In search of an architect for America’s 21st-century military

The Washington Post characterized Robert Gates’s announcement that the Pentagon will have to cut an additional $78 billion out of its budget over the next five years as a surprise. While the timing of the announcement might be described in those terms, the fact that the cuts are necessary was not. The military is clearly ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Washington Post characterized Robert Gates's announcement that the Pentagon will have to cut an additional $78 billion out of its budget over the next five years as a surprise. While the timing of the announcement might be described in those terms, the fact that the cuts are necessary was not. The military is clearly about to enter a new era, one that is very different in profound ways from the recent past.

As Gates characterized it, "what had been a culture of endless money … will become a culture of savings and restraint." But that description really only scrapes the surface of what is happening. Since December 1941, the U.S. defense establishment has pretty much had carte blanche when it has come to spending for two reasons. First, there was always a great overarching threat -- first World War II, then the Cold War -- and then later it was the threats associated with the "War on Terror." Periodically conflicts like those in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan would provide further justification for spending. And all along the U.S. economy was bustling forward, growing, creating jobs, enabling the check-writing to go on. The period between the fall of the USSR and 9/11 was an anomaly, but even during this time, there was the conflict in Bosnia, the need to keep a lid on Iraq, the slow receding of Cold War concerns, and the booming economy combining with Democratic unease about seeming soft on defense to keep the spigots open.

But now, the situation is different. For the first time in U.S. history, we haven't created a net new job in a decade. 132 million Americans were employed in 2000. 130 million are employed now. There has never been a decade like that in U.S. history. Further, wages have also suffered an unprecedented drop, the national debt has just topped $14 trillion, cities and states are teetering at the edge of the financial abyss, we have seen the market pull the rug out from under fiscally irresponsible allies in Europe, and as a result our appetite for spending has changed dramatically.

The Washington Post characterized Robert Gates’s announcement that the Pentagon will have to cut an additional $78 billion out of its budget over the next five years as a surprise. While the timing of the announcement might be described in those terms, the fact that the cuts are necessary was not. The military is clearly about to enter a new era, one that is very different in profound ways from the recent past.

As Gates characterized it, "what had been a culture of endless money … will become a culture of savings and restraint." But that description really only scrapes the surface of what is happening. Since December 1941, the U.S. defense establishment has pretty much had carte blanche when it has come to spending for two reasons. First, there was always a great overarching threat — first World War II, then the Cold War — and then later it was the threats associated with the "War on Terror." Periodically conflicts like those in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan would provide further justification for spending. And all along the U.S. economy was bustling forward, growing, creating jobs, enabling the check-writing to go on. The period between the fall of the USSR and 9/11 was an anomaly, but even during this time, there was the conflict in Bosnia, the need to keep a lid on Iraq, the slow receding of Cold War concerns, and the booming economy combining with Democratic unease about seeming soft on defense to keep the spigots open.

But now, the situation is different. For the first time in U.S. history, we haven’t created a net new job in a decade. 132 million Americans were employed in 2000. 130 million are employed now. There has never been a decade like that in U.S. history. Further, wages have also suffered an unprecedented drop, the national debt has just topped $14 trillion, cities and states are teetering at the edge of the financial abyss, we have seen the market pull the rug out from under fiscally irresponsible allies in Europe, and as a result our appetite for spending has changed dramatically.

At the same time, we are leaving Iraq, and soon, with some luck and a little common sense, we will actually begin to leave Afghanistan. (I note that Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of California just called Afghanistan a "national embarrassment," describing it as "an epic failure" and a "moral blight." While this is certain to stir up the dittoheads and jingoists, she not only has it about right, but I suspect her view will become mainstream much sooner than even many critics think is possible.)

We are also recalibrating our sense of the terrorist threat. That is not to say there is a sense it is smaller. Rather what is receding is the hysteria that prevailed in U.S. security-policy circles and in the public at large for the decade after the attacks on Wall Street and the Pentagon.

While we almost certainly underestimate some of the rising threats in the world — from those associated with a revitalizing Chinese military and a more adventurous and not entirely constructive Chinese foreign policy to those associated with resource conflicts and new areas of regional instability from Central Asia to Africa — they have not risen to the level of urgency to drive new spending.

And so America is, rightly, responsibly, entering this new Age of Limitations by setting priorities and cutting back.

Almost certainly there will be hypocritical calls by Republican fair-weather budget-hawks who will argue that defense is sacrosanct and that we can’t possibly live with a cut of 27,000 active-duty Army troops or 15,000 Marines … even though these amounts are essentially inconsequential. But that will be political posturing from people who have yet to set their watches forward to 2011.

What Gates is doing — with the full support of the military brass — is smart, timely, courageous, and probably, in the final analysis, just the tip of the iceberg. It should be embraced by responsible political leaders of both parties. President Obama should receive credit for sanctioning the move.

And we should take two things away from this. One is a reminder of just how good Gates is. The other is an awareness of how sorely he will be missed. But his departure creates an opportunity for Obama even if his shoes will be almost impossible to fill.

Obama must stop and ask, "What is the core job of my next secretary of defense?" Gates’s was to oversee Iraq and AfPak, providing continuity from the Bush era, cover for the new president, and most importantly the wise leadership he has offered with striking consistency. But if indeed our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan is to be dialed way back and our stance changed from war fighting to assisting with keeping the peace, the mission of the head of the U.S. defense establishment ought also to change.

It needs to focus on reinventing the U.S. military for the next several decades of the 21st century. Should we continue to outspend on defense every country in the world added together? Would we be sufficiently secure if we only spent, say, 80 percent as much as the entire rest of the planet does? Would we be sufficiently secure if only spent, say, five times as much as the next biggest spender instead of something like eight or 10 times (depending on how you are counting and whose numbers you are using)? What weapons systems should we focus on in this new environment? What kind of alliances? What will our expectations be of our allies? What new threats will emerge? How are they best met? Do we need multiple expeditionary forces? Should we continue to have a pilot-centric Air Force? How long will it be before we realize how vastly overinvested we are in carrier battle groups?

Obama would be doing himself and the country a service if what he were looking for in Gates’s replacement was someone who could be the architect of remaking America’s military. Through his announcement today, Gates only underscored how important and difficult that task will be.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.