January 1, 2006  

QDR’s crucial question

Sometime late this month or perhaps early in February the Pentagon will release its report on the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), by my count the fifth attempt of the “post-Cold War era” to match U.S. military means to strategic ends. I am prepared, again, to be underwhelmed.

The problem has been less on the military side than on the question of strategic ends. We seem to have a very difficult time figuring out what we want the world to look like, or at least saying that out loud in a way that’s useful for defense planners. I’m not sure we’re yet asking the most important question. When we look now at our enemies, we ask about their strategies and how to defeat them. But when we look at ourselves, we still tend to think technologically, tactically or, at most, operationally. We still don’t talk much about what our own strategic goals are, what we are trying to defend and, in some cases, what we are trying to extend or expand. How one answers these questions goes a long way to determining what kind of military posture is best.

For Americans of the post-Cold War generation, the goal of strategy has been to preserve the amazingly free, prosperous and peaceful era occasioned by the surprise collapse of the Soviet empire. We’re not so much interested in defending a place as in maintaining a condition that, for shorthand purposes, I call Pax Americana. I do so less to evoke Roman glories than to capture the two essential elements of today’s liberal international order and to underscore the fact of the role of American power in its preservation.

In asserting American primacy as the primary goal of U.S. strategy-making, I find myself in the company of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Our 42nd president valued the United States’ position as sole superpower as highly as does our 43rd; perhaps strategic circumstances — and his domestic policy priorities — simply allowed him to take primacy more for granted. Certainly, Clinton was more than willing to intervene militarily in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and made “regime change” in Iraq the official policy of the United States. Nevertheless, it is fair to regard the policies of the Bush administration and the articulation of a “Bush Doctrine” as a departure in “quantity” if not in “quality” from the Clinton years. I would argue that it is, in fact, a return to the traditions of American strategic culture. But even if it is an entire anomaly, it is becoming ever more woven into America’s assumptions about strategy and international politics, and it is indeed sharpening, if not creating, ex nihilo, the aggressive tendencies of those for whom the Pax Americana is a threat.

For the world’s unreconstructed monarchies, autocracies, despots and tyrants — the demographic of aggressive states — and for those such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who aspire to create such states — there’s much not to like about the American peace. Indeed, it sometimes appears as though it is the United States that is the aggressive, still-rising power. There are three categories of international actors who fit the profile of “enemy” or “potential enemy.” Two months ago, AFJ looked at the phenomenon of the “rise of China,” wondering whether the People’s Republic would turn out to be “friend or foe.”

The official position of the Chinese government is that Beijing’s rise is inherently peaceful. American sinologists and businessmen rally around the theory of “democratic inevitability”; that is, that continued economic development will lead inexorably to political liberalization. This theory retains its popularity even when Chinese actions are provocative. My own view is that the rise of China — looked at as a military and geopolitical phenomenon, abstracting out the economic dimension — already is the greatest challenge to preserving the Pax Americana through the coming years. China’s complaints about U.S. “hegemony” and “colonialism” and “imperialism“ are more than retro-Maoist rhetoric. They express a deep sense of injustice done to China for centuries, not only by the United States but the West more broadly, and a desire to assume Beijing’s “rightful” position in the world, not simply to abide by the agreed international order but to shape it in ways congenial to Chinese political interests. The increasing volume and virulence of expressions of Chinese nationalism reflect these deep-seated and widely-held beliefs. Prime among these is the continuation in power of the Chinese Communist Party.

Moreover, the rise of China is not simply an East Asian but a worldwide event. The fact that China is inextricably intertwined in the global economy means that Beijing has vital global interests — most immediately in the energy resources of the Persian Gulf — which it now must entrust to the tender mercies of the United States. Would we rest comfortably in such circumstances? Wasn’t that the fear that led to the Carter Doctrine, the Rapid Joint Deployment Task Force and then U.S. Central Command? In sum, there’s little disagreement over the fact of China’s rise. The uncertainty is whether this rise will be eternally peaceful or create friction and conflict. The QDR cannot presume to answer the questions, but should be premised on the implications of the emergence of a Chinese great power. As Napoleon said, “When China wakes, it will shake the world.”

At the other end of the spectrum is al-Qaida and the network of Islamic radical terror organizations, whose means to power remain limited but whose will to power and aggression are very great indeed. Though this movement is without a state or much of a sanctuary, they’re shopping for both and their goals are above all political. Already we have seen the dangers that have sprung from the monarchs, pan-Arabists and Ba’ath revolutionaries who have not used their oil wealth to build legitimate states, competitive economies or modern societies. And it is these Middle Eastern potentates who are most responsible for creating the radical revolution that now makes us all tremble. If there is a hope that China’s rise might be peaceful, there can be no doubt that the rise of a radical Islamist state or empire would be extremely violent. “Containing” this problem is simply too risky.

