At first glance, the new national defense strategy released by Bush administration Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week appears to be a fresh start. He seems to be trying to position it as "post-Bush," with much talk of working with allies and, heaven forbid, even other U.S. government agencies.
Elsewhere, as in his speech earlier this year at Kansas State University, he has called for substantial increases in spending for the State Department, pointing out that there are fewer professional diplomats in the U.S. foreign service than there are personnel on an average aircraft carrier task force (of which the U.S. has twelve). But he also stressed that he did not want these new funds to come at the expense of growing Pentagon budgets.
Gates seems to want to have it both ways -- prepare for conventional and irregular warfare; get civilian help on tasks like reconstruction, development and governance while institutionalizing the Pentagon's own capabilities in these areas; have a strategic dialogue with China while making sure to maintain U.S. dominance; seek allies while opposing anything that would limit U.S. "freedom of action" (even though real alliance building, forging of treaties and other less formal agreements all involve limiting one's "freedom of action.")
It all seems to boil down the keeping the iron fist clothed in a velvet glove. It's a more intelligent strategy for empire and global dominance, but one that ignores a central reality: that the U.S. is losing the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings that its post-World War II preeminence was based upon.
Even so, there are a few interesting strands in the Gates document -- talking about the military not being the primary tool for keeping WMDs from terrorists, or for thwarting cyberattacks; but again, arguing for a military capability (like the idea of tagging, tracing, and destroying WMDs militarily) if civilian strategies don't pan out. Gates also talks about looking forward to the day when terrorism is just a "nuisance" that can be handled by law enforcement (dangerously close to the position that got John Kerry in trouble in the 2004 election campaign), and addressing the "root causes" of terrorism (apparently they're not doing it simply because they "hate us" and our freedoms, as Bush would have it).
What hasn't changed in the Gates' strategy is the expansive definition of U.S. interests, including "protecting" free trade and the flow of resources to the U.S. and its allies. Without a change in the definition of U.S. interests, major change in U.S. defense policy is unlikely.
The biggest obstacle to implementing the new Pentagon strategy is money -- with two wars already under way and serious economic problems domestically, the military budget could level off or even fall relative to inflation. If so, there would need to be cuts in longer-term programs like the F-22 combat aircraft, attack submarines, the Army's high tech "Future Combat System" and others. It's either that, or truly shut down one or both of the current wars (not likely, even under Obama, whose best case scenario is getting down to about 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq in his first term).
So, like it or not, the next administration will be forced to make choices -- between military spending and diplomacy; between expensive Cold War weapons and provisions for troops involved in current conflicts; and between a military strategy of "global reach" and finding the resources to address pressing domestic needs. It will be up to progressives to weigh in on these debates, pressing for a new vision of the U.S. role in the world that re-defines U.S. interests and dramatically cuts back on the roles and resources allocated to the military.
William D. Hartung is the Director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, and co-editor, with Miriam Pemberton, of Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War (Paradigm Press, 2008).