances are, how strategic every country with a Marine in it is, how terrific interagency cooperation is, and so forth.

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter. Newspapers confuse the QDR with law, but it is closer to PR. It’s like a particularly important speech. It sells what Secretary of Defense is selling and justifies what the Department of Defense does. Because it comes in part from agencies it is supposed to guide, it rationalizes rather than leads. Because it is largely a consensus document, it says only what half of the Pentagon can agree on—various strains of mush. Can anyone explain what past QDR’s have accomplished? I think nothing. Sure, there are interesting tidbits about forces structure plans, but these are in the budget documents too. At best it causes DoD to justify itself, giving us analysts something to argue about.

The administration’s proposed defense budget, also being released today, matters much more to policy. It reveals more about the nation’s defense strategy than the vacuous documents that purport to do so.

Policy types love strategy documents because they are mostly technocratic idealists. They want government polices to be made by rational processes that reveal national interests, which are then laid out in plans like the QDR. They want policy to be like science. But democratic government is the push and pull of competing ideologies and interests. Public plans or strategies are part of that process. Congress should thank DoD for these mind-numbing 120 pages, throw them away, and focus on the budget.

Quadrennial Claptrap

Since the mid-1990s, the Defense Department has been legally required to review its strategy and force structure every four years, producing what’s called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The result has been a series of vacuous documents that commingle vague, unsubstantiated claims about great historical shifts underway (think Tom Friedman but without the empirical rigor) with threat inflation. There is no evidence that these documents have produced much beyond wasted time and effort.

Naturally, the Department of Homeland Security decided to produce a quadrennial homeland security review, which is underway. Last week, ForeignPolicy.com reported that the State Department will get in on the act with a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.  Apparently grand strategy documents have great allure to policy-makers. So it’s worth reflecting on why the QDR has failed.

I say it’s because strategy is overrated. The idea is that government is a scientific enterprise where smart people get together, figure out the wisest course, and then marshal their bureaucracies to the new objectives. The trouble with this view is that government is political; it is about competing bureaucratic interests or ideologies trying to impose their preferences on each other.  Strategy documents have no inherent power over these forces.

In practice, because the military services participate in the QDR’s production, it is an output of the politics it is supposed to guide, a logroll that justifies existing realities. The services all employ manpower to defend their prerogatives. Consultants get hired. A great fuss occurs. Compromise language carries the day, and the thing winds up vapidly endorsing the existing force structure and programs.

A better way to go would for the Office of the Secretary of Defense to use strategy documents to give its views official heft; one more way to impose their preferences on the rest of the Pentagon. That argues for civilian authorship, not service inclusion. Of course, this method is only as good as OSD’s ideas.

The next QDR is due this year. The document will likely endorse the Secretary Gates’ desire to make the military better suited to counterinsurgency, which is OK, and overstate our ability to succeed in these wars, which is not.

The owner of the document is the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michelle Flournoy, who previously founded the Center for New American Security, which has, in its brief life, exhibited great enthusiasm for counterinsurgency campaigns or US military-led nation-building.

Flournoy and a co-author just published a kind of preview of the QDR in Proceedings, the Naval Institute’s magazine. The article not encouraging. It cites the disastrous vehicle of Cold War threat inflation, NSC-68, as an example to emulate. Unsurprisingly it buys into the trendy idea that future US wars will be hybrid wars, mixing conventional and unconventional tactics as Hezbollah did in 2006 in Lebanon. It takes the conventional position that the United States has to police global commons (space, cyberspace, airspace and sea lanes), to protect the “international system.” This apparently means that free trade requires US military hegemony, a common claim with a hazy causal logic. The article makes the curious argument that because the commons are a public good, other nations have “powerful incentives” to help the United States police them. I am all for burden sharing, but this misunderstands the meaning of public goods, which are notoriously underprovided. Powerful incentives encourage free-riding, not mutual aide.

Worst of all, the article buys into the idea that the United States needs to fix failed states, which is a recipe for empire.

The good news is that there is time to fix all this. Maybe the Pentagon will embrace restraint. You never know.