The twitter-verse, or at least, one of the corners I follow, had heaps of tweets dedicated to the rollout of the US defense review, with Obama playing a starring role.  Apparently, Obama briefing at the Pentagon is a new thing.  Anyhow, it raised all kinds of questions, so I thought I would answer them all here.  Yes, all of them.  Ok, some of them.

  • Q: Is the review really a review of what the US wants to do, or is it a gloss over the requirements imposed by the fiscal crisis?
  • A: Yes, it is a gloss, but it is more significant than that.  In the good old days, Grand Strategy meant the overall approach a country took to pursue its interests and match commitments and capabilities.  So, having less money than planned (note, less money than planned, not significantly less money than before these wars of the Aughts) means adjusting commitments.  Which leads to the next question:
  • Q: All this talk of the Gulf and East Asia, and cuts to the Army, focusing on the Navy and Air Force means that Europe is taking a back seat in US grand strategy, right?
  • A: Yes.
  • A: Oh, you want more than that.  Well, to be honest, that change happened the second week of my time on the Joint Staff, when the daily/weekly urgency about the Balkans dissipated as a war in Central Asia and then a second war took the focus and the resources of the US.  The Balkans became an afterthought.  Other than providing a handy set of bases for the Libyan enterprise, Europe has not been a place that American defence planners have spent much time thinking about.  
  • Q: But what about Russia?
  • A: Good question.  Well, my guess is that Russia is not seen as a conventional military threat to Europe right now or the near future.  That European forces could potential deter the Russians.  Ok, that makes us both laugh.  With Europeans cutting their defense budgets in ways that do far more harm to readiness (as in: no more fighter planes or no more armor), Europe is not going to be that fit to take care of itself.  But it has as much economic capability (once the Euro crisis settles down) to provide defense for itself, or at least supplement an American effort to “spoil” an attack.  Plus the reality is that any Russian invasion of Europe would require invading countries we do not care about unless we are stupid enough to let Ukraine into NATO.  Oh, never mind.
  • Q:  Back to the core of the new strategy, what is this one war and one other thing?
  • A: The previous strategy had the goal of fighting two major wars at the same time and winning both.  The new strategy is not that new but a bit more honest: fight one major war and have enough left over to deter adversaries and even mess with the plans of one attacker.
  • Q: Is this realistic?
  • A: Actually, yes.  That is, even during the two wars being fought for the past ten years, a significant hunk of American fighting capacity was barely touched, more or less.  This would be the Navy and the Air Force.  Sure, they came in handy at times, but for most of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, the US still had enough fighting power to be someone else’s Air Force and Navy (such as South Korea’s) to challenge the adversary.  Plus we have those handy nukes that do some deterring of some kinds of attacks as well.
  • Q: But isn’t the army going to be mighty small now?
  • A: Smaller is not small.  It will still be one of the largest armies in the world.  And larger than other post-war US armies.  No, a smaller army would not be able to do another Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time.  But perhaps tying the President’s hands so that we don’t do that again is not entirely a bad idea.  For instance, any President would have to ponder what it would really take to invade Iran and ask what else might happen.  And then realize that invading Iran is an incredibly stupid idea.  Yes, a President Santorum could not make such a calculation, but I am pretty confident that such an outcome is unlikely in the extreme.*  The words of former SecDef Gates are still ringing about how stupid it would be to engage in another land war in Asia (he must have seen Princess Bride recently).

* I am conflicted between the joy that would such a train wreck a Santorum nomination would be and how embarrassing it would be.   

  • Q:  This means that the era of counter-insurgency is over, right?
  • A: Wrong.  As long as the US maintains significant conventional superiority (and this budget will not end that era), its adversaries are likely not going to make Hussein’s mistake of putting a conventional force in the field and hoping the US does not shred it.  Instead, insurgency will be the strategy of choice.  Well, that and terrorism.  The danger in having steep cuts is that the military will lose heaps of people with lots of experience and expertise in such warfare.  But then again, given how long these wars went on, I am pretty sure that there will be plenty of folks left in the Army and Marines who have significant COIN and CT experience.  Even if the Army wants to forget everything it learned.  Plus, well, politicians have a way of putting the military in places they don’t want to be.  And a stabilization operation can turn into an insurgency under the right wrong conditions. 
  • Q: Is China really the threat that the US should be focused on?  Doesn’t this strategy make the Pacific the priority?  Is this wise?
  • A: Maybe not, yes, and yes.  
  • Q:  Huh?
  • A: China is not going to attack Pearl Harbor anytime soon, and it does lack some basic capacities to dominate the Pacific.  War is not likely soon or in the medium term.  However, being prepared is one of the better ways to avoid war.  Further, it is a matter of priorities and threats.  Is the Pacific a more uncertain, less institutionalized environment than the Atlantic and the Mediterranean?  Yes.  No doubt.  Europe has its problems, including an increasingly authoritarian Hungary (oh my!), but we have a much more stable status quo there.  The fears are about whether Germany will exert enough leadership, not whether various actors within Europe will drop out of NATO and start attacking others (well, except for the constant Greece-Turkey thing).  In Asia, there is China, making threats to its neighbors, North Korean being North Korea, lots of other hotspots, and, oh by the way, India is in PACOM’s area of responsibility.  Plus Europe is closer and has much more infrastructure so the US could surge there more quickly and more effectively.  Again, less resources (less than previously planned/dreamed) means prioritizing, and the Pacific is simply of greater concern.  
  • Q: Does this mean that Mearsheimer’s Offshore-Balancing is the way forward?
  • A: I would hate to say that Mearsheimer is right, but, well, fu@#$.  Maybe he is.  Maybe the US will focus its efforts on not fighting land wars and spend its effort trying to deter bad guys via sea and air-based power.  Double damn.  But I am pretty sure that the US will still feel compelled to put troops on the ground in places Mearsheimer does not care about for stakes he does not care about and not for the reasons Mearsheimer suspects (ethnic lobbies, imperfect marketplaces of ideas, lying politicians), but because the world is a complex place, and with great power comes …. great opportunities to get involved in places.  Does this mean that offensive realism is correct?  Well, no.  Off-shore balancing and offensive realism might seem perfectly compatible to some people, but other theories might also be compatible with off-shore balancing (including defensive realism, liberal institutionalism and who knows what else).  But that is an academic debate for another day.
  • Q: Best part of this discussion of American grand strategy:
  • A: Drezner’s post of videos that help to illustrate 21st American grand strategy.
  • Q: Why did Obama show up at the Pentagon?
  • A: Um, it provides lots of cool stories. Or at least I think so.  My students may think otherwise.
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