Shadow Government

A risky defense strategy

The United States today faces a growing gap between its commitments and capabilities. There are, in theory, three approaches to dealing with this mismatch. The first would be to ensure that the U.S. military is fully funded to protect American interests. According to the bipartisan 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, such an approach would ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The United States today faces a growing gap between its commitments and capabilities. There are, in theory, three approaches to dealing with this mismatch. The first would be to ensure that the U.S. military is fully funded to protect American interests. According to the bipartisan 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, such an approach would require additional funds to modernize U.S. forces and increase force structure to counter anti-access challenges; strengthen homeland defense, including cyber threats; and conduct post-conflict stabilization missions. The panel called for an increase in the size of the U.S. Navy, the acquisition of a next-generation bomber, and new long-range strike systems.

A second approach, favored by neo-isolationists of various stripes in both parties, would be to scale back U.S. commitments and accept a narrower definition of America’s role in the world than we have played for the better part of a century. Reducing commitments is, however, easier said than done. Protecting the United States against attack is one of our government’s most fundamental responsibilities. Similarly, we would lose more than we would gain by abrogating any number of treaties that commit the United States to the defense of allies across the globe. A failure on the part of the United States to continue to command the commons would similarly incur great economic, political, and military costs.

The third approach would be to accept greater risk – that is, to seek to pursue a broad international role on the cheap.

The Obama administration’s newly released defense strategy sits somewhere between the second and third approaches. That is, it envisions a scaled-back American presence and incurs greater risk without leveling with the American people as to the nature and magnitude of that risks.

Regarding commitments, the report projects continuity. The president’s preface informs us that the review was "shaped by America’s enduring national security interests," and that the military will "focus on a broader range of challenges" but will be "ready for the full range of contingencies." Secretary of Defense Panetta adds that the United States will be ready to "confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world."

The administration would have us believe that the United States will be able to do all these things with forces that are "smaller and leaner." In fact, however, the U.S. Navy is already the smallest it has been since before the United States entered World War I, and the U.S. Air Force is the smallest it has ever been. One can reasonably question just how much smaller the U.S. military can get while allowing the United States to maintain its traditional role.

In fact, the strategy’s authors hint at a reduced U.S. role, noting that the United States will have to make "thoughtful choices…regarding the location and frequency" of U.S. presence abroad. They also reject the need to "conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Although we are told that the strategy will "ensure our Armed Forces can meet the demand of the U.S. National Security Strategy at acceptable risk," in fact the document amounts to a recipe for greater risk. In concrete terms, that means a reduced readiness to wage war and, should the United States go to war, in conflicts that will go on longer and cost more American lives than would have been the case if we were better prepared. It also amounts to a decreased ability to reassure allies and deter competitors in peacetime. Cutting back on engagement with U.S. allies and friends threatens to undermine their confidence in the United States, and reducing U.S. military presence in key regions could tempt adversaries into thinking they can take on the United States.  

In an election season that will justifiably be dominated by the state of the U.S. economy, there is room for thoughtful debate over America’s role in the world, the costs and benefits of that role, and the risks that we run when we fail to fully fund our commitments.

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