Is a Republican national security platform being hammered out for 2012? So far, the GOP candidates have said little that is new or interesting about the great issues of war and peace. Even so, it is inexplicable that the Republican field did little more than offer cautionary footnotes when the president went to the Pentagon last week to announce his new strategy.
After bailouts and budget deadlocks, there is little left for what used to be called the common defense. If the president’s strategy is implemented, defense spending over the next decade may slip to less than 3% of GNP. The nation’s ground forces will be reduced: the Army will be slashed almost to its pre-9/11 level of 490,000 soldiers. The biggest qualitative change: large-scale counter-insurgency operations like Iraq and Afghanistan will be discontinued in favor of a “strategic pivot” toward East Asia, where we will rely primarily on air and naval forces to maintain “access” against potential Chinese threats.
While the Republican presidential candidates mumbled, the experts reacted swiftly. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Professor Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College said of the planned ground force reductions, “Force planners made a similar assumption after Vietnam. The assumption was wrong then and most likely is wrong now.” When one hapless Pentagon official likened the new strategy to the reductions after Vietnam and the Cold War, The Washington Post, that bastion of hawkish thought, commented acidly, “Both those draw-downs are now almost universally regarded as having been unsustainable and shortsighted.” But perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, of Harvard’s Belfer Center, who wrote in The Christian Science Monitor, “Partners … should take notice that the U.S. is drawing inward … competitors like China and Russia should be reassured by America putting its rifles in the arms room. This pronouncement may do more in support of the president’s Nobel Peace Prize than anything else he has done.”
In the coming weeks, the Republican candidates should begin discussing a strategy to combat the rising threats to our national security, which are increasingly hemispheric, territorial and direct, rather than embracing the Obama administration’s vague crusades somewhere to the east of Beyond. For now, consider just three urgent and closely related issues:
1. Iran: Quite apart from its nuclear ambitions, Iran poses a severe economic threat (with its potential to interrupt Persian Gulf oil supplies) and a direct hemispheric challenge (through its increasing involvement with narco-terrorism in Venezuela and Mexico). A recent example: the Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington using the Mexican drug cartels. Now that diplomacy, sanctions and appeasement have failed, how do we counteract Iran, by what means and to what ends? And if we attack Iran, why won’t the Iranians respond closer to home?
2. Southwest Border: Bad as it is, narco-terrorism is only part of the growing problem on our Southwestern border. American Legion Magazine, which is hardly in the journalistic mainstream, serves a highly interested constituency. Its current edition describes Mexico as a third front after Afghanistan and Iraq, and explains that drug cartels are challenging governmental authority, major populations are being displaced and 40,000 murders have been committed in Mexico in just five years. Do you really think we can rely on the Border Patrol to deal with that kind of instability? As bad as our immigration problems are now, what happens if Mexico implodes?
3. Ground Forces & Counter-Insurgency: To deal with both the extended Iranian challenge and border instability, we need ground forces, particularly those experienced in counter-insurgency. Territorial defense was the Army’s principal mission for more than a century after it was formed, so this is nothing new. But in one of history’s great ironies, those foundational skills had to be re-learned in Vietnam and re-learned all over again after 9/11. The Army-Marine Corps team that turned around Anbar Province and won a war which many considered lost is now the world’s premiere counter-insurgency force, honed to a razor’s edge after a decade of combat. How ironic, how foolish, how utterly and irretrievably mad to dismantle that force just as it is needed most — and right here at our gates!
There is much else that any Republican alternative to the Obama strategy must address: for instance, the perpetual challenges of modernizing defense infrastructure and reforming how we secure the homeland. But it is even more important that Republicans recognize how decisively the terms of reference have shifted. Having run out of money, the territory we must now defend as our first priority is nothing less than the continental United States.
Colonel (Ret.) Ken Allard rose from draftee to Dean of the National War College. A former military analyst for NBC News, he is a prolific writer on national security issues.