Yesterday USAToday reported that Obama "is putting his personal stamp on a rejiggered Pentagon strategy for absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars in defense budget cuts, marking a turning point in U.S. security policy after a decade of war." Too good to be true?
At basically the same time that Obama was at the Pentagon talking about streamlining the military in an era of tighter budgets and reassessing defense priorities in light of China's rise, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was meeting with his new British counterpart, Philip Hammond, to discuss scaling down their military capability and backing "away from the kind of armed intervention they have enthusiastically supported in recent decades." This isn't about kumbaya or idealism... it's the bottom line.
As the US plans to withdraw more troops from Europe in what is building up to be a turning point in transatlantic relations, Hammond will also lambast European members of Nato for not pulling their weight.
With Panetta expected to announce sweeping cuts in his defence budget, Hammond will point to similarities in the US and UK economic situations, according to officials. "Without strong economies and stable public finances it is impossible to build and sustain, in the long-term, the military capability required to project power and maintain defence," he is expected to tell the Atlantic Council thinktank.
He will add: "That is why today the debt crisis should be considered the greatest strategic threat to the future security of our nations. The fact is, in this era of austerity... not even the United States can afford the astronomical resource commitment required to deal with every threat from every source."
On Thursday, Panetta is expected to announce the results of a Pentagon strategic review, recommending that the US abandon its traditional goal of being able to fight, and win, two wars at the same time. The Pentagon has been asked for cuts of $400bn.
British defence officials are worried that pressures on the US budget will further encourage Washington to turn its back on Europe as it concentrates on potential threats in the Pacific.
Libya showed that while the US took a back seat-- its aircraft were not involved in the air strikes-- the Europeans nevertheless relied on US planes for refuelling and intelligence-gathering operations.
"Libya and Afghanistan have highlighted the significant difficulties we face in ensuring Nato continues to serve the needs of collective security," Hammond will say. "Too many countries are failing to meet their financial responsibilities to Nato, and so failing to maintain appropriate and proportionate capabilities. Too many are opting out of operations, or contributing but a fraction of what they should be capable of.
"This is a European problem, not an American one. And it is a political problem, not a military one."
The defence secretary is not expected to name names, though officials make it clear that he has Germany and Poland (neither of which played a part in the Libyan conflict) in mind, as well as Spain.
The administration and Congress already are trimming defense spending to reflect the closeout of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan. The massive $662 billion defense budget planned for next year is $27 billion less than Obama wanted and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon this year.
...Factors guiding the Obama administration's approach to reducing the defense budget are not limited to war-fighting strategy. They also include judgments about how to contain the growing cost of military health care, pay and retirement benefits. The administration is expected to form a commission to study the issue of retirement benefits, possibly led by a prominent retired military officer.
The administration is in the final stages of deciding specific cuts in the 2013 budget, which Obama will submit to Congress next month. The strategy to be announced by Panetta and Dempsey is meant to accommodate about $489 billion in defense cuts over the coming 10 years, as called for in a budget deal with Congress last summer. An additional $500 billion in cuts may be required starting in January 2013.
A prominent theme of the Pentagon's new strategy is expected to be what Panetta has called a renewed commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
On a trip to Asia last fall, Panetta made clear that the region will be central to American security strategy.
"Today we are at a turning point after a decade of war," Panetta said in Japan. Al-Qaeda is among a range of concerns that will keep the military busy, but as a traditional Pacific power the United States needs to build a wider and deeper network of alliances and partnerships in that region, he said.
"Most importantly, we have the opportunity to strengthen our presence in the Pacific-- and we will," he said.
The administration is not anticipating military conflict in Asia, but Panetta believes the U.S. got so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 that it missed chances to improve its position in other regions.
China is a particular worry because of its economic dynamism and rapid defense buildup. A more immediate concern is Iran, not only for its threats to disrupt the flow of international oil but also for its nuclear ambitions.
Looming large over the defense budget debate is the prospect of reducing spending on nuclear weapons.
Thomas Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, believes the U.S. nuclear program can cut $45 billion over the coming decade without weakening the force. He estimates that reducing the U.S. strategic nuclear submarine force from 12 subs to eight could save $27 billion over 10 years. A further $18 billion could be saved by delaying the building of a new fleet of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, he says.
The 20th century, it?s said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the idea is the triumph of the working class or of a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.
Although liberal-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilised some version of this argument against the isms of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable scepticism about that other idée fixe of the 20th century: national security. Some liberals will criticise this war, others that one, but no one has ever written a book entitled The End of National Security. This despite the millions killed in the name of security, and even though Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats.
