Nov 2, 2007
A Disciplined Defense -- How To Regain Strategic Solvency
From an article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs; A Disciplined Defense -- How to Regain Strategic Solvency, by Richard K. Betts:
The current strains on resources and forces are due, of course, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the costs of those wars are not included in the half-trillion-dollar "baseline" figure noted above. A supplemental request for an extra $142 billion covers them, bringing the total 2008 military budget request to a whopping $647 billion -- a budget more than 25 percent larger, in real terms, than the one for 1968, at the height of combat in Vietnam, a bigger and bloodier conflict than any the United States has seen since. And even that total figure does not include the $46 billion budget of the Department of Homeland Security, whose functions would be handled by the Defense Ministry in many other countries.
In recent years, U.S. national security policy has responded to a visceral sense of threat spawned by the frightening intentions of the country's enemies rather than to a sober estimate of those enemies' capabilities and what it would take to counter them effectively. The United States faces very real dangers today and potentially bigger ones in the future, but these are not threats that can be tamed by current spending on the most expensive components of military power.
U.S. political leaders, meanwhile, have forgotten the craft of balancing commitments and resources responsibly. Nobody younger than 80 can remember a peacetime United States without vast standing armed forces, even though that was the norm for the first 150 years of the republic. So the post-Cold War situation does not seem as odd as it should. Contractors who live off the defense budget have also become more adept at engineering political support by spreading subcontracts around the maximum number of congressional districts. And the traditional constituencies for restrained spending in both major political parties have evaporated, leaving the field free for advocates of excess.
The last two U.S. presidents, finally, have embraced ambitious goals of reshaping the world according to American values but without considering the full costs and consequences of their grandiose visions. The result has been a defense budget caught between two stools: higher than needed for basic national security but far lower than required to eliminate all villainous governments and groups everywhere. The time has come to face the problem squarely. The sole coherent rationale for increasing military spending -- to try and run a benign American empire -- is dangerously misguided. But a more modest and sensible national security strategy can and should be purchased at a lower price.
The Pentagon will have a hard time confronting the underlying problems in defense spending until the United States climbs out of the hole it plunged itself into with the war in Iraq. The war has pushed parts of the U.S. armed forces close to the breaking point. Frequent and extended combat tours of soldiers and repeated deployments of civilian reservists have disgracefully made a small number of volunteers pay a high price for the politicians' miscalculations.
The main response that has been offered to this crisis -- planning for significant growth in the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps -- is dubious. Had the additional forces been available earlier, to be fielded as needed, the increases might have made sense. But it will take several years to recruit, train, organize, and deploy additional ground combat brigades, by which time the United States will probably have withdrawn the bulk of its forces from Iraq. So unless Washington plans on invading Iran or North Korea or making a habit of launching huge counterinsurgency campaigns in big failed states -- neither of which is either probable or desirable -- it is not clear what purpose permanent increases in the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps are supposed to achieve.
Despite the Bush administration's attempts to conflate the war against Saddam Hussein with the "war on terror," moreover, the two conflicts are not the same. The groups and individuals inspired by al Qaeda will remain a challenge around the world even after the United States manages to extricate itself from Iraq. But the notion popularized by some neoconservatives that the United States is now in World War IV (the Cold War having been the third in the series) is an absurd inflation of the contemporary threat. It also implicitly links all anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world to the radicals who struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. For observers whose strategic consciousness began on 9/11, Osama bin Laden's forces are as dangerous as Stalin's. But such thinking reflects amnesia about the actual scope of past challenges.
Washington opened the sluice gates of military spending after the 9/11 attacks primarily not because it was the appropriate thing to do strategically but because it was something the country could do when something had to be done. With rare exceptions, the war against terrorists cannot be fought with army tank battalions, air force wings, or naval fleets -- the large conventional forces that drive the defense budget. The main challenge is not killing the terrorists but finding them, and the capabilities most applicable to this task are intelligence and special operations forces. Improving U.S. capacity in these areas is difficult. It requires recruiting, training, and effectively deploying a limited number of talented and bold people with the relevant skills. It does not require half a trillion dollars' worth of conventional and nuclear forces.