Cutting Military Spending, Rethinking Grand Strategy

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The Associated Press’s Pauline Jelinek has a story on the wires/Interwebs today that pokes holes in Leon Panetta’s claim that Pentagon budget cuts on the order of those contemplated under the debt deal’s sequestration provisions would be “devastating to the department.” Jelinek quoted me, as well as the Center for American Progress’s Larry Korb, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Todd Harrison.

Assuming that sequestration will actually happen (a big if), I tried to put the possible cuts in perspective, given the significant increase in military spending over the past decade.

But we shouldn’t put the budgetary cart before the strategic horse. I have said on several occasions that we should not cut military spending without rethinking our strategic ends.

Although Ben Friedman recently made a strong case for using fiscal austerity to drive a change in our grand strategy, I still believe it possible — and wiser — to do this in the reverse order; rethink the strategy first, and then shape the force to fit the strategy.

As Ben has taught me, austerity is a good auditor, but it doesn’t require us to cut anything, or increase taxes on anyone. The current fiscal situation doesn’t even force us to choose to make any difficult decisions now — so long as we’re willing to borrow money to make up the difference. It is that latter point, however, that people are getting hung up on. And rightly so. We’re doing a disservice to our children and grandchildren by saddling them with these debts, and no reasonable plan for retiring them. August’s debt ceiling deal pits two different factions within the Republican Party against one another: budget hawks and tax cutters (OK to cut, not OK to raise taxes) vs. hawkish hawks (not OK to cut military spending, OK to tax increases). Within this battle, the fiscal hawks are OK with sequestration. The hawkish hawks are not.

Leaving the fiscal constraints on military spending to one side, the underlying strategic logic to my argument that we can responsibly cut military spending still holds. Cuts on the order of $800 billion, or even $1 trillion, would not pose a grave risk to U.S. security. Panetta’s claim that it would rests on the dubious assumption that a nation’s strategic ends are fixed. They are not. What the United States chooses to do to advance its security are just that: choices. Some are wise in retrospect. Others are foolish. Some are understood to be foolish before they are undertaken. But it need not be so ad hoc.

This was one of Barry Posen’s pleas in his article “The Case for Restraint.” Posen made the case for rethinking our strategic goals well before the present fiscal crisis. But he began by reminding readers of the importance of strategy, or, more simply, what grand strategy is:

A state’s grand strategy is its foreign policy elite’s theory about how to produce national security. Security has traditionally encompassed the preservation of a nation’s physical safety, the country’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, and its power position—the last being the necessary means to the first three. States have traditionally been willing to risk the safety of their people to protect sovereignty, territorial integrity and power position. A grand strategy enumerates and prioritizes threats and adduces political and military remedies for them. A grand strategy also explains why some threats attain a certain priority, and why and how the remedies proposed could work.

Our grand strategy has done none of those things (or at least not well), because the particular strategy that we have pursued for more than two decades—primacy, benevolent global hegemony, unipolarity, pick your term—is loathe to choose. Every crisis is a primary concern for the United States. No regional conflict can be handled by regional actors. Every humanitarian disaster, manmade or heaven-sent, demands U.S. intervention.

The list of goals that flows from such a grand strategy is just that—a list—with little or no consideration of how these should be ranked. We must be everywhere. We must do everything. The various strategy documents, meanwhile, are all based on the assumption that primacy is the only reasonable strategy for the United States. Taking the ends and ways as a given, they begin with a force structure (the means), and work backwards. Sometimes they don’t even do that.

Most of us who believe that we can responsibly reduce military spending without undermining U.S. security argue that point from the perspective that our strategy is flawed, and, therefore, that our resources are misallocated. The alternative claim—that our strategy is sound, but we can achieve the same ends with fewer means—is not tenable.