May 1, 2009  

Keeping faith with troops and taxpayers

The U.S. needs a new grand strategy of restraint

n his first address before a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to its military men and women: “To each and every one of them, and to the families who bear the quiet burden of their absence, Americans are united in sending one message: We honor your service, we are inspired by your sacrifice, and you have our unyielding support.”

The president pledged “to relieve the strain on our forces” by increasing “the number of our soldiers and Marines.” But Obama went one step further. “To keep our sacred trust with those who serve,” he told those assembled on Capitol Hill and millions more watching around the world that his administration would “raise their pay, and give our veterans the expanded health care and benefits that they have earned.”

These were not new promises. As a candidate, Obama wholeheartedly endorsed President George W. Bush’s decision to grow the Army and Marine Corps. The additional troops were needed, then-Senator Obama explained in a widely read article in Foreign Affairs, so that the country would be “better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale.” In that same article, Obama emphasized the multifaceted role the military would continue to play in combating terrorists. “We need to recruit, train and equip our armed forces to better target terrorists, and to help foreign militaries to do the same,” Obama explained. “This must include a program to bolster our ability to speak different languages, understand different cultures, and coordinate complex missions with our civilian agencies.”

Two days after his address to Congress, however, the president submitted his first budget to Congress, a budget that proposed massive increases in domestic spending but a far more modest boost for the Pentagon (4 percent over the fiscal 2009 budget).

Predictably, the president’s critics claimed he wasn’t keeping faith with the troops. Some argued that he had proposed a cut in military spending (he hadn’t) or that he was “gutting defense” (he wasn’t). Defense spending had risen by over 40 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars under Bush, and even John McCain would have had difficulty pushing through large increases in defense had he been elected president in November. He would have been trying to push such increases through a Congress firmly controlled by Democrats, including some members who would cut defense. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, made headlines in October with his offhand remark that the Pentagon’s budget could be cut by 25 percent. Since that time, Frank hasn’t backed away, and he is joined by a posse of reliably liberal House members — plus an energized “netroots” — that wants to divert money spent on the military to their pet projects at home, from wind farms to windfalls for colleges and universities. Meanwhile, continued huge increases in the Pentagon’s budget likely would also have drawn fire from fiscal hawks at a time when the federal budget deficit is climbing well over $1 trillion. In short, as many had predicted in the days before and after Obama’s historic election, the days of double-digit increases appear to be coming to an end.

This does not necessarily mean, the new president will break a promise to the uniformed military. Keeping faith does not require more and more defense spending. Keeping faith with future generations, including the children and grandchildren of those who have served in the military, requires some attention to bringing our fiscal house in order. Truly keeping faith requires a careful balancing of means and ends.

While Obama might modestly slow the growth of military spending in fiscal 2010, and might consider further constraints on military spending in the out years, it would be extremely difficult, and certainly unwise, to reduce U.S. military spending to the levels that prevailed in the first years after the end of the Cold War without at the same time fundamentally changing our approach to foreign policy. Indeed, to make cuts to our military budget without also altering our overarching grand strategy would be worse than doing nothing, because it is unfair to saddle our men and women in uniform with more missions and less money, as we did in the 1990s. A new direction in foreign policy based on principles of restraint in Washington and self-reliance by our allies and partners abroad is consistent with the wishes of the American public, economically sustainable over the long term, and most appropriate for the challenges we are likely to face in coming generations.


If Obama were to adopt a new grand strategy, it would enjoy broad public support. In poll after poll, Americans express resentment and anger over the fact that our military is used primarily to protect other people’s governments, to defend other people’s shores and airspace, and, increasingly, to rebuild other people’s nations. Most people in Washington dismiss such sentiments as isolationist, but there is something unseemly about the hand-waving and misdirection that our leaders have employed since the end of the Cold War to conceal and distort the true costs of our current grand strategy. In a country that presumes some measure of popular consent, it is not realistic to expect this to continue indefinitely.

