Tag: national security strategy

Do More, Spend More

Defense News today features a story that unintentionally provides an window into what is wrong with the Washington Foreign Policy Establishment (WFPE)— a group of supposedly smart people that has repeatedly failed to come up with a credible plan that may enable the United States to shed some of the burdens of global governance. Indeed, the key take away from a report to be released tomorrow (“The QDR in Perspective: Meeting America’s National Security Needs in the 21st Century”), is that we shouldn’t try to shed such burdens. This message is particularly curious given that even some long-time proponents of America-As-World-Government are beginning to rethink their positions.

I wasn’t expecting much, but when I perused a draft that was flying around the wires/fibers yesterday (the official release is not until tomorrow), it was even worse than I could have imagined.

“We are concerned,” the authors explain, “by what we see as a growing gap between our interests and our military capability to protect those interests.” Fair enough. But they fail to offer a reasonable alternative that would address this imbalance by boosting the military capability of other countries, and thereby relieve the burdens that have fallen disproportionately on the backs of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Instead, they call for more ships, more planes, and a larger force across the board, with the costs borne exclusively by U.S. taxpayers.

When the Obama administration released its National Security Strategy, I knocked the president and his senior advisors for failing to come up with a reasonable plan for forcing other countries to take responsibility for their own defense, and redistribute the burdens of policing the global commons among the many beneficiaries of a stable and peaceful international system. I had a similar view of the QDR, which spoke vaguely of sharing burdens and building partner capacity. The Obama team at least deserved credit, however, for recognizing that the United States should not indefinitely underwrite global security; we need other countries to do more.

The alternate QDR doesn’t even get that right. It instead makes a full-throated case for the United States remaining as the world’s policeman/armed social worker, and blithely expects the American people to keep spending more and more on our military.

I could comfort myself that this report will be the last of its type. Going back to the now-infamous Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, which set the course for the post-Cold War military, there has been a general consensus in Washington that the United States is now, and forever shall be, the sole guarantor of world order, the indispensable nation. And, for the most part, the American people have gone along.

Over time, however, the costs and risks of this approach have grown, exacerbated by the weakness of our allies, and by the inability of the Pentagon to control costs. And the benefits are meager. Today, many Americans have begun to ask why, for example, we each (every man, woman and child) spend about $2,700 on our military, when people in other countries spend less than a third as much on theirs. It is not that this level of spending will bankrupt us, per se; the key constraint on U.S. strategy is the willingness of the American people to pay for the defense of others.

Such support was always tenuous. In The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum famously argued that the United States could sustain its global posture so long as the American people didn’t scrutinize the true object (to be the world’s government) too closely. The title and description of Mandelbaum’s forthcoming book suggests that even he believes that time is running out. Other one-time enthusiasts of American unipolarity are beginning to come around to this point of view. (e.g. here and here)

To stare at the obvious imbalance between our strategic ends and our fiscal means, and to conclude that the only alternative is to dramatically increase the size of the military, the costs of which have already nearly doubled in the past 15 years, belies a fundamental inability to think strategically. The evidence suggests that our hyperactive foreign policy of the post-Cold War years has undermined American security, and ultimately been a big waste of money. There are sound strategic reasons for choosing to do less. Our fiscal problem adds to the urgency of a change in course, and especially for cuts in military spending.

Beyond that, however, our strategy must align to our political culture. To ignore the growing evidence that Americans are demanding that we do less around the world, and conclude instead that Washington must do more, demonstrates a deep disdain for the public that actually pays the bills – and offers up its sons and daughters to build other people’s countries, and fight other people’s wars.

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Obama’s National Security Strategy: Long on Rhetoric, Short on Change

The key theme that the Obama administration wants us to take away from the National Security Strategy (PDF) is “burden sharing.” The United States, the document explains, can no longer afford to be the world’s sole policeman. We need capable and willing partners to preserve global peace and prosperity.

These are valid concerns. Unfortunately, the Obama administration lacks a vision for addressing them.

Real change can only come from a fundamental reorientation of our current approach. We need a new grand strategy predicated on restraint both at home and abroad. Instead, for all the talk of new directions, the Obama administration has given us more of the same.

