Rational Politics Chapter 10: National Security

If I asked you which of these presidents, George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, spent a higher percentage of the federal budget relative to GDP on defense, what would your answer be? The “weak on defense” Carter committed an average of 25% of all federal spending to defense, W.’s father committed an average of just over 22%. In the eyes of the public, the strength of a president is often measures in the perception of dollars spent combined with public statements towards and about perceived enemies. Reality is often far removed from that perception.

Most of the important work on national security takes place behind closed doors and over secure channels. Public messaging in that arena is largely reserved for massaging public opinion in preparation for a new strategy or threat. But Americans vote largely on gut feeling. President Carter killed the B-1 program because it was an airframe loaded with developmental problems that was being designed to fill a role occupied by other systems. President Reagan used Carter’s ending of the program as a hammer in the election of 1980, then promptly restarted it when he took office. When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, planners were hard at work finding targets to show off their systems. The B1 was conspicuous in its absence. The loss of that airframe didn’t slow down the political sideshow though. Contractors during Desert Storm, gave a good example of their standard operating procedure: they consistently exaggerated the effectiveness of their products, and were supported in this subterfuge by the D.O.D.

Politics, jobs, and industry drive military spending in the United States. Our military spending is nearly the amount as the rest of the world combined, and is responsible for a capability far in excess of actual projected needs, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. We can, at present, easily deal with every other nation’s strategic capability (outside of ballistic missiles, which are a different animal) at the same time. The garden variety description for this capability is overkill. The cliche of wasteful government spending is exemplified in the defense budget, which is rife with bureaucratic bloating. The best scenario in the real world for determining military spending would be to allocate the funds necessary to meet all the realistically projected missions over a given developmental time window. The reality of how we spend money boils down to American voters, their perceptions, and their jobs.

There is a persistent line of thinking in American political philosophy that says an entity known as the military-industrial complex is responsible for war and defense budgets. The self-sustaining nature of corporate research and development (marketing) is responsible for much of this issue. But efforts by corporations are ultimately supported by voters, and voters are most often swayed by jobs. Much of the infamous earmarks done every year involve military spending. More influential, however, is the spread of weapons building into multiple Congressional districts. A contract for one piece of hardware can generate or maintain jobs throughout the nation. Contractors spread their operations throughout the nation, creating political leverage. Killing a project means shutting down a factory, and shedding the good paying jobs associated with the plant.

We the people support the bloated spending for other reasons; Americans enjoy being the best at pursuits with a high visibility. The wow factor drives us; we don’t like art films based on subtlety, we want the big explosions. Every political twist and turn over the last thirty years, on the subject of national security, has pivoted on pride and a distorted view of the realities of war. From Reagan’s bluster to the quagmire of Afghanistan, a generation of Americans have formulated their opinions on conflict through the glass of WWII. Strategic threats remain in our world; The Rational Middle does not see them leaving any time in this century. But the nature of the bulk of today’s threats are both tactical and non-conventional. We are no longer playing capture the flag friends; there are no more heroic advances to an enemy capitol followed by celebrations of total victory.

How we the people view any threat to national security, from the war on terror to the war on drugs, determines the eventual success or failure of the ventures. Thus far, we have taken the wrong mindset, as a nation, on all of these initiatives. All operations plans with a hope of success have a defined objective and a plan for exfiltration. Desert Storm had well-defined objectives and clear guidelines for the end-game, Iraqi Freedom did not. Far removed from the merits of conducting any war, the terms of victory and defeat for both the tactical and strategic levels must be decided on prior to engaging the enemy. To do less, is to commit the bravest and best of our nation to an open-ended game of political wackamole.

In today’s warfare, just as it has been throughout history, prudence and wisdom are infinitely more important than John Wayne bravado. Terrorists, insurgents, drug gangs, or rogue states; it will never again be about finding a target and blowing it up. We must understand both the goals and the methods of our adversaries, and identify the best way to defeat them. Sometimes that means direct action, which we Americans love; sometimes it means a more passive or patient approach, which we Americans despise. We the people need to strip away the political labels from all conflict, and reevaluate our national plan in the context of the pure objective only. Conservatives may have to accept conciliatory diplomacy and fixed timetables, liberals may have to accept direct action against dangerous states. But these realities, labels, and roles are not fixed by party.

A decade ago, an American president wanted to employ direct action against targets in East Africa and Afghanistan; targets related to an entity little-known to the American public at that time. The House leadership, of the opposite party of the president, refused to authorize the use of troops or planes in those regions. They accused the president of posturing, and they wanted no repeat of an earlier episode in East Africa. Any action, they said, would have to have defined objectives and a plan for withdrawal. They weren’t going to sign off on another Viet Nam. Eventually, the president utilized cruise missiles, and the opposition attacked him for an ineffectual response to the threat. The House leadership were Republicans, the president was Bill Clinton, and the little-known entity was Al Qaeda.

The reality of our national security is rarely is simple as the political branding would lead us to believe. The two constants in national security have always been the politics and we the people. It is past time for us to get smarter and reject the politics.

The Rational Middle is listening….

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