Back to the Future: 'Why issue a new Defense Strategy with only months to go?'

The Bush administration will remain in office until the inauguration of a new president on Jan. 20, 2009, but the Pentagon brought the moving vans in early, shipping out much of the Bush administration’s foreign policy slogans from the recently issued National Defense Strategy. Gone is the term “global war on terrorism.” The military was never in favor of that label, nor with focusing on the military as the primary tool to combat terrorism. Gone is the emphasis on hard power and unilateralism.

Instead, the document repeatedly says that working with partners, engaging in the competition of ideas, addressing underlying grievances and promoting economic and political development will be more effective than military force in combating irregular global threats of the 21st century. Globalization creates a web of vulnerabilities and uncertainties, from demographic trends to “resource, environmental, and climate pressures,” which do not yield easily to U.S. dominance in conventional warfare.


In the 1990s the Clinton administration, and particularly Vice President Al Gore, noted the rise of new security threats and non-state actors. Unconventional global problems (terrorism, pandemics such as H.I.V./AIDS, climate change, environmental problems and resource wars) caused conflict and destabilized governments as much as any invading army could do. Because conventional military forces were not well suited to address these problems, the United States needed to rethink the tools of U.S. foreign policy, emphasizing more creative multilateral cooperation, international law and regimes, diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement and unconventional uses of force to contain and combat global, networked threats that went beyond sovereign borders.

Those views were derided by the incoming Bush administration in 2000, which insisted that security threats came from rogue or rising states, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, China and a resurgent, belligerent Russia. Global threats by non-state actors and global tools of engagement were disdained in favor of unilateral approaches and investments in military programs like missile defense. Hard power was more important and useful than soft power.

When the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, by those very stateless global terrorist networks the Bush administration previously considered less important than traditional state security threats, the administration responded in a curious fashion. The United States responded to attacks by non-state actors by attacking two states, Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration was at a loss concerning how to respond to non-state actors.

In some ways this is not surprising: conventional combat is what the United States does best. The United States spends more on its military than almost the rest of the world combined and has undisputed superiority in conventional military capacity. The U.S. military attack in Afghanistan was justified as self-defense. The Taliban government profited from Al Qaeda’s largesse, offered Osama bin Laden sanctuary and refused to arrest or hand over Al Qaeda elements openly operating in their country. There was no such Al Qaeda or Sept. 11 connection to the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, as much as the Bush administration tried to manufacture one. Skeptics in the military and academics warned that Al Qaeda could not be defeated militarily on the battlefield and that attempts to do so would merely strengthen them on the real front, the battle for hearts and minds in the war of ideas.

To those who remember this history, the new National Defense Strategy issued by the Pentagon reads like a “Back to the Future” assessment from the 1990s. It would be a fine “I-told-you-so” moment for administration critics, if these lessons had not been learned at so high a price in lives. But perhaps more telling than the document’s explicit repudiation of the neoconservative viewpoints is the fact that the document exists at all.

Why issue a new National Defense Strategy with only months to go in the Bush administration? A cynic might suggest this is Secretary Gates’s job application to remain in office, no matter who is elected in November; and it is true that the secretary has urged Department of Defense civilian appointees to continue to serve the new administration if asked, to ease the country’s first wartime transition since Vietnam.

But the rationale is principled as well, and is a critique of both political ideologues as well as military traditionalists who eschew evolving military roles and missions in asymmetric conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction. Gates has repeatedly warned that U.S. foreign policy spending is dangerously out of line with current needs, that civilian peace-building capacities are severely underfunded and underappreciated, and that the lion’s share of the military budget continues to go toward traditional military modernization and weapons programs, not the evolving missions the military is increasingly asked to perform. Many in the military feel they were burdened with disastrous Bush administration policies, and they do not want to see this occur again.

But the document is also a critique of military traditionalists in the Pentagon and Congress who neither appreciate nor fund the evolving missions the military increasingly must perform. As Secretary Gates warns, “Looking to the future, we need to find a long-term place in the base budget for these lessons learned by our troops at so painful a price.”

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