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« Demographic challenges need not be dangerous | Main | Europe's take on America's next president »
Sunday
Jun292008

The coming battle in the Pentagon

A vociferous bureaucratic battle will occur across the first two years of the next administration, one that will greatly determine our military's future capabilities in this long war against radical extremism.

On one side will be pitted the "big war" crowd with its emphasis on "resetting" the force following the inevitable drawdown in Iraq.

This is mostly the air-sea crowd from the Air Force and Navy. On the other side will stand - ironically enough - those mostly ground forces from the Army and Marines that are logically slated to benefit maximally from any such "healing period."

The "reset" argument rests on one very conspicuous assumption: Iraq was a one-off, not to be repeated and certainly no harbinger of future conflicts.

It was, in effect, a second Vietnam, an asymmetrical war that cannot be effectively won using conventional military power.

To actually succeed in such warfare, you must make our force increasingly symmetrical to the enemies we face in insurgencies; more focused on generating security, winning hearts and minds, training up foreign militaries, and encouraging economic development.

Adapting the U.S. military to these tasks, says the big war crowd, will thus ruin it for great power war, something it must remain optimized to wage lest America invite such conflict in decades ahead.

In effect, the big war crowd asks us to either abandon our historic role as globalization's bodyguard right at the apogee of our international liberal trade order's expansion around the planet or continue trading off hypothetical future casualties from big war scenarios against current actual casualties from small war operations, suffering far more of the latter to prevent the possibility of the former.

I don't believe the Pentagon gets to make that first call; it's simply beyond their pay-grade in our civilian-controlled national security establishment.

For America to cede its international leadership to rising great powers such as Russia and China in coming years would yield a decidedly less American and therefore less safe world, making great power war far more likely.

As for the second option, or basically continuing to low-ball our global counterinsurgency effort while overfeeding our big-war Leviathan force, I find that both strategically unsound and morally indefensible in terms of American lives needlessly sacrificed.

In the end, the bureaucratic push to "reset" the force masks the warrior's nostalgia for the "simpler" wars of the past and industry's greed for the super-expensive systems associated with such top-line, symmetrical conflicts.

Notwithstanding simplistic analogies to pre-World War I Europe's levels of economic integration, the essential truth remains: Nuclear weapons killed great power war. That means any future "resource wars," however implausible, would nonetheless involve our enemies employing asymmetrical forms of resistance, such as proxy wars.

Indeed, if Iraq teaches the world anything, it's that the American military cannot be resisted symmetrically but can be bled asymmetrically.

Listen to Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis decry, already in late 2005 following a command tour in Iraq, the strategic mindset that suggests: " 'Let's hold our breath and get through this, then we get back to proper soldiering by planning for China 20 years from now.' "

Going on: "If we fight China in the future, we will also find IEDs and people using the Internet. If we go to Pyongyang and we're fighting there six months from now against a mechanized unit, 100,000 Special Forces would be running around doing what they're doing to our rear area now. So guess what? This is the best training ground in the world. For the German troops it was Spain, right? Well, Iraq is ours."

Iraq is ours. Get used to hearing that because that's the strategic outlook of the generation of Army and Marine Corps officers already forged by the first seven years of this long war. It is not your father's military because Iraq is not Vietnam.

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