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A World Neglected

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The Military Budget and the US National Security Doctrine

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Sherle R. Schwenninger
Sherle R. Schwenninger is director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at...

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Instead of addressing the real problems, Obama and Romney are focusing on deficit reduction. 

The crisis was caused by weak governance, excessive speculation and lax regulation. Austerity will only make the disease worse.

Despite differences on a few details, both candidates have promised to increase military spending (now at $400 billion a year), to further modernize American forces and to keep the United States the predominant military power in the world. We need an alternative that would spend less but better meet our legitimate national security needs.

Such an alternative is possible because both Bush's and Kerry's proposed military budgets are based on unrealistic assumptions about the utility of American military power and the kinds of military missions we can legitimately pursue. Bush's national security doctrine calls for the use of military force for preventive regime change and to halt nuclear proliferation as well as for more traditional military missions like deterrence and defense of the sea lanes and the homeland. It is these new and expansive missions--missions more associated with the pursuit of empire than international order--that are driving the increase in the military budget. In light of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to have an honest debate as to whether such expansive missions are actually necessary to our national security and consistent with the kind of world order we want to promote.

We also need to ask whether military force is capable of achieving these objectives at an acceptable cost. If anything, the war in Iraq as well as the "war on terrorism" suggests it is not. The Administration's inability to subdue the insurgency and establish minimum order in Iraq shows the limits of US military force in achieving reasonable political goals--at least at an acceptable cost. It has also revealed the limits of America's military reach--an important consideration if preventive regime change becomes a core tenet of our national security policy. Even Washington's limited military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched American forces thin, thus making any threats against North Korea, Iran and Syria look increasingly hollow. A future administration could end up asking for even more money and more troops, if Washington continues to believe there are military solutions to the problems of Iran and North Korea other than deterrence.

The wiser lesson to draw from Iraq would be that preventive regime change is both too costly and too counterproductive to warrant official approval. Military power is still useful for many traditional defense and deterrence missions, including attacks against known terrorist targets, but it has largely proved ineffectual or counterproductive in promoting democracy or in halting the spread of nuclear weapons. By refusing to acknowledge the limits of military power, yet by constructing a military budget as if preventive regime change is the solution to our security worries, the Bush Administration and the Kerry campaign would divert resources into military options that would be counterproductive in most cases. In so doing, they are also taking resources away from nonmilitary programs that might be able to do far more to create the foundations of stable democracies and to achieve other world-order goals that are more important to our national security.

Counterproliferation and Rogue States

Both candidates--Bush explicitly, Kerry implicitly--give credence to the theory of convergence, the notion concocted by neoconservatives that rogue states with weapons of mass destruction might give those weapons to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. (To his credit, Kerry gives greater stress to the possibility that terrorists might obtain nuclear weapons from poorly secured Russian or Pakistani weapons facilities and calls for increased spending to secure nuclear material.) And both support a policy that includes the use of force to reverse or eliminate the nuclear weapons programs of potentially hostile states, principally Iran and North Korea.

No one, of course, wants to see a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea. But the goal of reversing Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, certainly by coercive means, may be unrealistic, especially in light of our experience in Iraq. Bush's war against Saddam Hussein's regime was meant in part as a warning to both Iran and North Korea, but seems to have had the opposite effect; there is evidence that both have accelerated their nuclear programs as the best way to deter US attacks. And with American forces stretched thin in Iraq, in neither case is the use of force a plausible policy option. Bush's fallback position of further isolating and punishing Iran and North Korea is also problematic, since it might only further accelerate their efforts and would require the full support of our diplomatic partners, none of which is likely to risk a more confrontational approach.

This has left us experimenting with a new regional concert model of managing potential international security problems--as represented by the efforts of Britain, France, Germany and Russia in the case of Iran, and by the six-power framework discussions led by China in the case of North Korea. This model includes inducements of trade and investment as well as nonmilitary pressures, and uses the International Atomic Energy Agency as an impartial judge of Iran's and North Korea's compliance. This model may not be perfect, but it does offer a way to manage the problem and to reduce some of the more worrying security scenarios associated with it. However, it cannot work if it is done in a half-hearted way without full US cooperation.

If we are really serious about wanting these countries to give up their nuclear programs, we must be willing to address their security fears as well as our own. Iran's and North Korea's nuclear weapons programs are not just the result of Iran's regional ambitions or North Korea's economic blackmail goals, but of real security fears, some of them fostered by American policy and, in the case of Iran, by Israel's nuclear capabilities. We must therefore also be open to new regional security arrangements, including the establishment of nuclear-weapons-free zones, that address Iran's and North Korea's security concerns. If we are not willing to go this far, then we need to be willing to fall back on established notions of deterrence and containment.

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