Voice

Don't Call It Isolationism

America's not retreating -- it's just going undercover.

We are out of Iraq; we are getting out of Afghanistan; there is no appetite for U.S. military engagement in Syria. What is a guy in uniform to do?

On June 11, Michael Hirsh suggested that the United States has "lost its nerve" internationally. Obama, he argues, has stepped back from the global leadership role and military presence it once had. Many Americans support what Hirsh calls "America's gradual withdrawal from foreign entanglements" -- they want the U.S. military home soon, out of Afghanistan, and definitely not in Syria. Time, as my carpenter up in Maine says, for us to "stop messing around in other people's business."

Some commentators think this trend is dangerous. David Barno, a retired Army three-star at the Center for a New American Security, urges the United States to stay globally engaged. Barno, who has overseen some really good research on U.S. defense planning, told Hirsh, "The sour taste [about overseas involvement] is obscuring the fact that American power around the world underwrites the global system and is the guarantor of peace."

Even Barno, though, is cautious -- even self-contradictory -- about how deeply the United States should commit itself abroad. As he wrote about Syria, "U.S. interests are far better served by exercising restraint, supporting Syria's neighbors, and performing a humanitarian role. After 10 years of bloody and inconclusive U.S. involvement in the wars of this region, slipping into another military intervention in this part of the world defies both common sense and broader U.S. vital interests."

Barno's objection to American retrenchment, though, is a classic restatement of the dominant view among Washington policymakers about our role in the world: We are the good guys, we keep the peace, we set the framework for the rules, what would the world be like without us? It's hard to reconcile wariness about intervention with promotion of the U.S. role as the global system administrator. (See Tom Barnett's website for another classic call for the United States to assume such responsibilities.) Muscle-flexing and caution don't mix well.

I wouldn't call this caution isolationism, though -- or "neo-isolationism," as Hirsh does. What is happening is the latest episode in a historic pattern of muscular U.S. engagement, by which we think the military can fix a problem, followed by failure or stalemate (Korean truce, Vietnam loss, Iraq and looming Afghanistan disasters), and ending with reluctance to use the military as the leading edge of American foreign policy.

But be careful here. The decision to pull back on massive engagements of military force does not mean force is not going to be used. It just goes underground. In fact, I would argue that today, the U.S. military is way, way out in front in setting the terms for future U.S. global engagement, and in ways that may not suit our national interests.

When the military (especially the ground forces) fail, the military does not shrink, sulking back into the barracks. Arguably, today the U.S. military is more involved than ever overseas, on a global basis, carrying out missions that extend well beyond classic military competencies.

The Pentagon and the White House call the approach "building partner capacity" -- and it is the new religion for the global use of our military forces, becoming central to military doctrine. This model is stealthy, not public. It involves military training and equipping of the forces of other countries and smaller military deployments but in a significantly larger list of countries about the globe.

Syria, which sounds like a case study for American reluctance, is actually a case in point. Rather than invade with ground forces or fly an air cap -- the thing Barno argues against -- official U.S. policy for a very long time was to supply humanitarian assistance and "non-lethal" equipment (like communications gear) to the rebels. Two weeks ago, the White House announced that it would begin supplying the rebels with small arms.

But well before this announcement, lethal weapons had been flowing to the Syrian rebels. While the hardware was not supplied from American stocks, the United States has been playing an active role in facilitating the traffic. This only came to light recently, although I have been hearing rumors of this role for more than year. According to a sentence buried in a New York Times story, "The Central Intelligence Agency has already played at least a supporting role" in the supply of arms to the rebels.

We have also been providing covert training to the rebels on the use of these weapons, in Turkey and in Jordan, leading to an expansion of the U.S. military presence in the latter country. We are flying F-16s (useful for a no-fly zone) and putting up Patriot batteries (to defend the rebel camps?) there. We plan to leave 700 U.S. troops behind, once the ostensible "exercises" that brought them there are ended.

The administration has chosen to keep our "capacity building" engagement in Syria under wraps, but the recent decision to move to a more overt role has surfaced programs that were already well underway.

Meanwhile, in Mali -- to which we ostensibly cannot provide direct military assistance because the government installed itself through a coup -- we trained and equipped the forces of other countries operating there, which are engaging terrorist bands up in the northeastern part of the country.

And what about the Section 1206 program, which allows the United States to train, equip, and support the militaries of over 40 countries? It costs the Pentagon about $350 million a year, and the Senate Armed Services Committee just extended that authority through 2018.

Not to speak of the Special Forces, now over 65,000 strong, who anticipate a global mission of training, equipping, and supporting, plus well-digging, clinic, and school construction like they are already doing in East Africa and the Philippines.

