As Pentagon alarmists decry any and all defense reduction proposals as “dangerous” their bluff is being called by analysts who claim the cuts will actually enhance U.S. power while the resulting “retrenchment dividend”, if wisely invested, could stimulate the economy.
Defense Department officials are up in arms over the prospect of losing their annual blank check which they’ve increasingly cashed in at mind-boggling levels, even surpassing the high mark of the previous regime. The Obama administration will spend approximately $895 billion on defense in 2011, which is 40% more than Bush’s 2008 peak.
Political science professors Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald argue in Foreign Affairs that it’s time for a policy of prudent retrenchment because the U.S. will be unable to “purchase hegemony” as easily have they have in the past.
The U.S. can no longer afford to overspend and overreach as its power wanes across the globe due to undisciplined, wasteful and fraudulent financial practices and open-ended foreign policy commitments. The authors spell out the dilemma: “Power follows money, and the United States is leaking cash”.
A retrenchment strategy starts with the admission that military spending has gone well past the point of diminishing returns, and the professors vividly capture this reality:
Meanwhile, the benefits of unrestricted defense spending have not kept up with the costs. As Gates put it, U.S. defense institutions have become “accustomed to the post-9/11 decade’s worth of ‘no questions asked’ funding requests,” encouraging a culture of waste and inefficiency he described as “a semi-feudal system — an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources.”
A policy of retrenchment will demand ceasing wasteful spending on weapons the military doesn’t really need, shifting more of the defense burden onto our allies, changing the size and composition of our military, accelerating withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and shrinking America’s global footprint.
The U.S. has over 1,000 bases around the world many of which can and should be eliminated, especially the Cold War legacy sites. It’s highly unlikely extracting half of our 54,000 troops stationed in Germany, for example, will tempt Russia to extend its sphere of influence.
Reducing presence would mollify adversaries and diminish opportunities for clashes — or what Parent and MacDonald refer to as “flashpoints” — especially in places like the Middle East and Asia:
The United States has an interest in ensuring the flow of cheap oil, yet armed interventions and forward deployments are hardly the best ways to achieve that goal. These actions have radicalized local populations, provided attractive targets for terrorists, destabilized oil markets, and inflamed the suspicions of regional rivals such as Iran.
Designs on primacy and/or hegemony continually force the U.S. to “defend a vast and brittle perimeter”. In contrast, a policy of retrenchment would allow the U.S. to “respond to significant threats at the times and in the places of its choosing”.
Reducing the size of the military would force policymakers to employ America’s armed forces less promiscuously. Benjamin Friedman of the Cato Institute, which is no liberal bastion, claims such an approach would keep U.S. troops out of “needless trouble” while impelling a healthy paradigm shift as he points out in a CNN piece:
Especially for the last two decades, the United States’ considerable wealth and fortunate geography have made global adventurism seem largely costless.
Friedman believes even more savings could be had if the Pentagon is “recast as a true defense agency rather than one aimed at something far more ambitious”. The problem right now is the U.S. military is structured “to exercise power abroad, not provide self-defense”. Friedman continues:
A strategy based on restraint would allow Washington to save at least about $1.2 trillion over a decade, three times what the Obama administration is now asking for.
Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy endorses a similar strategy called “offshore balancing”, which would take advantage of America’s favorable geopolitical position far away from the world’s trouble spots. According to Walt:
Why should a country that has no great power rivals near its own borders be so eager to send its military forces deep into the Asian landmass, in search of monsters to destroy, especially when there are no threats to the overall balance of power in these areas?
Walt posits that if the U.S. can avoid nation-building and costly onshore deployments it would increase freedom of action and dampen anti-Americanism:
It would acknowledge that Americans are not very good at running other countries — particularly when their histories and culture are vastly different from our own — and that trying to do so is neither necessary nor wise.
Retrenchment will require foresight, wisdom, acceptance and humility on the part of U.S. leaders. Opponents will claim that restraint will look like retreat to our allies and enemies.
Yet retrenchment would actually increase strategic flexibility, provide “breathing room” to implement true reform, free up funds to reinvigorate the economy while renewing the legitimacy of U.S. leadership in the eyes of the world.
Naysayers seem unable to grasp the retrenchment paradox as they cling to an archaic worldview that has been the bane of American foreign policy for generations. Or, they simply refuse to believe the truth that when it comes to power – more isn’t always better.
For more articles by Michael Hughes go to www,michaelhughesassoc.com
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