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French Exit

January 26, 2012
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This afternoon, the Pentagon will put some more meat on the bones of its recently released strategic guidance. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff GEN Martin Dempsey will release the DoD FY13 budget request and unveil the specific programs that will not survive approximately $487 billion in budget cuts. Shortly thereafter, we’ll probably get something similar to Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon’s statement in response to the strategic guidance:

This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America. The President has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense.  This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs. In order to justify massive cuts to our military, he has revoked the guarantee that America will support our allies, defend our interests, and defy our opponents.   The President must understand that the world has always had, and will always have a leader.  As America steps back, someone else will step forward. (Emphasis mine.)

Former George W. Bush DoD comptroller and current Mitt Romney foreign policy adviser Dov Zakheim had this to say in response to the State of the Union:

He claimed that our alliances were stronger than ever, but glossed over the fact that there is deep unease in Europe over the administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia. As for that pivot, to which the president did refer, it currently amounts to the redeployment, on a rotating basis, of a grand total of 2,500 Marines to Australia.

            [BREAK]

The president said very little about his defense budget cuts. He did not explain how America would retain all its commitments worldwide with a shrunken force that his own secretary of defense has lamented. He did not, of course, note that defense is paying for half the deficit reduction while its budget constitutes a fifth of all federal spending each year, when off-budget entitlements are counted, as they should be. (Emphasis mine.)

These statements reflect the almost axiomatic idea that the United States of America can and should continue to organize, train, and equip a military that provides security for everyone, everywhere. This is not a partisan concept; this has been central to defense policy since the early days of the Cold War and hasn’t budged since. In the post-Cold War era, conservatives of various stripes have championed the use of American military power for outright imperialism while liberals have championed its use under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. American involvement in Libya in early 2011 demonstrated that the two sides had very different notions of how American involvement played out, but not about involvement itself. Of course we should get involved; that’s what we do.

I want to explore a prominent theme in McKeon’s statement and the larger GOP establishment view on the role and size of America’s military: the idea that commitments made sixty years ago cannot and should not be reevaluated.

Let’s take Europe as an example. Today, roughly twenty years after the end of the Cold War, there are 41,000 American soldiers permanently stationed on the European continent (this figure does not even include personnel from the other three services). As a result of the strategic review and the budget cuts, two Brigade Combat Teams — roughly 10,000 soldiers — are set to withdraw from Europe and may be cut entirely as the army shrinks below 500,000 active duty soldiers. Aside from the Charlie Foxtrot known as the single currency, the European continent is remarkably stable and the threat of conventional war between major states is very low. On the other hand, Asia is emerging as a region where the United States has greater interests and the threat of conflict is higher (how much higher is very much up for debate and I offer no assessment here). Would it not be more prudent to either re-position those forces to another theater? Or, if that theatre is not conducive to hosting large numbers of ground forces, would it not be more prudent to station those troops on United States territory? As an aside, the 41,000 army soldiers in Europe and their 100,000 dependents aren’t stimulating the American economy by spending their disposable income in Germany and Italy.

The point is that defense strategy can’t be frozen in time and it can’t be promulgated and then left alone. Strategy is an iterative process that requires adjustments and tweaks as realities change. The international system and United States fiscal realities are not static. Why then would defense policy remain static? I understand that the United States made a commitment to the defense of Europe during the Cold War, but is that still a valid and necessary requirement? If so, is the permanent basing of 41,000 soldiers in Europe necessary to meeting that requirement? Might say, the designating the XVIII Airborne Corps and II Marine Expeditionary Force, both of which are based on the East Coast and quick reaction forces (of sorts), responsible for operations in Europe? This commitment has underwritten Europe’s security and enabled European governments to vastly scale back their own defense spending. Since the end of the Cold War, what tangible security benefits has this commitment made to the security of American citizens?

We can no longer pretend to be able to afford to be the global guarantor of security while our own society becomes increasingly fragmented. With that realization should come the painful but necessary reexamination of our strategic priorities. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Commitments made sixty years ago may no longer serve our needs, and those commitments cannot be held untouchable in budgetary or strategic debates. We just can’t afford it.

UPDATE: You can see Rep. McKeon’s response to the announcement here.

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