Thom Shanker of the New York Times quotes Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland of Army Special Operations Command, who summarizes nicely the stealthy, global role of the military: "The nation does not want another Afghanistan. So, how do we prevent conflict? Army Special Operations forces can be out there looking at instability, and looking at how to build capabilities.... When I am at war, I have to campaign to win. When I am not at war, I am campaigning to either shape the environment or I am campaigning to prevent war."

Gen. Cleveland called this time in history and the U.S. global military involvement "an era of persistent operations." The military presence may be as small as 200 people, or it may be more. While it will not constitute a massive conventional presence, it is intended to be global, and military.

Some principles, like not providing military assistance to militaries that violate human rights (the "Leahy Amendment") may need to be pushed aside to make stealthy military globalism work out the way the services would like.

And the new tools of "warfare" available to the military are compatible with this level of engagement. Retiring Adm. James Stavridis made this intention clear in FP last week. The triad of nuclear weapons (missiles, subs, and bombers), even large conventional forces, are a thing of the past, he argues. Instead, the weapons of the future will combine Special Forces with drones that can operate at a distance and offensive cyber operations, which can be done virtually from home.

Adm. Stavridis does not tell us much about why we need these capabilities -- what role does he foresee for the U.S. globally; where would they be used; what is the "threat" against which they would fight? And, aside from a wave of the hand at the "interagency," he says nothing about policy control, civilian leadership, or the long-term goals of U.S. foreign policy, which ought to direct how and where these tools are used.

Many policymakers continue to be fascinated with the toolkit of capabilities, conjuring threats, ensuring a global role for the U.S. military. But, today, that role needs to be made compatible with the broader reluctance of the policymakers and the public to be engaged militarily overseas.

So, as a result, we seem to be heading for a stealthy global military engagement, not isolation. It involves a clear but less visible leadership role for the military in U.S. forward engagement. Hirsh has identified a key issue: How do we engage? But he misses the stealthy engagement; it is harder to see, but persistent, growing, and certainly global.

And it may get us involved in places and in ways we did not foresee, directed by the military, leading to precisely the kinds of broader military commitment the stealthy engagement was intended to avoid.

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages

National Security

U.S. Defense Industry Flees the Country

In search of greener pastures, Lockheed and friends venture abroad. But competition is stiff.

The defense drawdown is now well underway, and the defense industry is starting to pack up, if one is to believe what is being said this week at the Paris Air Show.

Defense budgets peaked in FY 2010, including war funding, and have been down about 10 percent in constant dollars. Factor in the budget sequester for this year, which looks like it will hang on through the rest of the fiscal year (and maybe make a repeat appearance next January), and the defense budget will have fallen 24 percent in constant dollars from their height.

The future does not look different. If the sequester remains, one can expect another roughly $500 billion to disappear from projected defense budgets over the next nine years.

Oddly, defense contractors seem to be doing OK, so far. Sales had declined a bit even before sequestration set in, but profit margins are holding strong for the big guys -- Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, L3.

This apparent fiscal health is actually an economic Potemkin village. Profit margins may hold, but U.S. sales are clearly headed down. The illusion stems from the reality that the major defense contractors are still working on programs funded in previous years, when budgets were higher.

But as the U.S. defense budget heads down, DOD's dollars to buy stuff will drop more quickly than the overall budget, as they have in every drawdown since the Korean War. Between FY 1985 and FY 1998, for example, the defense budget declined 31 percent in constant dollars, while funding for research and purchases of hardware fell 53 percent.

This reality is already apparent today -- budgets for weapons research and acquisition, before the sequester, were already down nearly 20 percent in constant dollars since FY 2010, and, with the sequester, could decline nearly 30 percent.

I like to see the major defense contractors as the canaries in the budgetary coal mine -- they get the earliest signal of a change in fiscal direction, and they start to react well ahead of the policymakers and elected officials, many of whom think that the party is going to last forever.

The industry response to the coming decline began several years ago. Major contractors sold or consolidated business units, entered new markets (largely through acquisitions), and trimmed the workforce. Northrop Grumman, for example, sold its Newport News shipyard in 2011, leading to the creation of an independent business -- Huntington Shipyards.

Boeing is reducing its management workforce by 30 percent and has closed defense production operations in Kansas and California. L-3 sold its consulting and government services businesses. Lockheed Martin already began consolidation and cutbacks in its missile and training operations in 2012. Overall, aerospace industry employment, which grew through the past decade, began a predictable decline in 2012, in advance of any implementation of the sequester.

