Secretary of War Ash Carter is concerned about America’s posture. No, it’s not about sitting with your back straight up and your knees placed primly together. It all has to do with how many enemies there are out there threatening the United States and what we have to do, globally speaking, to make them cry uncle. Ash outlined his views at a “posture hearing” before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 17th, part of a process intended to give still more money to the Pentagon, $582.7 billion to be exact for fiscal year 2017.
I respect Ash at least a bit because he once studied Medieval History at Yale, though he apparently has forgotten about the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses. Both devastated winners and losers alike, a salutary lesson for those who are concerned about what the United States has been up to for the past fifteen years. Yet Ash, who is characteristically no veteran and for whom war is an abstraction that must be supported by counting and piling up sufficient beans, thinks that more is always better when it comes to having fancy new toys to play with. Since his proposed budget will be giving the Navy a few tens of billions worth of Ohio class subs the Air Force will have to get its own strategic bombers so no one will feel cheated. Just wait until the bill from the Army comes in.
Ash justified all the needless spending by telling the Senators that there are five “security challenges” confronting the United States – terrorism, North Korea, China, Russia and Iran – before lapsing into Pentagon-speak about why more money is always better than less money. He attacked any attempt at sequestration, which would require budget cuts across the board, because it risks the “funding of critical investments.”
If you thought that investments were something financial services guys do you would be wrong. The War Department also knows all about it and also can generate “new posture in some regions” with all that extra cash. Why? To “protect the homeland,” of course, and to “have the ability to ensure that anyone who starts a conflict with us will regret doing so.”
Ash possibly could have benefited from having his historian hat on during his testimony as he might thereby recall that the last “anyone” to initiate a war with the U.S. was the Empire of Japan in 1941. Every other conflict since that time was started by the United States.
Carter also elaborated to the Senators on his enemies list. No one would dispute that North Korea poses a regional and possibly even greater threat if it does indeed possess the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that it claims to have and the ability to deliver them, which can be challenged. Its unbalanced leader Kim Jong-un, who reminds one of Dick Cheney, appears capable of just about anything and steps taken in coordination with Japan, South Korea and China to minimize the threat are undeniably welcome. But even in a worst case scenario, Pyongyang does not threaten the United States.
Terrorism also is a transnational security issue but the actual threat that it represents for Europeans and Americans has been greatly exaggerated. It cannot do serious damage to the U.S. In fact, the United States would be less endangered by ISIS and al-Qaeda if its soldiers were not “over there” destabilizing existing governments and creating power vacuums that militants are able to exploit. The Middle East and South Asia would be better off today if the United States had never intervened in the first place but Ash seems to embrace a standardized official U.S. government vision of a menacing status quo that extends well beyond the near future (“over the horizon threats” being a favorite Pentagon phrase when you run out of things to say).
And then there are China and Russia, which, per Ash, are developing and continuing to “advance military systems that seek to threaten U.S. advantages in specific areas.” Which means that Washington must always be superior to everyone everywhere and in every way. It is a formula that previous empires more realistically did not aspire to and is a sure road to financial ruin for the American taxpayer.
Ash favors a “strong and balanced approach to deter Russian aggression” while also citing a China that is “behaving aggressively.” And there is always Iran, which is demonstrating “reckless and destabilizing behavior” manifesting as aggression, as well as “malign” influence and threatening Washington’s upholding its “ironclad commitments” to Israel.
That Russia, China and Iran are portrayed as serious threats to the United States because of what they are doing in Eastern Europe, the South China Sea and in the Persian Gulf region is ridiculous, but it unfortunately passes for foreign policy consensus in Washington both for neoconservatives and for democracy promoting interventionists like Carter. In reality Russia reacted to American interference in Ukraine, China is involved in regional disputes that have been playing out since the end of the Vietnam War and a non-nuclear Iran is surrounded by enemies. None of them threatens the U.S.
Unfortunately, Ash Carter is not alone in his blustering. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Marine General Joseph Dunford, often described as an intellectual officer, supported his boss at the briefing, asserting that Congress must adequately fund “a bow wave of procurement requirements.” More ships, more planes, more high tech wizardry for the Army. All in spite of the fact that the U.S. military capabilities already exceed the resources of all potential adversaries combined.
NATO’s top military commander U.S. Air Force general Philip Breedlove also briefed Congress last month, telling the Senate committee that Russia is a long term threat to the United States. It is “eager to exert unquestioned influence over neighboring countries,” having used military force to violate the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia and others like Moldova.”
How exactly does that threaten the United States even if it were true, which is debatable? Breedlove, a pilot who has never experienced combat, explains “Russia seeks to re-establish a leading role on the world stage” but adds reassuringly that he is working hard with NATO allies, “deterring Russia now and preparing to fight and win if necessary.”
One can be excused if a slip of the tongue sometimes confuses Breedlove with Strangelove. With airheads like Breedlove in charge every American can no doubt sleep better tonight, but one has to wonder what motivates officers like him to go in search of enemies where no enemies exist. Russia is not capable either economically or militarily to revert to being the Soviet Union. There is absolutely no evidence that Moscow is seeking to invade any of its Eastern European neighbors and its belief that NATO is aimed at it and is a threat is all too real, as Breedlove reveals. And Russia’s intervention in Syria against ISIS was positive, most observers would agree. Everyone seems to understand all of that but Breedlove and, more importantly, the folks in Washington and NATO who want to keep the cash flowing. To accomplish that an enemy is needed and as enemies go the bigger the better.
Readers of this piece have no doubt noted that I have been referring to the Department of War rather than the post-World War 2 euphemism “Defense.” That is because what the United States actually does globally through its African, European, Pacific and Southern “Commands” has little to do with what anyone would plausibly define as defense. If we are waging war on much of the world ostensibly based on a whole bundle of poorly conceived interests but mostly just to prove that we can it is perhaps beyond time to be frank about what we call it.