And, in the middle, are a handful of otherwise weak and derelict states whose possession or imminent possession of nuclear weapons makes them rising powers in the narrow military sense. Such is the nature of these weapons that they can vault the likes of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan to a position of international weight — essentially upsetting the “normal” calculations of relative power — that their aggressive habits have far greater consequences and command far greater attention than they otherwise would.

There’s a huge amount of risk in adopting a containment strategy for weak-yet-rising nuclear powers such as Iran and North Korea. By all traditional measures of geopolitical strength, these are fragile and nearly failing states. Internally, they are a mess in every way: corrupt, repressive. The Iranian Revolution no longer inspires much of anyone outside the ruling clique or its terrorist clients — and it is probably the money and material support that buys their loyalty. Even China is appalled by North Korea’s staunch Stalinism.

But as these regimes acquire nuclear weapons, they confound the international order, including the United States. North Korea and Iran present the world with a nearly insoluble problem; witness the eternal “Six-party Talks” with Pyongyang and the dance of the “EU Three” — and the utter paralysis of the White House — with Tehran. As shaky as a policy of containment is, it’s preferable to confrontation, “roll-back” or military “regime change.” Containment is regime change by tolerable means, and the solution to the problems of Iran and North Korea lie in an indirect approach. The United States is better served in Iran by continuing to stabilize and democratize Iraq and Afghanistan and thus surround Iran. The solution to the problem of North Korea won’t appear until the larger problem of China is on the way to resolution.

At the same time, we must understand that there may be exceptional circumstances where containment can fail. Or, more precisely, there may be circumstances where it appears as though continued containment is more risky and dangerous than some sort of intervention: If, for example, Iran were to slip nuclear materials to one of its sponsored terrorists, or perhaps more likely and more nightmarish, if control of nuclear materials in Iran or even Pakistan were compromised by the regimes’ very weaknesses.

Containment of this sort is a much less safer bet than great-power containment as practiced on the Soviets during the Cold War or perhaps on China in the decades to come. It may be the least-bad alternative, but not by a lot.

Most unfortunately, this domestic political and strategic uncertainty has paralyzed the Defense Department. The project of “transformation” was misshapen from the beginning by focusing on technology and capabilities — it has been an entirely self-referential process — and is wheezing to a halt. Just as the validation of the Bush Doctrine awaits the departure of the president, so does the process of change in the Pentagon require the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the team of senior civilians and generals he has installed.

True transformation will be shaped by a clearer recognition of the military implications of the Bush Doctrine. The missions inherent in dealing with aggressors and potential aggressors against the Pax Americana — containing Chinese military power, securing a democratic political revolution in the greater Middle East, and responding to a nuclear crisis in a state like Iran or North Korea when containment looks likely to fail — will be driven by political realities more than technological or tactical realities.

The prime military directive is to continue to project reassuring military power to the edges of the expanding American security perimeter. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the trace of American power runs eastward from our Atlantic coast to the border between Iraq and Iran, o’erleaps the Islamic Republic, begins again at the Iranian-Afghan border, slides southward along the rim of the Himalayas through Southeast and Northeast Asia, and then comes home at the western Pacific beaches. It’s a big space. So big, in fact, that the instinct of late has been to thin out forces along the perimeter and base a larger portion of U.S. combat power at home. But again, this allegedly “transformational” plan has run afoul of post-Sept. 11 strategic realities that have seen U.S. ground forces once more adopt what is essentially a garrison posture in the Middle East. No serious strategist believes, whatever the rotational force in Iraq at any particular moment, that the larger war in this region will be won quickly, or at a distance. The means of engagement may change, but the measurement is not how rapidly we can get there, but how long we can stay.

The need to patrol, control and police such an extensive perimeter ought to suggest a new approach to “jointness,” wherein U.S. armed services more clearly divide the strategic labor rather than compete to see who can do the best job in the same fight. Put crudely, the Army will bear the primary load in the Middle East while the sea services reposture themselves to operate along the East Asian littoral, in the Pacific and Indian oceans. The enabling powers of air and space forces represent a kind of globally operational reserve, sanitizing the battlespace and providing additional firepower for those forces that are more directly “in contact.” Andrew Hoehn and his colleagues at Rand Corp. have dubbed this new approach “horizontal jointness” in distinction to the current style of “vertical jointness,” but since my copy of his study, “A New Division of Labor,” is marked as a “restricted draft,” I will refrain from direct quotation. Whether the Bush administration or the Rumsfeld Pentagon, in the framework of the QDR, is ready to step up to this likely future is an open question, but one to be answered in the next six weeks or so. And even if the administration is willing to resolve the tensions between its strategic ends and military means, the size and cost of matching reality to rhetoric will certainly give Congress and the American public a jolt. On the other hand, the cost of another irrelevant defense review — in a time of war — would be greater still.