Presidential campaigns are so much about posturing that it’s easy to miss what’s really going on. Take national security policy. John McCain and Barack Obama want you to think they represent diametrically opposed approaches to national security, when in fact they have quite similar views. And one of the things they have in common is that neither of them wants you to realize they see future security challenges pretty much the same way Donald Rumsfeld did. To prove that point, let’s take a little stroll down memory lane.
Nine years ago this month, presidential candidate George W. Bush gave the most important defense speech of his campaign at a military school in South Carolina called the Citadel. In that speech, he set forth the framework for dealing with national security that he would use if elected: “If elected, I will set three goals. I will renew the bond of trust between the American president and the American military. I will defend the American people against missiles and terror. And I will begin creating the military of the next century.”
That last item became known as military transformation, and was the central goal of Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary. During the six years he served under Bush, Rumsfeld carried a card spelling out the key precepts behind what Bush’s speech had called “a new architecture of American defense.” Defeat asymmetric threats. Optimize intelligence. Bolster homeland security. Build global partnerships. Improve counter-insurgency skills. Integrate military and non-military instruments. Become better at stability operations. Reform Pentagon processes.
You could easily conclude from the media coverage since Rumsfeld’s resignation that this agenda has been discredited. Well, guess again. The key security initiatives favored by both Senator McCain and Senator Obama echo the assumptions of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld worldview. Here’s McCain, on his campaign website: “Modernizing the armed forces also means adapting our doctrine, training, and tactics for the kinds of conflicts we are most likely to face… These asymmetric conflicts require a very different force structure than the one we used to fight and win the Cold War.”
McCain differs with Pentagon policy under Rumsfeld in wanting to increase the size of the military. But most of his security priorities are in tune with the Bush approach to transformation, stressing improved homeland security against terrorists and missile attack, better intelligence, more funding for unconventional warfare skills and “working with friends and partners overseas.” According to Senator McCain, the military missions of the 21st century “will not center on traditional territorial defense,” but on “counter insurgency, counter terrorism, missile defense, counter proliferation and information warfare.” McCain says such challenges require “a new mix of military forces.”
Senator Obama seems to agree with all of these views. He says “we must meet the full-spectrum needs of the new century, not simply recreate the military of the Cold War era.” He then goes on to call for funding of special operations forces, information operations and, surprisingly, missile defense. Obama endorses Bush’s call for a bigger military, but he also says “we must rebalance our capabilities to ensure that our forces can succeed in both conventional war-fighting and in stabilization and counter-insurgency operations.” His positions on cyber warfare, rebuilding global partnerships and reforming the acquisition process all sound similar to those of McCain. More strikingly, both candidates sound like they think Bush and Rumsfeld were right about what the future requires, even if Iraq was a mistake.
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