Preparing for Peace? Or Just More War?

In yesterday’s Washington Post, George Will makes a familiar argument: “if you want peace, prepare for war.”

Drawing mostly on key episodes from the late Cold War period, Will suggests that Ronald Reagan’s military buildup was instrumental to bringing down the Soviet Union. He places particular emphasis, with an assist from John Lehman, on the importance of a massive naval buildup in the 1980s.

As it happens, I served in the Navy during this period. Lehman was the Secretary of the Navy when I was an NROTC midshipman at George Washington University. I witnessed what such a force could do when it was called upon to fight – not the Soviet Union, but rather Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991. And that war was over in a matter of weeks.

But fast-forward to today, and the picture is more complicated. The issue is not whether we are preparing for war, to prevent war, but rather why we fight so many wars in the first place. We have a political class that engages in war, but with little consideration of the long term strategic benefits. War, in short, has become a matter of habit.

It wasn’t always this way, as I wrote this morning at War on the Rocks. Jumping off of two excellent articles – David Montgomery in last weekend’s Washington Post on the proliferation of war memorials in our nation’s capital; and C.J. Chivers in the latest New York Times magazine regarding an Army unit in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley – I wondered: “Might our war memorials do more than memorialize war? Might they also help us to avoid future ones?”

William Dean Howells, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, worried that a proliferation of war memorials would “misrepresent us and our age to posterity; for we are not a military people, (though we certainly know how to fight upon occasion).” I worry that the character of the American people has changed. “Judging from the war memorials now adorning the National Mall, and those planned,” I write, “we are a military people, and our constant wars are disrupted only by brief occasions of peace.”

Returning for a moment to Will’s Op-Ed, let’s dismiss the question of whether we have a strong military. We absolutely do. Plus, we have nuclear weapons,thousands of them. Any competent leader, any tin pot tyrant with a return address, knows that an attack on the United States will produce a swift and devastating response. The mere prospect of such retaliation is an effective deterrent against any rational adversary. We should retain such a capability. As I and others have written, however (e.g. here), we don’t need nearly as many nuclear weapons in order to maintain a credible deterrent.

The fact that we spend enormous sums to build a massive military doesn’t mean that everything that we spend is equally effective in preventing future wars – or even of winning the wars we’re in. Back in 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates told the Economic Club of Chicago “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”

By this standard, we have a big problem.

Adjusting for inflation, Gates’s “half a trillion” would be about $576 billion in today’s dollars. The defense bill awaiting President Trump’s signature authorizes a budget of $717 billion in 2019.

My main concern, therefore, is not about how much we spend, per se. Rather, I’m mostly focused on the wars that the United States has initiated, despite the fact that we have enormous military advantages over any conceivable combination of rivals.

Many of these wars have undermined our security. George Will calls the Iraq war “the worst U.S. foreign policy decision…in American history.” With respect to Afghanistan, Will earlier this year noted that U.S. forces had been there for 6,000 days and asked “What are we doing?”

He’s not alone in wondering such things, and such confusion is unfortunate. These unhappy and inconclusive conflicts may even have sapped the American people’s will to fight the truly necessary wars of the future. And at least some of the additional increments of military power, beyond what is needed for deterrence, have made it easier for us to become involved in foreign wars that do not advance American security.

In that sense, preparing for war hasn’t brought peace, but rather just more war.