Avoiding the Toughness Trap
A list of primary missions for the US military should arguably include the following: defending US territory and the territory of key allies; intervening to stop genocide or ethnic cleansing; preventing and combating terrorism against US targets; and preventing the use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its closest allies. Except in extreme circumstances, action in any of these areas should involve regional or international coalitions. And as noted, many of these objectives, once primarily addressed by military means, may now be achieved using nonmilitary means.
Defense of US territory is principally a homeland defense mission, not a military mission. It should go without saying that neither Mexico nor Canada is going to launch a land invasion of the United States, nor is there any nation equipped to mount a major military operation by sea. As for the Administration's favorite fantasy program--missile defense--it has no capability for stopping a terrorist group intent on smuggling a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon into the United States.
This means that improvements in homeland defense should be the main instruments for defending US territory. These measures should include protecting chemical and nuclear plants; developing a rational system of immigration and border security that focuses on intercepting known terrorist suspects rather than imposing mass restrictions; improving training of and communications among police, fire departments and hospitals; and investing in public health institutions to improve their ability to detect potential outbreaks of infectious diseases.
As for dealing with aggression against US allies, there are relatively few cases in which US forces will be needed to carry out such a mission. Most key US allies, from other NATO countries to Israel to South Korea, are more than able to defend themselves from a conventional attack by their most likely adversaries. To the extent that US forces might be needed in a supporting role, their mission should be limited primarily to logistical support.
In the special case of Taiwan, the main line of defense should be political, not military. Making it clear to Taipei that its US security guarantee does not extend to a scenario in which it moves abruptly toward independence without consulting key allies would be one prong of a diplomatic strategy. The other would be to assure China that the United States continues to support a two-Chinas policy, while admonishing Beijing to forgo military action to seize Taiwan.
On the issue of humanitarian intervention, the United States has a mixed record, from late but significant engagement in Bosnia and Kosovo to a shameful lack of action to stop the genocide in Rwanda. In the ongoing humanitarian crisis of ethnic cleansing in Sudan, the most important role we can play is to provide financial and logistical support to regional and international peacekeeping forces while leading efforts to put economic and political pressure on Khartoum to stop supporting militias engaged in mass murder in the southern part of the country. The US role should also include concerted diplomacy to get China to cease its investment in Sudan's oil resources until the regime meets international standards of conduct. For possible humanitarian interventions in the future, objective standards should be developed based on the severity of the situation--an approach that would have dictated US involvement to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
For all the Bush Administration's emphasis on military approaches to fighting terrorism, military force should be the last of the tools used in this effort. The tools of choice are better intelligence-gathering, efforts to limit the flow of funds and guns to terrorist groups, determined law-enforcement efforts aimed at improving on an already significant record of trying and convicting terrorist suspects in regular courts (as occurred in the United States before Guantánamo, as well as in Europe), and the possible use of air power or special forces to target specific terrorist training camps. One mission that should be ruled out is regime change as a way to sever connections--real or imagined--between terrorist groups and specific governments.
Not only would the security strategy outlined above forestall the need to increase the size of the Army and Marines, it would allow for cuts in the size of the armed forces, in conjunction with a reduction in US "global reach" as expressed by the hundreds of US military bases spread across the globe.
The level of detail set out here is unlikely to be discussed in the context of a presidential campaign, but it would be immensely helpful if the major candidates would at least re-think their commitments to outmoded security tools like an increase in the size of the armed forces and the use of veiled nuclear threats against nonnuclear states. Even if most of the measures proposed in this essay aren't implemented by the President inaugurated in 2009, an informed debate on the future of US security policy can bring much-needed change over time.