Trumpeting the Superpower Status Quo

President Obama’s ‘Defense Strategic Review’ is old sauce in a new bottle—and the country’s worse for it.

Gregory D. Foster

Flanked by military officials, President Obama speaks about the Defense Strategic Review at the Pentagon on January 5.

If you blinked at 11 a.m. on Jan­u­ary 5, you may have missed the unveil­ing of a new, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan strate­gic pos­ture for the Unit­ed States. Speak­ing from the Pen­ta­gon and sur­round­ed by the Sec­re­tary of Defense, the Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the civil­ian armed ser­vice sec­re­taries and the uni­formed ser­vice chiefs of staff, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma intro­duced the Defense Strate­gic Review.”

There [was] no acknowledgement that the military we have—large, expensive, general purpose, unilaterally-oriented, provocative—is the opposite of the military we need.

It was a polit­i­cal event, aimed at Con­gress and vot­ers, pos­ing as a non­po­lit­i­cal defense and for­eign pol­i­cy event; and it was a bud­getary moment, aimed at stanch­ing crit­i­cism of inevitable defense bud­get cuts,” pos­ing as a strate­gic moment. Despite the orches­trat­ed imagery of duti­ful mil­i­tary lead­ers stand­ing by their com­man­der in chief, it exem­pli­fied civil­ian sub­ju­ga­tion to the mil­i­tary. It was an unimag­i­na­tive bow to sta­tus-quo­ism pos­ing as trans­for­ma­tive redirection.

As pre­am­ble, the pres­i­dent gave obei­sance to the usu­al plat­i­tudes of untruth: The Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is the great­est force for free­dom and secu­ri­ty that the world has ever known.” We’ve built the best-trained, best-led, best equipped mil­i­tary in his­to­ry.” We’ve end­ed our war in Iraq.” We’ve dec­i­mat­ed al-Qaeda’s lead­er­ship… [and] put that ter­ror­ist net­work on the path to defeat.” We’ve made impor­tant progress in Afghanistan.” We’ve restored America’s glob­al leadership.”

Three sub­stan­tive themes dom­i­nat­ed this unveil­ing, all guar­an­tees of mind-numb­ing sta­sis in the years ahead.

The first is geo­graph­ic focus: a turn to the Asia-Pacif­ic region (read: Chi­na, with a dash of North Korea) and a con­tin­u­ing con­cern with the Mid­dle East (read: ter­ror­ism, with two dash­es of Iran). Chi­na becomes the new Sovi­et Union, a mod­ern­iz­ing com­peti­tor that pro­vides the self-jus­ti­fy­ing mir­ror-image pre­text for a new Cold War and an esca­lat­ing arms race of inde­ter­mi­nate dura­tion. U.S. inter­est in the Mid­dle East ensures the con­tin­u­a­tion of the Clash of Civ­i­liza­tions between the West and Islam, a fear-induced cri­sis men­tal­i­ty and the asso­ci­at­ed hijack­ing of Amer­i­can val­ues and civ­il soci­ety (through con­cen­trat­ed exec­u­tive pow­er, steroidal secre­cy and the ero­sion of civ­il liberties).

The sec­ond theme of this pro­to-strat­e­gy is a decou­pling of the U.S. mil­i­tary from the types of con­tin­gen­cies it has nev­er liked – coun­terin­sur­gency and sta­bil­i­ty oper­a­tions – and a reaf­fir­ma­tion of its pre­ferred way of war. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma referred to the end of long-term nation-build­ing with large mil­i­tary foot­prints.” For the mil­i­tary, this reaf­firms its super­nal sense of self: prepar­ing for and wag­ing unlim­it­ed, con­ven­tion­al war.

A third and relat­ed theme is the belief that what the mil­i­tary ought to do is fight and win wars. So Sec­re­tary of Defense Leon Panet­ta speaks of the need to deci­sive­ly pre­vail in any con­flict” and be capa­ble of suc­cess­ful­ly con­fronting and defeat­ing any aggres­sor and respond to the chang­ing nature of warfare.”

Miss­ing is recog­ni­tion that the pur­pose of the mil­i­tary is not to pre­pare for and wage war, but to pre­serve and secure the peace. There is no admis­sion that the wars of today – wars of choice, not neces­si­ty – aren’t winnable in any objec­tive sense; or that the pre­ferred Amer­i­can way of war bears lit­tle rela­tion­ship to the wars we wage – asym­met­ric wars against asym­met­ric adver­saries. There is no acknowl­edge­ment that the mil­i­tary we have – large, expen­sive, gen­er­al pur­pose, uni­lat­er­al­ly-ori­ent­ed, provoca­tive – is the oppo­site of the mil­i­tary we need.

There is no seri­ous talk of denu­cleariza­tion as a nec­es­sary pre­con­di­tion for last­ing glob­al peace or of elim­i­nat­ing weapon sys­tems that per­pet­u­ate old-war think­ing – like tanks, sub­marines and inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles. Such think­ing is too rad­i­cal to pen­e­trate pre­vail­ing intel­lec­tu­al and bureau­crat­ic orthodoxies.

Add to all this the increas­ing preva­lence of covert spe­cial oper­a­tions, drone strikes and pro­lif­er­at­ing over­seas bases, and the path ahead for the Unit­ed States seems clear: The con­tin­ued mil­i­ta­riza­tion of our for­eign pol­i­cy, a parochial mil­i­tary-cen­tric con­cep­tion of secu­ri­ty and a self-serv­ing con­ven­tion­al war-fight­ing approach to defense. All of which will pro­long the desul­to­ry, reac­tionary pseu­do-strug­gle on secu­ri­ty mat­ters that has, at the country’s expense, divid­ed Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats for so long.

Gre­go­ry D. Fos­ter is a pro­fes­sor at the Indus­tri­al Col­lege of the Armed Forces, Nation­al Defense Uni­ver­si­ty, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.
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