Monday, June 23, 2008

A Pentagon budget trap

AntoniusBlock raises an important issue about the unhealthy bipartisan assumption that the size of the US Army and Marines need to be increased, in Expand the U.S. Military? Not So Fast! Strategy and National Security blog 06/09/08.

The US military and its many related suppliers - Halliburton not least among them - have a strong stake in working every situation to get increased military budgets. And the intense interservice rivalries create a powerful additional incentive to keep increasing the budgets. The services are very experienced at lobbying for such increases. The 9/11 attacks provided a funding bonanza for them, even though much of the additional spending had little or nothing to do with the increased military activity required in fighting actual terrorism or even with the "long wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Current political dynamics also create a situation where Republicans and Democrats can agree on certain increases to the military but make significant long-term decreases very difficult.

But the military budgets shouldn't be driven by greedy-minded lobbying or interservice rivalry or political inertia. The military should be structured to support a realistic foreign policy. And foreign policy needs to be designed so that the country can reasonably support the military demands the policy will make.

AntoniusBlock writes:

Expanding American ground forces is necessary if one or both of two things are true. First is if the United States will need to sustain a major military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan for an extended period of time. If so, we need a larger Army and Marine Corps to increase the interval between deployments, thus protecting the quality of life for service members and providing time for training and professional development. Certainly Iraq and Afghanistan badly stress the Army and the Marine Corps. This must be addressed before American land forces irreparable damage. But enlarging the ground forces may not be the best way to do this. It will be years before an expanded force produces more noncommissioned, company and field grade officers—the groups most affected by the current pace of deployment. New units will need leaders, thus increasing the demand for noncommissioned, company and field grade officers even more. (my emphasis)
And he makes a critically important practical point here:

Expanding the military also makes sense if its mission is to undertake future operations like Iraq and Afghanistan—large scale, protracted counterinsurgency support and stabilization activities. This is the main rationale for expansion. But should in be? A powerful case can be made that outside the Western Hemisphere, the strategic and economic costs of U.S. involvement in large scale, protracted counterinsurgency or stabilization outweigh the benefits.
I would expand this to say that any such direct involvement in such operations in Latin America would also be highly risky and would have a questionable cost-benefit profile. Trying to run a counterinsurgency war in, say, Argentina or Brazil or Venezuela would be an unbelievable nightmare and extremely unlikely to produce more benefits than costs. Even in a smaller, poorer country like Cuba or Nicaragua it would be hellish.

Supporters of expansion often contend that the United States must undertake counterinsurgency or stabilization because “ungoverned spaces” provide a breeding ground or haven for transnational terrorists. This is an unsubstantiated assumption. Al Qaeda did not operate in Afghanistan because that nation was ungoverned. Al Qaeda has training facilities in Pakistan because the Islamabad government elects to leave alone. Even if the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were double their current size, this would not change. We certainly face a strategic problem in Pakistan, but expanding the U.S. military is not the cure.

Even if an insurgent movement won, it would be more effective to prevent it from providing a haven to al Qaeda after it seized power than to try and prevent it from seizing power in the first place. We can coerce or remove regimes which support terrorism. We are good at it. We are not so good at the much more complex, dangerous, and expensive task of re-engineered beleaguered partners, particularly if we must do it in several places at once. Yet if we have a larger ground force, we will feel compelled to use it, undertaking costly commitments. Better to resist in the first place than to stumble into massive burdens for limited strategic gains.
This latter point is an extremely important one, and far too little discussed.

This is one of the risks in having too much military power, i.e., amounts far beyond any sensible measure of defense needs. As many have said in criticizing the neoconservatives and Cheney militarists in their disregard for diplomacy and international alliances, if the only weapon you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And when people like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld think they have so many hammers and such good ones they can nail anything anywhere in the world, it creates too much of a risk-tolerant attitude toward war.

It's hard for me to imagine any legitimate defense needs that would require us to keep a permanent capacity to wage counterinsurgency wars of indefinite length in South Asia or the Middle East. The military should definitely give more attention to counterinsurgency issues than they did during the 1990s, if only because those wars are more likely than the massive battles with the Soviet Red Army in Europe that the Pentagon keep right on structuring the military to fight long after the Soviet Union had dissolved.

But we should only prepare to fight long, indefinite counterinsurgency wars if there is a good reason to do it that can be clearly defined and enunciated in the context of a foreign policy that is aimed at achieving whatever goals raise the risk of such wars.

But, if the Pentagon builds it, someone (think Dick Cheney) will want to use it. And they will find occasions to do so, whether it's for the good of the country or only for ExxonMobil, Chevron, Halliburton and Blackwater.

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