Foreign policy isn’t a popularity contest, and we should be wary about subjecting crucial decisions about war and peace to an often ill-informed electorate. Then again, the Founders clearly intended that the public would have a say in how the new nation conducted itself abroad. “The constitution,” James Madison wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, had “with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” Madison later saw this provision as perhaps the most important one of the entire document: “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.”

A few modern constitutional theorists disagree. John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who previously served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, has consistently argued that the president’s inherent powers to wage war are essentially unlimited. Further, to the extent that there are constitutional limits on the president’s war powers, Yoo would remove such restrictions. The confluence of “rogue states,” terrorist organizations and weapons of mass destruction, he says, requires a very different conception of warfare and war powers than the one the Founders envisioned. Given the threats of the 21st century, Yoo writes, “we should not … adopt a war-making process that contains a built-in presumption against using force abroad.”

Actually, we should. Although there may be occasions when military force is required to eliminate an urgent threat to national security — and we must therefore maintain a strong military to deal with such threats — our conventional military power is often irrelevant when dealing with non-state actors such as al-Qaida. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, “over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory.”

The Pentagon has had to rethink the role of kinetic operations in counterterrorism, and policymakers are appropriately focusing more attention on what other government agencies have done, and should do. While Gates and others recognize that the military will have a role, they surely also appreciate that many of the greatest successes achieved against al-Qaida since Sept. 11 — from the operations that drove the Taliban from power in Kabul and eliminated al-Qaida’s safe haven in eastern Afghanistan, to the successful capture of 9/11 plotters Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh — have not involved large numbers of U.S. troops.

In general, the U.S. should be more reticent to use force than it has been since the end of the Cold War, and not just with respect to counterterrorism. Policymakers in Washington should be more selective when considering when to send U.S. troops into harm’s way. They must prioritize based on a clear understanding of our vital national interests and match our military means to these strategic ends. A grand strategy of restraint, similar to that recommended by MIT’s Barry Posen and Columbia’s Richard Betts, is consistent with the wishes of the American people, and with the Constitution, but also makes sense on the merits.

HEGEMONIC strategy

Our current strategy, crafted by a Republican administration in the days immediately after the end of the Cold War, adapted in Somalia and Bosnia and Kosovo under a Democrat, and expanded on under another Republican, often eschews such considerations. It assumes that the U.S. is uniquely capable of providing security for the whole world and that the costs of maintaining a hegemonic posture are relatively low. It also discourages our allies from doing more for their own defense. As other countries become more dependent on the U.S. military and less willing to provide for their own defense, their relative weakness imposes additional risks and burdens on U.S. taxpayers, and diminishes U.S. security by increasing the likelihood that we will become involved in peripheral conflicts.

Policymakers in Washington have chosen to adopt a hegemonic posture not because our own security is at stake but rather out of concern that other countries might come under threat, or that entire regions may collapse into chaos, were it not for the U.S. military maintaining a constant presence in distant corners of the world. In other words, our strategy is driven more by the fear of new arms races in East Asia and the Middle East than by concerns over the long-term costs of our military spending, and it largely ignores the near-term risk that we will be drawn into other people’s wars. The costs associated with building other peoples’ countries have become almost impossible to justify at a time when Americans would much prefer to be building this country.

For now, it seems that the Obama team will attempt nation building both at home and abroad. The people Obama has chosen to lead his defense and foreign policy team broadly endorse a hegemonic strategy. Indeed, many had a hand in crafting it. By refusing to revisit our current defense commitments around the world, and by continuing to imply that the U.S. alone is capable of solving all the world’s problems, it is likely that Obama’s efforts to even modestly limit the growth in the Pentagon’s budget will do more harm than good.

Keeping faith with our men and women in uniform requires that we rebalance our military means and our strategic ends, and revisit all of the obligations that we have incurred over the course of several decades. Our grand strategy should drive toward a new global order in which other countries assume a greater responsibility for defending themselves and for dealing with regional security challenges before they become global challenges. Only by constraining our military power can we precipitate a more equitable distribution of risks and responsibilities across the international system.

