January 2, 2013

National Defense

Well, they got it done. The politicians managed to lurch uncontrollably into common sense and avert the fiscal cliff ... for now. I say that because, as usual, they achieved the difficult by deferring the impossible to another day, the difficult being tax hikes, the impossible being the spending cuts mandated in a moment of legislative madness (or sanity, depending upon how you look at) last year in the wake of yet another legislative meltdown over the raising debt limit, which, by the way, is looming as we speak.

The battle lines on spending cuts were drawn early. Republicans agreed to mandatory sequestration then began backing away as soon as it looked like it might actually happen. For months we have been hearing cries of woe from national defense hawks Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S. Car.). And even I would have to say that cutting defense by half would be too much. Still, there clearly is room for cuts. Look at this pie chart, which shows where the money goes in the U. S. budget for 2012:

As you can see, the amount of discretionary funding allocated to defense is greater than the amount allocated to everything else in the federal government and about equal to what we spend on Social Security. So please, don't tell me we can't find ways to trim the defense budget. Certainly, the cuts ought to be proportional. Whatever percentage reduction is squeezed out of non-defense spending, a like percentage should be extracted from defense spending.

More interesting is a movement from within the Pentagon to redefine the notion of national defense. In 2011, the Woodrow Wilson Center released a paper authored by a Navy captain and a Marine colonel under the pseudonym  Mr. Y, an homage to a famous paper published by George Kennan in 1947, using the pen name Mr. X, to declare the policy of containment that guided American defense and foreign policy up to the demise of the Soviet Union.

Entitled "A National Strategic Narrative," the paper aims to lead us away from containment and towards a policy of sustainment, or in the authors' words, "from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement."

I won't go into the entire paper, which is not very long, but I thought one section was worth mentioning, given the upcoming debate on defense spending. The authors list three investment priorities. Want to guess what their top investment priority is for enhancing national security? Our nation's young people, more precisely their education.
"By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans – the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow – we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, then, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America’s youth."
I don't know about you, but that makes a lot of sense to me. Maybe if Senators McCain and Graham viewed the Department of Education as a vital adjunct the the Department of Defense, we might actually come up with some budget choices that make sense.

One other thing I want to quote. This is the authors' summary of the national security challenges facing us in the coming century:
"Among the trends that are already shaping a 'new normal' in our strategic environment are the decline of rural economies, joblessness, the dramatic increase in urbanization, an increasing demand for energy, migration of populations and shifting demographics, the rise of grey and black markets, the phenomenon of extremism and anti-modernism, the effects of global climate change, the spread of pandemics and lack of access to adequate health services, and an increasing dependency on cyber networks."
As the authors note, these are not things happening everywhere else. There are happening here in the United States as well. If there is a bottom-line message in this report, I believe it to be a simple one: we are all in this together. One final quote from the paper:
"We cannot isolate our own prosperity and security from the global system. ... As we pursue the growth of our own prosperity and security, the welfare of our citizens must be seen as part of a highly dynamic, and interconnected system that includes sovereign nations, world markets, natural and man-generated challenges and solutions – a system that demands adaptability and innovation."
Don't expect to hear this kind of rhetoric from anyone in Congress. Like many of the generals they defend, too many politicians are locked into fighting the last war. But not everyone thinks that way. Let's hope their voices are heard, because that "new normal" is coming at us fast.


  1. If you would like to read A National Strategic Narrative, you can find it at www.nationalstrategicnarrative.org

    1. Thanks for the link. Fifty years ago my generation understood that making friends around the world was more important than killing our enemies. That, to me, was what the New Frontier was all about. Somewhere along the line America lost that. The idea behind a National Strategic Narrative, I believe, is to revive the idea that American ideals coupled with a vibrant American society are the best national defense.