Stephen M. Walt

The Pentagon gets a haircut (well, maybe a shave)

The Pentagon gets a haircut (well, maybe a shave)

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has sensibly concluded that when the United States: 1) Is facing massive federal budget deficits, combined with a looming fiscal crisis at the state and local levels, 2) Is already spending more on national security than the rest of the world combined, and 3) Faces no "peer competitors" or dangerous great powers nearby, then it makes sense to make a few modest cuts in its military spending.

Of course, patriotic Congressmen will now fight tooth-and-nail to preserve spending in their states or districts, so it’s not even clear how much money will ultimately be saved. But it’s a step in the right direction, and Gates deserves credit for seeing where the wind was blowing and for addressing the problem, even if only in a modest way.

Just don’t lose sight of the real issue, which is not so much the amount of money we devote to national security as the purposes for which we use these capabilities. It doesn’t make much sense to cut spending if you’re going to continue to use the military on ill-advised missions; in fact, if you have a very ambitious foreign policy, then you ought to expect to spend a lot of blood and treasure on it. As the Times noted this morning, the White House backed Gates’s plan, saying that "his plan would free money that could be better spent on war fighting." And when some key elements of your foreign policy make you very unpopular in large swathes of the world, it will probably fuel anti-American terrorism and create dangers that might not exist otherwise, or at least might not be as large or as difficult to address.

In other words, the debate that is about to occur about Pentagon cuts is mostly a disagreement about the allocation of pork and short-term priorities. Gates did not propose any change in the roles and missions of the U.S. armed forces, in our international commitments, or even our overall force levels. His proposals do not invite a debate about the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy. And until that debate occurs, don’t expect major changes in America’s force posture or its underlying belief that it has the right and/or responsibility to intervene in far-flung corners of the world, even when vital interests are not at stake and when we don’t really have any idea how to run these places reliably.

On the latter point, I hope you caught the delicious irony on General Ray Odierno’s statement that U.S. forces in Iraq were now there "to prevent foreign powers from meddling with Iraq’s new government" (h/t Yglesias and Greenwald). It’s easy to lampoon such a comment — weren’t we "meddling" just a bit when we invaded in 2003? — but the real lesson is that this is how virtually all imperial powers tend to see their own conduct.  Great Britain claimed to shoulder the "white man’s burden" (i.e. to bring civilization to its benighted colonial subjects), and the French saw their colonial role as "la mission civilizatrice." The former Soviet Union thought it was helping spread the benefits of socialism to its Third World clients, and the United States has convinced itself that it is spreading freedom, democracy, liberty, the rule of law, "world order," etc.   

I don’t know if countries tell themselves this sort of thing in order to rally support for interventionist policies, or to convince other states that their actions are inspired by noble aims rather than the self-interested dictates of realpolitik (probably both). Whatever the motivation, I remain convinced that the United States would be better off if it devoted more attention to nation-building here at home, and somewhat less to fruitless efforts to do so abroad, especially in those places where the preconditions for Western-style liberal democracy are sorely lacking.