In geopolitics, as in life, actions speak louder than words. So long as the United States spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and so long as it deploys its military in ways that discourage other countries from defending themselves, Americans will continue to shoulder the burdens of policing the planet.

In a cover letter accompanying the NSS, President Obama explains “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone.” But they most certainly will, so long as the United States maintains a massive military oriented more towards defending others than to defending Americans.

There are common security challenges, to be sure, and many other nations in Europe and East Asia should share an interest in addressing them. They lack the capacity to do so, however, because they have diverted resources away from defense and into social welfare programs. The capabilities gap between the United States and the rest of the world will only grow wider as other countries continue to reduce force structure, cut military procurement, and short-change defense-related R&D, while the U.S. military budget climbs higher and higher.

But other countries also lack the will to play a larger global role. US policies for the past few decades have impeded such activity, and it is naive in the extreme to think that the latest round of exhortations will make a difference.

Thoughts on the NSS

National Security Strategies are domestic political documents that serve two main purposes: they allow administrations to wax philosophic about America’s place in history and they provide an opportunity to mention the various foreign-policy interest groups to let them know you care.  This NSS does a good job of fulfilling these rhetorical and domestic political demands of the document.  (The lead drafter of President Obama’s NSS is a speechwriter with a background in fiction and poetry, not a strategist.)

If the NSS were read as an actual strategy document, it would be terribly unimpressive.  It offers a variety of unsubstantiated theories about international politics (the idea that U.S. security depends on “strengthening human dignity” abroad and “speaking to the hopes” of foreign nations), as well as murky statements about the purposes of U.S. foreign policy (the international order we seek to create “will support our own interests, but it is also an end we seek in its own right.”)

Those less interested in rhetoric and domestic politics—foreign leaders, for example—will look to America’s defense budget as the real indicator of American strategy.  There they will see that Barack Obama’s United States is every bit as capacious as George Bush’s, and potentially just as dangerous.  Washington needs to realize that foreign leaders make judgments based more on American capabilities than on these sorts of literary exercises.

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

The Pentagon Shouldn’t Get a Pass

Today’s Politico includes an op ed that I co-authored with Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network. It was the first time that the two of us collaborated, and I was very pleased with the end result. Most of the clever turns of phrase are Heather’s including the title, “The Wrong Manhood Test.” And I’m grateful to Harrison Moar and Charles Zakaib for helping me on Monday to sift through the gargantuan defense budget, and pull out the relevant facts.

Heather and I don’t agree on everything. We faced off at Bloggingheads.tv several months ago to discuss my book, The Power Problem, and I’m sure that we’ll continue to spar from time to time in the future. But the bottom line from the op ed is this:

…because our national security rests on our economic health as well as on the strength of our military, a liberal and a libertarian can agree that the Pentagon should no longer get a pass. Congress must stop funding projects to satisfy parochial domestic interests. The Pentagon must stop buying weapons systems that are already outdated, unworkable or both. And the administration must carefully define our vital security interests, reshape our grand strategy to more equitably distribute the burdens of policing the globe and reduce the occasions when our military will be called on to fight.

There is more than enough blame to go around. Congress is already girding for battle over some pet projects singled out for elimination or cut backs, including the C-17 transport and the additional engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon continues to plan for contingency operations around the world, and assumes that the U.S. security umbrella will remain open over Europe and East Asia for the indefinite future. And the White House has signaled (they have yet to formally produce a national security strategy) that while it would like the allies to help out, it doesn’t want them to get too capable. (See, most recently, Secretary Clinton’s remarks re: European defense.)

The governing assumption, therefore, is that, as the just-released QDR explains,

America’s interests and role in the world require armed forces with unmatched capabilities and a willingness on the part of the nation to employ them in defense of our interests and the common good. 

The time for finger pointing over the Pentagon’s budget is over. If we can’t address the obvious inefficiencies and waste in military procurement, then when can we? If we can’t today envision a time in the future when other countries will play a larger role in their own defense, then will we ever? “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,” in Bob Gates’s immortal words, “then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.” (h/t Justin Logan)

Amen to that. So let’s stop defining our security by the number of ships and planes that we buy, and start thinking about ways to responsibly contain, and ultimately bring down, military spending.

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.