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Defending Defense in 2011, Partying Like It’s 1999

September 27, 2011

Okay, so I really didn’t want to make my second post about strategy because, while I enjoy thinking and writing about it, I don’t want to make strategy my shtick. Think of me as Sean Connery stepping away from playing James Bond after Diamonds Are Forever, except, unlike Connery, I can’t wait long enough to create the demand to see Never Say Never Again.

Whatever, I’m back, talking about strategy, or more accurately, lack thereof. I blame the people who are actually paid to think strategically. If they’re gonna keep throwing softballs, I’m gonna keep hitting homeruns. Or long singles. I’ll let you be the judge.


Yesterday, the Republican staff of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) released a report prepared for the Chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, of their assessment of the impacts of DoD budget cuts. The Republican staff’s working assumption is that the Super Committee will be unable to reach a deal and that full sequestration will be implemented. If that happens, DoD’s FY13 base budget, which is currently pegged at $596 billion, will be reduced by 18% to $491 billion. Over FY13–FY21, cuts would total slightly over $1 trillion. As my good friend Jasonnotes, this is a worst-case scenario. (Jason’s entire post is worth your time. Read it.)

Since Jason did a great job of taking down the “we might have to draft your kids” meme, I’m going to focus on the other two bullet points highlighted in the Executive Summary: Destroying Jobs and Stalling the Economy and Vital Missions at Risk. At least, that’s what I was going to do when I started writing this Monday evening. Instead, I spent 1300 words on the title of the executive summary. On Wednesday I’ll hit the bullet points, I promise.

In the interest of fairness, I suppose a caveat would be appropriate here. This is a political document, not a strategic one. The Republican staff produced it; presumably, the minority staff did not contribute to this report or its conclusions. HASC is not charged with making strategy. That falls to the National Security Council and, as it pertains to DoD, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. This is a partisan document that’ll be used to justify minimal, if any, cuts to the DoD budget. Nothing more, nothing less. Still, it displays a stunning lack of strategic thought for the nation’s welfare and common defense.

Let’s start with the title of the Executive Summary: Future Cuts Transform a Superpower into a Regional Power. HASC Republicans must have missed the memo that explained why the U.S. isn’t a superpower. Did you get that memo? For those who didn’t, it was issued by the Bush administration in 2003 when they sent the military to war without putting the country on a war footing. Compounding this problem was the decision to lower taxes. Wall Street issued an addendum to the memo – something about peddling mortgages to people who can’t afford houses and a footnote about some absolutely insane ways of securitizing assets, by which I mean debt. That memo was titled The Baby Boomers Are Driving this Country Off a Cliff. But I digress.

Now, I can already hear the masses vehemently disagreeing with the notion that the U.S. is not a superpower. Allow me to add some nuance. Clearly, the U.S. remains a superpower on a military level. On an economic or political level, not so much. A lot of this has less to do with the U.S. than it does the transformation of the international system.

Joe Nye’s most recent book, The Future of Power, does a great job of defining this transformation as well as the nature of power. He sums it up by noting that “the problem for all states in the twenty-first century is that there are more and more things outside the control of even the most powerful states.” Even casual observers of the international system can see this. Larger states have ceded relative power to these new players, particularly when one considers power to be more than just military might.

So what is power? The dictionary, at least the one Nye consulted, says that power “is the capacity to do things and in social situations to affect others to get the outcomes we want.” That sounds as good a definition as any to me. Nye digs deeper, noting that “power conversion—getting from resources to behavioral outcomes—is a crucial intervening variable.” This definition, combined with Nye’s concept of power conversion, is important because it places the emphasis on outcomes, not just resources. That’s the point, right? Getting what we want, not simply consuming resources.

This is important because most discussions about DoD budget cuts tend to neglect the basic fact that a nation derives its power from more than just the military, and that if our military strength comes at the expense of shoring up the economy, we aren’t actually increasing our power [or something]. The U.S. has traditionally been the most powerful when our economy was strongest. A strong economy allows for a strong military, while a weak economy doesn’t, unless those charged with governing are prepared to borrow yet more money to pay for it. Or cut entitlements. Or cut all funding for every Federal agency not named DoD.

Les Gelb believes that the U.S. hasn’t adjusted to twenty-first century realities (h/t Gulliver for reminding me about this article). Gelb writes:

Most nations today beat their foreign policy drums largely to economic rhythms, but less so the United States. Most nations define their interests largely in economic terms and deal mostly in economic power, but less so the United States. Most nations have adjusted their national security strategies to focus on economic security, but less so the United States. Washington still principally thinks of its security in traditional military terms and responds to threats with military means. The main challenge for Washington, then, is to recompose its foreign policy with an economic theme, while countering threats in new and creative ways. The goal is to redefine “security” to harmonize with twenty-first-century realities.

The most ferocious fight will be over how to rejuvenate the U.S. economy. Everyone agrees that it must be fixed, lest the nation face further decline and more dangers. But few agree on how. The basic must-do list is lengthy, unforgiving, and depressingly obvious: improve public schools to sustain democracy and restore global competitiveness; upgrade the physical infrastructure critical to economic efficiency and homeland security; reduce public debt, the interest on which is devouring revenue; stimulate the economy to create jobs; and promote new sources of energy and freer trade to increase jobs, lower foreign debt, and reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Even as politicians and experts do their war dances on these do-or-die domestic issues, they will grapple over foreign policy, as they should. The United States is less and less able to translate its economic strength into influence abroad, even though it will remain for some time the world’s largest economy. Why this gap between U.S. power and results? In part, it is because many problems internal to states today are beyond all external ministrations. It is also because U.S. power has been squandered and employed inefficiently. Having overlooked profound changes in the world, U.S. leaders have done little to modernize their national security strategy. Present U.S. strategy offers too little bang for its buck because there is not enough buck in the strategy. A new way of thinking about U.S. interests and power must aim for a foreign policy fitted to a world in which economic concerns typically — but not always — outweigh traditional military imperatives.

Like I said, this is a political document, not a strategic one. I get that, really I do. Republicans are trying to maintain their hold on being the party strong on defense. This is an increasingly difficult task given Tea Party influence on the freshmen class of Congress who are bucking the party line, willing to cut the sacrosanct DoD budget in order to get overall Federal spending under control. Republicans are suffering a bit of an identity crisis.

But this entire report is rooted in the twentieth century; it does not take into account the economic realities of the twenty-first. HASC Republicans need to recognize this new environment and understand that national strength is not drawn exclusively from DoD. Since fidelity to the Constitution is trendy now, one would think that Republicans might realize that when the framers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t envision projecting power or commanding the commons as a superpower. After all, even a regional power can “provide for the common defense,” right?


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