Avoiding the Toughness Trap | The Nation


Avoiding the Toughness Trap

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

There is a surreal quality to many of the foreign policy arguments being put forward in the 2008 presidential campaign, particularly among Republican presidential hopefuls. The Bush Administration's fiasco in Iraq is a transformative event that calls for a fundamental re-thinking of US security strategy. The policies of "preventive" war, forward basing of US troops aimed at intimidating designated adversaries and unbridled support for missile defense and new nuclear weapons should all be cast aside in search of a new approach.

About the Author

William D. Hartung
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of...

Also by the Author

When it comes to the Pentagon’s new spending budget, the answer is not more money. 

Obama's new National Security Strategy overextends US military commitments at a time when severe budget deficits require significant cuts in defense spending.

While scrupulously avoiding reference to George W. Bush by name, the top Republican candidates have embraced the worst aspects of his national security policies. No matter how badly things go in Iraq, Senator John McCain has stubbornly adhered to his ill-advised position on the war. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has cast himself as the post-9/11 tough guy, advocating not only a "stay the course" policy in Iraq but also the use of force against Iran. One of Mitt Romney's most memorable pledges is his call to "double Guantánamo," while his main defense plank is a promise to increase the armed forces by 100,000 troops. Former Tennessee senator and Law and Order district attorney Fred Thompson is trying to run to the right of the other major Republican candidates, and his foreign policy positions reflect that decision. Perhaps most important for the long term, all the Republican front-runners support maintaining a large and growing US global military presence, including expansion into the heart of the Muslim world.

For their part, major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have not adequately distinguished their views from the Bush doctrine. Each has endorsed one or more of the following actions: threatening a unilateral military strike in the territory of an allied country; keeping all options "on the table"--including, presumably, the use of nuclear weapons--in addressing Iran's nuclear program; increasing the Army and Marines by 80,000 or more troops and increasing the military budget.

In short, the door is open for a thoroughgoing debate on the future of US security policy that goes beyond the urgent question of how to get out of Iraq. So far, mainstream Democrats have failed to seize this historic moment.

The political underpinning of this failure of imagination comes from Democratic consultants, pollsters and think tanks, who argue that the party's candidates need to project an image of toughness to overcome the "security gap" that has existed in public perceptions of Republicans versus Democrats since the end of the Vietnam War. But this logic rests on a fatal flaw--the assumption that the immediate future will continue to resemble the pattern of the past three decades. In Iraq the disastrous consequences of the Bush Administration's use of military force against a country that posed no imminent threat to the United States are there for all to see. Rather than projecting a posture of toughness, what is needed is an effective plan for defending the United States and its allies.

A progressive defense policy must begin with a fundamental redefinition of what constitutes security. Security should involve protection against all threats to human life, whether they emanate from terrorism, the spread of nuclear weapons, environmental degradation, outbreaks of disease or entrenched poverty and hunger. This means that many of the most dangerous threats we face are not amenable to military solutions. Furthermore, given their cross-border nature, these challenges must be addressed through inclusive global partnerships, not ad hoc coalitions.

The elements of a new defense policy fall into two areas: (1) reversing longstanding policies that are doing more to undermine US security than to promote it; and (2) fixing the mismatch in resources that devotes far too much funding to traditional military missions at the expense of the more diverse set of tools needed to address current and future threats to security.

Probably the most retrograde element of Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's foreign policy platforms is the proposal to increase the Army and Marines by at least 80,000 troops (John Edwards has refused to join the "bidding war" over who can propose the largest troop increases). This approach implies either a commitment to continuing the doctrine of "preventive" war and military occupation pioneered by the Bush Administration or, at the least, a continuation of the cold war practice of deploying US troops in bases ringing the globe. During the cold war, this aggressive posture was rationalized on the basis of containing the Soviet Union and its allies around the world. In some instances, the United States' cold war military presence provided genuine reassurance to allies who depended on a US security pledge to feel safe. Now there is strong popular resistance to US military facilities in many of the areas where the Pentagon is most eager to base forces. And when the main US adversary is not a nation-state but a loose network of terrorist organizations, the stationing of large numbers of troops in or near Muslim nations offers little or no military value while generating opposition that can only help to improve the recruiting and fundraising activities of Al Qaeda and its allies.

Likewise, US nuclear policy still veers toward the cold war practice of using nuclear threats to shape the behavior of potential adversaries. This has certainly been the case with respect to Iran. But the primary goal of US policy in the current era should be preventing the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups, not making loose threats that are more likely to spur other nations to seek nuclear weapons. Any future needs the United States may have to deter potential nuclear attacks can be handled with a small residual force of at most a few hundred warheads, which could be eliminated in conjunction with a longer-term international effort to abolish these weapons of mass terror altogether.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.