As in the past, when the U.S. market tails off, the big contractors prepare to leave the country, hoping that international markets will make up for the loss in sales volume in the United States. The latest straw in the wind is an increasingly aggressive industry push to make up overseas for the sales that are declining at home.

And the U.S. defense industry has products it urgently wants to sell overseas. Lockheed hopes its F-35 will have a big export market. It is, after all, being built in partnership with Britain, Turkey, Italy, and Denmark, among other countries, which are expected to buy it -- that was the whole point of cooperative agreements on F-35 development and production. For Lockheed and the U.S. aerospace industry, F-35 international sales are critical; this is the only fifth-generation fighter on the international market. If it sells, it would guarantee a leading position for U.S. firms in the international fighter market for years to come.

The Paris Air Show -- on this week -- has made this shift abroad abundantly clear. Fighters aren't the only market U.S. companies are leaving the country for. Capital Alpha analyst Byron Callen reports from Paris that Lockheed anticipates 150-200 overseas sales of its workhorse C-130J transport plane, 300 of which have already been sold in the United States and overseas. This aircraft almost died in the Pentagon's last drawdown, but industry pressure saved it and the Air Force has been buying it ever since.

The competition is heating up for shorter-haul aircraft as well. Boeing and Embraer announced that they are combining forces to market the Brazilian KC-390 competitor in Europe and the Middle East. And EADS/Airbus is still hoping for global sales of its long-awaited A300M. As the belt tightens at home, the sales effort is expanding abroad for everyone.

Even with defense budgets shrinking in the United States and Europe, the increasingly sexy drone market is another prime export target. General Atomics, maker of the Predator and Reaper drones -- which have been on full display overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen -- told the Paris crowd that it was heading into Europe. Predators and Reapers have already been sold to Britain and Italy, with French and German sales coming soon, according to Defense News. The industry drone push is spreading anxiety in the European defense industry. BAE (Britain), Dassault (France), and others have had joint drone research programs for about 20 years, as my colleague, the late Guy Ben-Ari, and I pointed out seven years ago. They have failed, so far, to produce a global competitor to the Predator/Reaper family. In desperation, Dassault, Italy's Finmeccanica, and the continental European giant EADS combined forces at the start of the air show to appeal to European governments to put more money into indigenously developed drones, or risk losing the market to the U.S. firms. The three firms said they would join forces to build a medium-altitude, long endurance drone for the European market (they were silent on BAE's role, maybe a side-effect of the failed effort to merge BAE and EADS late last year).

Spend more money, they said, so that "European sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence... be guaranteed." A continental drone would "foster the development of high technologies and contribute to sustaining key competencies and jobs within Europe." Good luck with that as European defense budgets continue to fall.

The rush for the door marked "international sales" goes on and on. Boeing and Bell Helicopter companies are pushing the V-22 VSTOL transport plane into international markets, including Israel and the UAE, with prospects in Britain, France, Canada, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Italy, Colombia, Brazil, India, Japan, and Singapore. This for a program that has lived the perilous life of Pauline in the U.S. Marine Corps budget for more than a decade, but which the Marines now say has performed well in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. government has been lower key in Paris this year, arguing that sequestration prevented it from flying its fighters at the air show. And even Northrop Grumman, from whose pavilion I watched the Paris show back in 1999, skipped it this year. Perhaps everyone already knows enough about its Global Hawk drone. Japan, South Korea, and Australia have been interested, and NATO is already buying five for its Air Ground Surveillance system.

Global hope springs eternal for U.S. defense contractors -- the same bum rush was on in the 1990s during the last defense drawdown. And maybe there are a few niche opportunities, especially in the Middle East and Asia. But there is a long history of competition in these markets, a natural tendency for others -- especially the Europeans -- to circle the wagons around national and regional industries, reflecting an inevitable uneasiness about relying on the United States as a defense supplier.

In the end, there is a mirage-like quality to the global market from a contractor perspective. Smaller sales is the likely trend across all markets. Jobs and corporate success are both at stake, which has generally led the U.S. government to support international sales.

But this trend begs some critical policy questions. Pursuing economic self-interest is one goal -- a healthy defense technology base is part of national security. Strengthening alliance relations is another -- cooperating with important allies and partners is part of the national security mission. Security is a different goal: Selling into regions with significant conflict issues may help allies and the technology base, but it can also exacerbate tensions (the Middle East) and stimulate arms races that are already gathering steam (Southeast and East Asia). The defense industry has the first goal at the front of its attention as the U.S. market declines. The administration needs to strike a balance with the other two missions. As the market shrinks, these are the issues that will move to the front of the discussion. 

PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images