The media loves to synthesize statements on national security policy by presidents into sweeping “doctrines.” The so-called Bush Doctrine, which emerged from various presidential statements after the September 11 attacks, was based on the premise that the intersection of radicalism and technology had created a new class of national security threats — radical groups armed with weapons of mass destruction — which had to be dealt with in new ways. Among the postulates of the “Bush Doctrine” were the willingness to undertake unilateral action by the United States in the event a threat to the homeland became manifest, and the right to conduct preventive war, including against states harboring terrorists but not themselves posing a direct threat to the United States, in order to eliminate the threat of catastrophic damage to the homeland or to allies.
President Obama’s speech Tuesday in which he unveiled his strategy for Afghanistan contained elements of what may become the “Obama Doctrine.” The central premise of this “doctrine” is that national security needs must be balanced against all national programs. In essence, this says that national security is no higher a priority than health care, education or the environment. A second related premise is that the United States should only undertake those military actions as can secure our interests and be achieved at reasonable cost. This standard would clearly give greater weight to non-military measures. President Obama identified a number of these including denuclearization, diplomacy and the assertion of American values. When it came to the further use of military power in pursuit of U.S. interests, the President spoke about forces that were nimble and precise.
It should be noted that much the same argument was made by the Chamberlain government in the 1930s. Then British rearmament in response to the increasing military power and political aggressiveness of Nazi Germany was viewed as posing a threat to economic recovery. The British hoped that investment in airpower would provide a sufficient deterrent at a reasonable cost. It underinvested in the British Army and even the Navy.
The idea of balancing costs and interests is not entirely bad. But it is hard to understand how one would define reasonable cost when the United States was attacked and the interest is to prevent catastrophic attacks on the homeland. In addition, a doctrine based on reasonable cost and nimble, precise forces would seem to favor airpower. Yet, of all the elements of U.S. military power it is the Air Force that has fared the worst under President Obama. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Gates has emphasized additional investments in high cost, relatively ponderous and imprecise ground power at the expense of airpower. There seems to be a growing mismatch between the nascent “Obama Doctrine” and the forces being built by his Secretary of Defense.
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