There are fewer than six degrees of separation between the idea of national security and the lurid crimes of Abu Ghraib. First, each of the reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war against Iraq-- the threat of WMD, Saddam?s alleged links to al-Qaida, even the promotion of democracy in the Middle East-- referred in some way to protecting America. Second, everyone agrees that getting good intelligence from Iraqi informers is a critical element in defeating the insurgency. Third, US military intelligence believes that sexual humiliation is an especially forceful instrument for extracting information from recalcitrant Muslim prisoners.
Many critics have protested against Abu Ghraib, but none has traced it back to the idea of national security. Perhaps they believe such an investigation is unnecessary. After all, many of them opposed the war on the grounds that US security was not threatened by Iraq. And some of national security?s most accomplished practitioners, such as Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as theoreticians like Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, even claimed that a genuine consideration of US interests militated against the war. The mere fact that some politicians misused or abused the principle of national security need not call that principle into question. But when an idea routinely accompanies, if not induces, atrocities-- Abu Ghraib was certainly not the first instance of the United States committing or sponsoring torture in the name of security-- second thoughts would seem to be in order. Unless, of course, defenders of the idea wish to join that company of ideologues they so roundly condemn, affirming their commitment to an ideal version of national security while disowning its ?actually existing? variant.
In its ideal version, national security requires a clear-eyed understanding of a nation?s interests and a sober assessment of the threats to them. Force, a counsellor might say to his prince, is a tool a leader may use in response to those threats, but he should use it prudently and without emotion. Just as he should not trouble himself with questions of human rights or international law ? though analysts might add these to a leader?s toolkit, they are quick to point out, as Joseph Nye does in The Paradox of American Power (2002), that international norms may have to give way to ?vital survival interests?, that ?at times we will have to go it alone?-- he should not be excited by his use of violence. National security demands a monkish self-denial, where officials forego the comforts of conscience and the pleasures of impulse in order to inflict when necessary the most brutal force and abstain from or abandon that force whenever it becomes counter-productive. It?s an ethos that bears all the marks of a creed, requiring a mortification of self no less demanding than that expected of the truest Christian.
The first article of this creed, the national interest, gives leaders great wiggle room in determining what constitutes a threat. What, after all, is the national interest? According to Nye, ?the national interest is simply what citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is.? Even if we assume that citizens are routinely given the opportunity to ponder the national interest, the fact is that they seldom, if ever, reach a conclusion about it. As Nye points out, Peter Trubowitz?s exhaustive study of the way Americans defined the national interest throughout the 20th century concluded that ?there is no single national interest. Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defence should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.? And this makes a good deal of sense: if an individual finds it difficult to determine her own interest, why should we expect a mass of individuals to do any better?
But if a people cannot decide on its collective interest, how can it know when that interest is threatened? Faced with such confusion, leaders often fall back on what seems the most obvious definition of a threat: imminent, violent assault from an enemy, promising to end the independent life of the nation. Leaders focus on cataclysmic futures, if for no other reason than that these are a convenient measure of what is or is not a threat, what is or is not security. But that ultimate threat often turns out to be no less illusory than the errant definition inspiring the invocation of the threat in the first place.
Hovering about every discussion of war and peace are questions of life and death. Not the death of some or even many people, but as Michael Walzer proposes in Arguing about War, the ?moral as well as physical extinction? of an entire people. True, it is only rarely that a nation will find its ?ongoingness?-- its ability ?to carry on, and also to improve on, a way of life handed down? from its ancestors-- threatened. But at moments of what Walzer, following Winston Churchill, calls ?supreme emergency?, a leader may have to commit the most obscene crimes in order to avert catastrophe. The deliberate murder of innocents, the use of torture: the measures taken will be as many and almost as terrible as the evils a nation hopes to thwart.
For obvious reasons, Walzer insists that leaders should be wary of invoking the supreme emergency, that they must have real evidence before they start speaking Churchillese. But a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that in practice the rules of evidence will be ignored or flouted, but that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists on, the flouting.
?In normal affairs,? Richelieu declared at the dawn of the modern state system, ?the administration of justice requires authentic proofs; but it is not the same in affairs of state . . . There, urgent conjecture must sometimes take the place of proof; the loss of the particular is not comparable with the salvation of the state.? As we ascend the ladder of threats from petty crime to the destruction of the state, we require less and less proof that those threats are real. The consequences of underestimating serious threats are so great we may have no choice but to overestimate them. Three centuries later, the American jurist Learned Hand invoked a version of this rule, claiming that ?the gravity of the ?evil?? should be ?discounted by its improbability?. The graver the evil, the higher the degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. The graver the evil, the lower the degree of probability that authorises-- or permits-- us to take pre-emptive action against it.