Chuck Hagel recently delivered his first major public-policy address since becoming secretary of defense. While the bulk of his speech at the National Defense University focused on the need to overhaul our spending priorities radically, a nod to the military officers in the audience caught my attention:
As you move onward and upward in your careers, I would urge you to always keep three questions in mind before making a decision:
● Does this help protect national security?
● Is this in America's strategic interests, which includes the political, economic, and moral dimensions?
● Is this worthy of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, and their families?
Hagel left it at that—but it's worth reflecting on how well the nation’s civilian leadership has followed that sage advice.
We spent $711 billion on defense last year, 41 percent of the world’s total expenditure and more than the next thirteen countries combined. Moreover, eleven of those countries are allies or at the very least, non-belligerent. No other country can independently project power around the globe; the United States can do it in multiple hotspots at the same time. While not without its downsides, this buys us an enormous amount of leverage on the security front.
While the Pentagon is scheduled for a $487 billion reduction in projected spending over the next decade, in addition to the $41 billion this fiscal year if the sequester goes through unchanged, the actual cuts to the defense budget are, as Time's Mark Thompson points out, minuscule, and the United States “is spending more on its military than the Cold War average.” He cites a March Congressional Budget Office report which finds that, “In real terms, after the reduction in 2013, DoD's base budget is about what it was in 2007, and is still 7% above the average funding since 1980.”
Have more than a decade of failed efforts at nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan at the cost of some $4 to $6 trillion—we can’t actually narrow it down more than that—in American tax dollars been in U.S. economic interest? Were they worthy of the service and sacrifice of 6,648 American dead?
Does it honor the sacrifice of our ground forces, the soldiers and Marines who have borne the brunt of the fighting and dying over the last dozen years, to slash their end strength so that we can prepare to fight an unlikely war with a China that’s ten times more capable than the actual China? Cutting our expeditionary and stabilization capability to prepare for the war we’d prefer to fight rather than the one we’re likely to fight was, after all, one reason the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan turned out so poorly.
Does it really protect national security to spend $8.4 billion in the next fiscal year on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the way-behind-schedule, way-over-cost next-generation fighter that's designed to combat an enemy capability that doesn't exist? That, despite its delays, can't perform the mission for which it was designed? When the F-16s and F-18s it's slated to replace are radically cheaper and remain dominant? Is that really in America's strategic interests, political or economic? Or does it have more to do with the enormous "political protection" baked into the program, with 133,000 jobs spread across 1300 suppliers in 45 states, ensuring virtually no member of Congress is anxious to cut funding?
To the extent our national security has a “moral dimension,” has it been furthered by extraordinary renditions, enhanced interrogation methods, the designations of enemy combatants for indefinite detention without benefit of due process or prisoner-of-war status, signature strikes on groups of Muslim youth fitting a terrorist profile, and all the other compromises made in fighting a war on a method of operation? To say nothing of the sacrifices of liberty and dignity at home as we endure warrantless searches, full-body scans, confiscation of our water bottles, and all the rest to travel about the country?
One upside of the current austerity is that we’re making some effort to rationalize spending. We’ve canceled air shows by the Thunderbirds, Blue Angels and Golden Knights demonstration teams. We’re at least paying attention to the fact that we we’ve managed to spend $900 million—greater than the total annual military expenditure of Slovenia—ordering spare parts for vehicles no longer in the inventory because we simply lost track.
Despite ending his address by proclaiming “America does not have the luxury of retrenchment” and can “make a better world for all people with its power,” my sense is that Hagel actually asks himself those three questions when deciding to commit American tax dollars and, more importantly, American lives. Indeed, he argued that the process must be guided by “a principled realism that is true to our values” and while acknowledging the military is “an essential tool of American power,” he cautioned it “must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits.”
But Hagel is part of an administration that’s continued a bipartisan proclivity for military intervention and nation building that has dominated since the end of the Cold War. To be sure, President Obama opposed the Iraq War when he was a mere Illinois state senator, displaying a prescience that neither his vice president, either of his secretaries of state, Hagel, nor myself possessed. But he doubled down on a mission in Afghanistan that was obviously unachievable and launched a war in Libya while ostensibly “leading from behind.”
Then again, he has thus far avoided intervention in the Syrian civil war, avoided being goaded into military action to preempt Iranian nuclear capability, and stayed cool during the latest temper tantrum by North Korea’s child dictator. Let’s hope these decisions, plus the choice of Hagel to lead the Pentagon, signal that Obama is at heart a strategic realist. Hagel should raise those three questions at every turn as the administration shapes our defense priorities and considers those options that never seem to be off the table.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.