Storming the Hill

Thomas P.M. Barnett lets the White House off the hook for the Pentagon's dysfunction.


As the U.S. Defense Department enters the age of austerity in government expenditures, Thomas P.M. Barnett has provided us with an amusing catalog of the risks, contingencies, and super-adversaries as the U.S. military services conceive them (“Think Again: The Pentagon,” March/April 2013). But Barnett takes too narrow an approach.

For one, he never mentions the president’s role in defining the tasks that the services perform. The military always believes that Congress holds the services’ fate in its hands and that if only the generals get their story right, Congress will give the Pentagon more money — and favor one branch over another. But Congress remains completely dependent on the president’s budget submission and has in the past approved it with no more than a plus-or-minus 1 percent change in the top line (though with lots of small changes in how that top line is distributed).

Given its panic about annual federal budget deficits and the national debt, Congress may well play a larger role at this particular juncture in U.S. history — but only to make cuts. Moreover, the regular budget and appropriations process has now broken down. As a result, the services’ panic about world events fails to resonate in the current political climate. To put it more simply, none of the fantasies Barnett details will yield more money for them — but then those fantasies probably never did.

The other contextual problem with Barnett’s argument is that the greatest surprise for the military is not what happens out in the world, but what the White House actually sends it off to do and where. Given that the military can’t always predict this, it must now attend to two tasks. First, within the budget top lines it is given — which can shrink — it strives to maintain a range of capabilities, even if its force structure must shrink in number. Second, at the administration’s direction, the military can sustain whatever overseas postures remain after most forces come home from Afghanistan or from forward supporting bases. In the case of the U.S. Navy, it must resume its regular deployments. For the military, sustaining its force posture in Asia is the essence of the so-called pivot, in addition to a continuing shift of 60 percent of whatever ships the Navy has to the Pacific.

Barnett smartly reveals the services’ dilemmas as they decide how best to prepare for big wars and small. As he points out, however, neither seems very plausible these days. A big war with China sounds absurd given that both countries are intimately connected by global trade. It is doubly absurd to consider any attack on or invasion of the Chinese mainland — China is a nuclear power. As for “small” wars, they have only turned out to be big quagmires instead, and the current administration clearly intends to avoid them. Moreover, I have counted more than 50 internal wars around the world since around 1990; few have strategic significance for the United States, and in any case, America has intervened in only six.

Center for Naval Analyses
Alexandria, Va.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon. @APQW
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