Ten years ago, I was invited to participate in a RAND Corporation project on the presidential transition. Each of the major presidential candidates sent a senior national-security advisor to brief the RAND panel, laying out their contending views of what the future would require. I can’t remember what the representatives from the campaign of George W. Bush said, but I sure recall what Al Gore’s advisor said. His name was Leon Fuerth, and he set forth the most non-military threat assessment I had ever heard. It started with global warming, moved on to AIDS in Africa, and ended up with the information revolution.
I remember thinking to myself, “What does any of this have to do with the military?” I had the same reaction when I perused the threat section of this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which is called “A Complex Environment.” The section’s bland title matches the content. The document says that America faces a “complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate.” It cites the rise of China, the transforming effects of globalization, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And then it offers this distinctly Fuerthian analysis: “Rising demand for resources, rapid urbanization of littoral regions, the effects of climate change, the emergence of new strains of disease, and profound cultural and demographic tensions in several regions are just some of the trends whose complex interplay may spark or exacerbate future conflicts.”
Friends, this is not the kind of threat assessment that is likely to keep U.S. defense outlays at $700 billion annually. It sounds like Pentagon policymakers are stretching to find a justification for generating nearly half of all global military outlays, and therefore have thrown in every negative trend they can think of. The end result is a diverse menagerie of disconnected concerns that lacks the urgency or focus necessary to sustain a coherent military posture. Some of the trends cited are so unrelated to military requirements that they might better be addressed by cutting defense outlays rather than raising them. For instance, we might make more headway in dealing with exotic diseases if we just canceled the alternate engine for the F-35 fighter and gave the savings to the World Health Organization.
It wasn’t like this during the Cold War. Whatever differences policymakers may have had about the threat, the fact that 10,000 Soviet nuclear warheads were aimed at America helped us to focus our deliberations on which dangers really mattered. And I still remember Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers a few years ago telling a small group of us pundits gathered in Rumsfeld’s conference room that the threat posed by Al Qaeda was worse than fascism, worse than communism. I thought he was looney, however much of America bought into that assessment, and so defense spending doubled during the decade. But a “complex and uncertain security landscape” — is that going to focus anybody’s deliberations on why we need to keep military outlays high? I don’t think so! We’re headed down, and “Exhibit A” in the case for why less defense spending is likely is our inability to find a threat that really scares the average voter.
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