Avoiding the Toughness Trap

Avoiding the Toughness Trap

Candidates should rethink their commitment to outmoded security tools and veiled nuclear threats against nonnuclear states.


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.

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.

The most urgent short-term goal of US policy should be to secure or eliminate nuclear bombs and bomb-making materials in Russia–where there are materials sufficient to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons–and worldwide, where smaller quantities of bombs and bomb-making material might be seized by a terrorist group. Barack Obama has built up an admirable track record on this issue.

Negotiations to curb or roll back North Korea’s nuclear program should continue, and saber-rattling toward Iran should be replaced by efforts to promote a grand political and security bargain. This would include ending military threats and economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for a pledge to limit its nuclear program to civilian purposes under a strict inspections regime. Some intelligence estimates put Iran’s capability of building and deploying nuclear weapons at ten years or more in the future, a time frame that allows plenty of scope for negotiations, notwithstanding the recent tough talk from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The linchpin of efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons should be an initiative to implement sharp cuts in US and Russian arsenals, which together account for about 95 percent of all nuclear weapons worldwide. In this area Democratic candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards have staked out strong, forward-looking positions in line with the views of former officials such as Nixon/Ford Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sam Nunn, who have endorsed the goal of “a world free of nuclear weapons,” to be achieved by “working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.” In keeping with this movement toward nuclear disarmament, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration should abandon plans to research and build a new generation of nuclear warheads and eliminate plans to upgrade US bomb-making facilities under its Complex Transformation plan.

The second major thrust of a new security policy must address the stark misallocation of resources in this area, which is closely tied to the persistence of cold war strategies and weapons systems that have little relevance to today’s security environment. Implementing a more comprehensive security policy entails using all the tools available–not just military force but diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, development assistance, environmental protection and forward-looking public health policies.

The top three Democratic candidates all endorse some version of this general framework. The difficulty arises when these candidates enunciate specific policies that are at odds with this perspective.

The most detailed proposal to date on how to engage in a shift in overall security spending is the Unified Security Budget (USB), the product of a task force organized by Foreign Policy in Focus and the Center for Defense Information (author’s note: I was a member of the task force that produced the USB report). The most recent task force report calls for cutting $56 billion from the Pentagon budget by eliminating or scaling back spending on unnecessary programs like the F-22 combat aircraft, the Virginia class submarine, the V-22 Osprey, missile defense and nuclear weapons. The proposal then argues that $50 billion of these funds should be invested in peacekeeping, diplomacy, development of alternative energy sources, public health infrastructure and protection of chemical and nuclear plants. John Edwards has endorsed the concept of a USB, but it is not clear whether he would therefore move significant amounts of funding from the Pentagon to other security programs.

Even with the kinds of cuts outlined above, the United States will outspend its closest rival–China–by about five to one. Expenditures by actual or potential adversaries like Al Qaeda, the Iraq insurgency, Iran or North Korea barely register on the charts compared with the US military budget. Iran, the demon du jour, spends just above 1 percent of what the United States spends for military purposes.

But advocates of higher military budgets argue that US military spending should be measured not only against the spending of other countries but against the potential missions that the US military may be asked to carry out. A progressive defense policy needs to provide answers to the question of how traditional military threats should be addressed.

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.

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