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.

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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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