Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a provocative and even dangerous speech at the National Defense University (NDU) last week that revealed the cold-war thinking of a key holdover from the Bush administration. With language reminiscent of the worst days of the cold war in the 1950s, Gates argued that the “demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st century.” He concluded that a perception of European weakness could provide a “temptation to miscalculation and aggression” by hostile powers. Gates didn’t name these so-called hostile powers; indeed, it would have been ludicrous to try to do so.
Instead of haranguing the European members of NATO, who don’t share our views about the threat of international terrorism or the need for a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan (or Iraq for that matter), the United States should be reducing its own global military presence, including its commitment to NATO. For the past several years, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, Gates has been making the case for turning NATO into an instrument for the projection of power abroad, using Afghanistan as an example of an expanded global role. The international coalition did not work well in Iraq; it is not working well in Afghanistan; and the results of these efforts point to the dysfunction of NATO as a military alliance. Did Gates notice that the coalition government in Netherlands collapsed on the eve of his speech because of the controversy over keeping Dutch troops in Afghanistan?
A little more than a year ago, President Obama gave a hopeful inauguration speech that demonstrated he understood the need to reverse US national security policy. His rejection of the “false choice between our safety and our ideals” was a denunciation of the Bush administration’s subversion of the Constitution in the wake of 9/11. His emphasis on earlier generations that “understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please,” appeared to be a rejection of Bush’s “long war” against terror that has created more enemies than friends. In stressing that the “world has changed, and we must change with it,” Obama sounded the clarion call for new policies.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has pursued the expansion of the military mission, which was begun by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11. In the last few months, the president has approved a defense budget with a greater focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. These efforts will require greater long-term spending and will require the Pentagon to control programs dealing with security assistance and training that should be in the hands of civilian foreign policy institutions, particularly the Department of State. At the same time, there has been no institutionalized effort to set priorities for the military mission, to make choices and to accept tradeoffs in weapons systems and military requirements.
In addition to expanding the war in Afghanistan, dispatching 30,000 additional troops on a fool’s errand, President Obama has endorsed the Justice Department’s virtual exoneration of the authors of the torture memoranda, and called for increased defense spending. The president wants a new strategic arms agreement with Russia, but he won’t drop the idea of NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine as well as an expanded ballistic missile defense in East Europe, which are obstacles to completion of the arms agreement. The unproven national missile defense remains the most expensive weapons project in the Pentagon’s budget. In his State of the Union speech, the president endorsed cuts in domestic spending at the same time he was increasing our spending on the military ($708 billion), the intelligence community ($75 billion) and homeland security ($55 billion), which exceeds the spending of the rest of the world.
The Pentagon’s budget for 2011 accounts for nearly 5 percent of the US economy, and calls for increased spending for all of the services as well as most weapons systems. Defense spending has doubled in real terms over the past decade, and the turnaround time for some weapons systems now takes nearly two decades. The Republicans demanded and received huge increases in spending on modernization for nuclear weapons in return for the hope of their support for ratification of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Does anyone in the Obama administration genuinely believe that the Republicans will provide the support needed to actually ratify the soon-to-be-completed treaty? Does anyone believe that the $11 billion allocated for training the Afghan army and police will lead to a greater Afghan role in the fight against the Taliban? Meanwhile, key members of the military-industrial complex (e.g., Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon) spent more than $80 million dollars in lobbying for $100 billion in defense contracts. Does President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex nearly 50 years ago ring a bell?
Perhaps, President Obama should take a few minutes out of his busy day to compare Gates’ speeches at the NDU in the Obama administration to the speeches the secretary gave at the NDU during the Bush administration. Perhaps, the similarities in theme and thrust would concern the president, unless he is content to continue the policies of militarization of his predecessor. And, perhaps, it is time for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to sit up and take notice that her stewardship over US foreign policy has been weakened by the secretary of defense’s domination of the foreign policy agenda. Then again, perhaps she is content to travel around the world at a record-setting pace while ignoring the tough issues that bedevil US national security. Instead of wringing our hands about the demilitarization and pacification of Europe, which should be welcomed, perhaps someone in the Obama administration should be examining the need for reducing the power of the Pentagon, including a freeze in defense spending and rebuilding the tools of diplomacy.