The process of transitioning from our unipolar order to a multipolar one will not be easy. Other countries will be expected to bear additional costs, and many will resist. Resistance will also come from within the U.S., especially from that cadre of Americans who are enamored of the idea that we can dominate the global order and that it is in our interest to do so. But the risks that American security will be undermined during this transitional period can be mitigated if we adhere to clear and stringent standards to guide our decisions on whether and when to use force, and that will constrain the policymakers’ propensity to do something.

In Washington, there is an almost endless drumbeat for the U.S. to act. Our capacity for waging war in far-flung places, disconnected from any consideration of U.S. national interests, encourages individuals and groups to journey to the banks of the Potomac and appeal for assistance. We came to the aid of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Why not Muslims in Chechnya? We overthrew Saddam Hussein. Why will we not do the same to the ruling elites in Iran? We delivered food to starving Somalis in 1993 and then intervened militarily to prevent our aid from being diverted to warlords. Why, then, did we not stop far greater humanitarian crises in Rwanda, Congo or Darfur?

In a political environment where those few calling for action vastly outnumber those calling for restraint, it won’t be long before Hillary Clinton will say to Mike Mullen — as Madeleine Albright infamously said to Colin Powell — “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Powell reported that he nearly had an aneurysm when Albright posed this question. He worried that the superb military that he had helped to create would be turned into a hollow force, with too few troops chasing too many missions. He also resented Albright’s presumption that “American GIs were [merely] toy soldiers to be moved around some sort of global game board.” Powell believed in constraining the Washington community’s do-something impulse by applying a set of criteria to proposed military interventions. These criteria, first promulgated by Caspar Weinberger, included the requirement that the mission enjoy the support of the American people, that the military have a clear and attainable mission, and that there be a clear exit strategy.

We need a similar set of criteria today, but they should be even more stringent than those of the Weinberger-Powell doctrine because the strategic environment is considerably more benign than during the Cold War, and because the strong presumption should be against military intervention except in very rare cases.

Some fear that any set of rules would be too constricting. There is a common presumption that it would be unwise to tie the hands of policymakers. Such arguments ignore, however, that it is our men and women in uniform — not the policymakers — who risk all. Ultimately, our country needs some mechanism for setting priorities, for matching our ends and our means, and for ensuring that the policymakers’ wishes do not impose undue burdens on the military.

Obama is not the first president to confront a looming budget gap, and he won’t be the first to attempt to restrain military spending while expanding spending on health care, education and energy. When President Bill Clinton accelerated the force reductions put in motion by President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, he did so even as he maintained virtually all the commitments of the Cold War era. Then, over the course of eight years, he added several new ones. The Clinton administration was unwilling to encourage regional powers to assume greater responsibility for maintaining order in the world, and our men and women in uniform paid the price.

Despite the evidence of the past two decades, however, most politicians and foreign policy experts believe that the core grand strategy that would have the U.S. standing alone as the world’s hegemon for the indefinite future can be sustained so long as competent managers in the White House are behind the controls.

But this is a fool’s game. Pretending that our military power is limitless, or that the public’s distaste for intervention can be reversed by a skillful public relations campaign, does not make it so. We cannot so easily absolve ourselves of the need to prioritize when, and whether, to use our power. The governing presumption therefore should be that we will not.

It is naive to believe that our prodigious military has not deterred would-be attackers. It is unrealistic to believe that this deterrent will never fail and that our military will never be called on to address extant threats. But it is even more unrealistic to believe that these forces are omnipotent. By carefully defining our vital security interests, and by making it necessary for other countries to step forward and assume responsibility for their own security, we can simultaneously reduce the occasions in which the U.S. military is expected to play a vital or even central role. Thus can we keep faith with our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines — and their families — even as we retain our position as the world’s preeminent military power, one fully capable of defending legitimate U.S. security interests for many years to come.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and the author of “The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free.”