Matching Resources with Ambitions

Are we on the verge of a new era of American retrenchment?  Don’t hold your breath. Jon Western on President Barack Obama's strategic thinking, and the culture of fear that dominates the public debate on defence. 


Image: Flickr/Steve JurvetsonBOB WOODWARD’s new book doesn’t appear to break a whole lot of new ground on President Obama’s decision-making style, or on the cleavages within the administration on Afghanistan. It does, however, add more detail to our understanding of Obama’s broader strategic thinking.  He is skeptical of the overall mission in Afghanistan and he wants out, in large part because he is concerned about over committing American resources. When presented with General McChrystal’s initial plan in September 2009, Obama responded, "This is not what I'm looking for… I'm not doing 10 years, I'm not doing a long-term nation-building effort. I'm not spending a trillion dollars." 

After several years of thinking we could build a viable, self-sustaining democratic state in Afghanistan, President Obama and General Petreaus are scaling back the measures for success. The grandiose idea of stability through civil governance has been replaced by the concept of security governance.   No one is saying explicitly that we are trying to build a national security state to keep the lid on things, but that’s where the effort is currently headed.  

Some of this recalibration can be explained by nine years of limited success on the ground. We went, we tried, we didn’t succeed.  But, the search for a way out of Afghanistan has also been accelerated by the broader strategic anxiety among Americans and woven into political discourse.  With exploding U.S. deficits, a weak economic recovery, a protracted period of elevated levels of unemployment, and seemingly perpetual war, what the US can and should do in the world and what we can afford to pay for are now central topics in the national discussion.

Tea Party anger over government expenditures is only one symptom of this broader anxiety.  A growing number of those who count themselves among the foreign policy elite are also concluding that we are nearing a critical point of imperial overstretch. Somewhere along the line, our ambition to remake the world and the means we use to achieve those ambitions – a massive U.S. military establishment – have to give.

Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and long-time leading figure in the Democratic Party foreign policy leadership, summed it up this way recently, speaking on National Public Radio:

“We have to make sure that our resources match our ambitions. I came up in politics right after John F. Kennedy had given that great inaugural speech: pay any price, bear any burden in defense of freedom. I was thrilled by that.  Does anybody believe it today? We're not going to pay any price and bear any burden to establish freedom in the world. We couldn't possibly do it if we wanted to.”

To be sure, defence hawks counter that the defense budget is still only around 5% of America’s GDP (roughly the historic standard) and that we could have afforded a more robust surge in Afghanistan without the constraints imposed by President Obama. Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project notes: “Comparing military spending (or any other spending for that matter) to the GDP tells you how large a burden such spending puts on the US economy, but it tells you nothing about the burden [the] budget puts on U.S. taxpayers.” In an era of financial collapse and increased unemployment, the burden on taxpayers increases significantly because it diverts resources from more effective government efforts to revitalize the economy and adds to the growing deficit and debt burden. 

So, are we on the verge of a few era of American retrenchment? Are we likely to see a new consensus emerge that reduces the size of the American military and its presence around the world? 

Don’t hold your breath.

Despite all of the protestations over current commitments and spending levels, there are several factors that constrain any fundamental retrenchment.  

First, in the nine years since 9/11, the United States has spent more than US$7 trillion to defend US interests around the world. According to the Congressional Budget Office, we are locked into at least another US$10 trillion outlay for the next dozen years or so. Even in a best-case scenario, making any real cuts will be constrained by a range of factors and practices embedded within the defence establishment.  Here are just a few: 

  • More than a third of the defence budget is tied up in operations and maintenance.  Given the aging equipment and extensive wear and tear on deployed equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan, these costs are almost certain to increase. 

  • The second largest portion of the defence budget is military personnel. There are nearly 2.5 million active duty military and civilians on the payroll. Even with some cuts in the size of the force structure, pay and benefits for these personnel almost certainly will continue to grow in real terms over the next decade.  

  • Many of the current outlays are tied to future weapons systems that have long lead times. The Pentagon and taxpayers have already sunk substantial costs into many of these systems and are not likely to abandon them.

  • The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have precipitated a new generation of thinking about future requirements to meet emerging security threats. This includes more emphasis on highly sophisticated (and costly) intelligence and reconnaissance systems and enhanced technological capabilities in almost every weapon system.  

  • Defence contractors provide jobs in almost every Congressional district.  In the short run, (i.e., within the Congressional election cycles) cutting defence expenditures means cutting jobs – and this just doesn’t happen easily (or often).

Furthermore, contrary to reducing ambitions, the U.S. national security apparatus is expanding them.  Last spring’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) – the document that lays out the Pentagon’s long term threat assessment and strategic planning priorities – did not reduce commitments, but expanded the laundry list of requirements for the U.S. military. This includes everything from winning the wars of today (Iraq and Afghanistan) to preventing and deterring future conflicts, to preparing for a wide range of contingencies including counterinsurgency, stabilization operations and counterterrorism efforts, to building enhanced partnership capacities with other governments and militaries around the world. The list goes on.   

The expansion of U.S. security priorities and missions and the current size of U.S. defence budgets are protected by the culture of fear that is dominating much of the public discourse. In a period of heightened economic anxiety, fear and threat escalation play well at home – as evidenced by the Ground Zero mosque fiasco and the assault on the efforts to build a new mosque in Tennessee.  We’ve also seen that the current mass media business models and cultures, along with new information technologies, facilitate the peddling of fear and threat inflation.   

President Obama is experiencing the inevitable friction that occurs when new strategic thinking and approaches confront old realities.  In the end, he may be able to navigate a significantly reduced U.S. commitment in Afghanistan that’s consistent with his 2011 timetable.  We’ll see.  But even if he does, it will likely be only a short deviation from overall defence and national security commitments.