Dollars for Defense

The defense budget in back in the news -- the perennial harbinger of Spring like the first crocuses. This year's version of the ritualized passion play on Capitol Hill features Secretary Robert Gates' highly publicized proposal to trim military spending by $78 billion over the next five years. That would amount to roughly $15.5 billion per annum. A closer look reveals that the numbers refer only to the fixed Pentagon budget while excluding the 'off the books' outlays for the war/occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservative estimates of those costs (which assume a steady drawdown of forces and expenditures) pretty much match the projected $78 billion cuts. So, in truth, this heralded bold step to rein in defense spending is a bit of legerdemain. That's to be expected. These annual exercises usually are little more than stylized Kabuki.

There are obvious reasons for that. One is the powerful vested interests who resist making consequential changes. The other is intellectual. It is impossible to think seriously about defense budgets and Pentagon resource allocations without a clear idea of what we expect our military to do -- and why. In other words, the place to begin is with interests, needs and means. We don't do that. The production of strategic statements has become an art form for obfuscating half-baked ideas and flawed logic. Its main reference points, beyond an extrapolation of the status quo, are domestic politics and intra-governmental turf battles. This holds for budgetary plans as well.

To be honest, we're navigating without a strategic gyroscope and only the most primitive of compasses. There is no strategic design -- certainly not an explicit one -- that is coherently articulated. Instead, there is an arithmetic tabulation of threats. There's the Islamic terrorists. There's China. There's defending Latvia from the Russians. Then there's oil from the Persian Gulf. Then there's the Western Hemisphere with Hugo Chavez and drug cartels. Then, then.... Implicit in this iterative approach is the assumption that our tolerance for any magnitude of threat is zero, that we must prepare for threats 'over the horizon,' and that we must be pro-active. There is a logic to this way of thinking, however rudimentary. But only if you can count on infinite resources -- and if you cannot imagine that any of our actions may be counter productive for national security. Alas, neither is correct. Any tacit recognition of the former is unaccompanied by any strategic assessment worthy of the name.

The 9/11 decade has been dominated by the 'war on terror.' Its huge appetite for resources, including time and energy, has been matched by the progression of perceived security needs it has spawned. The commitment to a dominant physical presence in Southwestern and Central Asia is the outstanding example. Let's look at each in turn. Our vast expenditures in Afghanistan and Iraq to little beneficial effect testify to the obsession with Islamic terrorism. They are explicable only in terms of the Twin Towers trauma and the newfound sense of vulnerability it created. Looked at objectively, the losses we suffered -- however dramatic -- do not figure high on a scale of possible attacks against to the United States. Certainly not compared to what a couple of thousand Soviet nuclear warheads could do to us.

The terrorist threat is exceptional, though, in two respects. First, it is the greatest threat out there in an otherwise benign international environment. Second, those who attacked us were manifestly successful rather being just a potential or latent threat. That counts at the political as well as emotional level. Theoretically, the worst we can anticipate in the future is another try at doing something similar. A level headed analysis points to the conclusion that al-Qaida and its affiliates do not have anything like the capability to mount such an effort. For nine and a half years, no evidence of even a half-way serious plot on that scale has surfaced. Moreover, we should be able to assume that our police and intelligence agencies are no longer working at the abysmal level of incompetence that permitted 9/11 to succeed.

In Afghanistan, the old home base, the al-Qaeda core is broken and its members dispersed. And that was worth doing. Where the organization exists at all is across the border in Pakistan. There are sound reasons to judge that the Taliban has greatly loosened if not actually severed their ties with al-Qaeda. Nor are the Taliban in a position to recreate the conditions that existed in 2001 in the unlikely event that they were inclined to do so. Indeed, that is true regardless of the current civil war's progression. Yet we remain dedicated to the objective of eliminating all Taliban influence in Afghanistan. Until they are rendered impotent forevermore, we will pour men and money and political capital into the effort -- attendant risks (such as destabilizing a nuclear Pakistan) are discounted.

Following that same logic, the security of the United States demands that we make a similar commitment to eradicate both al-Qaeda affiliates and sympathetic Islamic radicals in Pakistan (including those who are Punjabi based), in Yemen, in Somalia, in Mali and Niger -- or in Europe for that matter. For today those threats are roughly equal to what might emanate from Afghanistan. The Bush/Obama line that 'we are fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here' carries no geographical distinctions. Are we prepared to invest ourselves militarily without limit in all those places? If not, the case for an open ended commitment to total victory in Afghanistan collapses. If we are, then we better admit the grandiosity of our ambition along with the onerous costs it will impose on the nation and on our standing in the world.

Then there is Central Asia. Suddenly this remote region has emerged as an area critical to American security. No one tells us why. Certainly that parcel of strategic reviews doesn't. It may simply be that we're there because "it's there." Anything is possible in today's Washington. But let's try and think it through logically. Is it to serve as a springboard for an air assault on Iran? We already have ample means to do that. Is it to outflank China in the event of an all out war circa 1942? Is it to outflank Russia in the event that the neo-Red army casts covetous eyes on the Baltics? Is the true stake Central Asia's oil and gas reserves? If so, exactly how can a network of expensive airbases bring American influence to bear? Will we threaten the governments of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan with invasion or airstrikes unless they open the door to American energy corporations and restrict Chinese control? Well, the pipelines running east are already built; Chinese economic influence is mounting in ways that a bankrupt United States cannot match; and Beijing cleverly doesn't meddle in local politics so long as the powers that be do business with them.

There is one potential, diabolically cunning strategy we may be following which makes a modicum of sense out of our massive military build-up in the region. It goes like this. The one conceivable avenue for expanded American influence is via native military elites. Lavish aid and training programs, officer exchanges, access to our well equipped base facilities, etc. Since all of these countries are liable to suffer political instability, we could have the inside track with the one group that has the means to impose order. One possible source of that instability is revived insurrections by Islamic radicals. Then our supposed technical expertise becomes all the more valuable. Thought of this way, our ham handed interventions in the region serve our larger strategic purposes by fueling those violent jihadist movements across the region. The longer we stay in Afghanistan and arouse the hatred of Muslims everywhere, the better the chance of spreading terrorism and provoking indigenous threats to existing governments. The better the chance that those beleaguered governments will see salvation via an anti-terrorist alliance with the U.S. The better the chance that 'our guys' in khaki will come out on top. The better the chance that they'll favor doing energy deals with us rather than with the Chinese.

Fanciful? By all means. After all, we tried this with the Pakistani military and General Kayani stubbornly refuses to take our instruction while amusing himself by setting ablaze NATO fuel trucks. Also, all of those radical Islamists we've been inspiring may decide to have a try at killing Americans. The answers: "nobody said this would be easy. Anyway, by flushing 'them' out we can better destroy 'them'."

When national security strategy resembles a pipe dream, it's just a matter of choosing your brand of opium.