Storming the Hill

Thomas P.M. Barnett lets the White House off the hook for the Pentagon's dysfunction.

As the U.S. Defense Department enters the age of austerity in government expenditures, Thomas P.M. Barnett has provided us with an amusing catalog of the risks, contingencies, and super-adversaries as the U.S. military services conceive them ("Think Again: The Pentagon," March/April 2013). But Barnett takes too narrow an approach.

For one, he never mentions the president's role in defining the tasks that the services perform. The military always believes that Congress holds the services' fate in its hands and that if only the generals get their story right, Congress will give the Pentagon more money -- and favor one branch over another. But Congress remains completely dependent on the president's budget submission and has in the past approved it with no more than a plus-or-minus 1 percent change in the top line (though with lots of small changes in how that top line is distributed).

Given its panic about annual federal budget deficits and the national debt, Congress may well play a larger role at this particular juncture in U.S. history -- but only to make cuts. Moreover, the regular budget and appropriations process has now broken down. As a result, the services' panic about world events fails to resonate in the current political climate. To put it more simply, none of the fantasies Barnett details will yield more money for them -- but then those fantasies probably never did.

The other contextual problem with Barnett's argument is that the greatest surprise for the military is not what happens out in the world, but what the White House actually sends it off to do and where. Given that the military can't always predict this, it must now attend to two tasks. First, within the budget top lines it is given -- which can shrink -- it strives to maintain a range of capabilities, even if its force structure must shrink in number. Second, at the administration's direction, the military can sustain whatever overseas postures remain after most forces come home from Afghanistan or from forward supporting bases. In the case of the U.S. Navy, it must resume its regular deployments. For the military, sustaining its force posture in Asia is the essence of the so-called pivot, in addition to a continuing shift of 60 percent of whatever ships the Navy has to the Pacific.

Barnett smartly reveals the services' dilemmas as they decide how best to prepare for big wars and small. As he points out, however, neither seems very plausible these days. A big war with China sounds absurd given that both countries are intimately connected by global trade. It is doubly absurd to consider any attack on or invasion of the Chinese mainland -- China is a nuclear power. As for "small" wars, they have only turned out to be big quagmires instead, and the current administration clearly intends to avoid them. Moreover, I have counted more than 50 internal wars around the world since around 1990; few have strategic significance for the United States, and in any case, America has intervened in only six.

Center for Naval Analyses
Alexandria, Va.


Obama's Grand Strategy

America's relative decline means that defense and social spending will have to compete head to head, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

Sooner or later every country gets the foreign policy it can afford. In 1945, the industrial output of the United States roughly equaled that of the rest of the world. Under the circumstances, the American ambitions that inspired the Bretton Woods financial system, the Marshall Plan, and the Cold War policy of global containment of communism were not unreasonable. But in the last seven decades America's comparative economic strength has declined dramatically, and the country can no longer support such a sweeping interpretation of the national interest.

Visionary leadership often consists of seeing sooner than others where the world is headed and finding the most productive path to that destination. President Barack Obama can demonstrate his vision and leadership by helping Americans adjust to the new reality imposed by their changing economic circumstances ("10 Problems Obama Actually Could Solve," January/February 2013). He has ended the war in Iraq and is winding down the war in Afghanistan. His choice of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary suggests that he realizes America's military spending must decline, perhaps dramatically, in the coming decade.

From 1945 until 2008 America operated on a guns-and-butter philosophy: Almost never did spending for defense crowd out spending on the social programs Americans came to cherish. But in the recessionary world since 2008, and as the ranks of the retired swell, competition between defense on the one hand and Social Security and Medicare on the other is bound to become critical. And when American voters are compelled to choose between their pensions and preparations for another war like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, they will almost certainly choose the former.

Obama can help make the inevitable appealing -- a variety of visionary leadership that is no less visionary because it breaks with what Americans have come to expect from such a president. Already he has resisted committing the United States to civil wars in Libya and Syria. He has reiterated his intention of ending America's war in Afghanistan. In looking ahead he can look back and explain that America's greatest gift to the world has more often been the domestic example of a thriving democracy than U.S. troops on foreign soil. Immigrants have come to America for centuries not because of America's prowess at arms but because of the country's promise of economic opportunity and personal liberty.

Defenders of the status quo and beneficiaries of what President Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex will try to brand Obama an isolationist, but he can respond that engagement with the world needn't start with the military. In fact, ordinary Americans engage every day with the world -- via global commerce and telecommunications, overseas travel, family connections of immigrants -- to a degree that makes any charge of isolationism ludicrous.

Moreover, Obama can point out that a cost-benefit analysis of foreign policy, and in particular of prospective foreign wars, will not be a bad idea. Not one of America's wars until now was subjected to a serious public assessment of its likely cost ahead of time. Had such an assessment been applied to the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, better policy decisions might have been made. Other wars, most notably World War II, would have survived the scrutiny and gone forward.

Less isn't always more, but sometimes it can be.

Professor of History and Government
University of Texas
Austin, Texas