PRESIDENT DONALD Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria (and a dramatic reduction from Afghanistan as well) may signal a 2019 that sees a contraction of the American empire, but it may equally enable and communicate a redistribution of the U.S. military to focus on European security. As political science professor Zachary Selden has argued, “rather than weakening, the U.S. military commitment to Europe has actually increased during Trump’s presidency...” For instance, Polish president Andrzej Duda reportedly offered to name an American base in Poland after President Trump during his visit this past September. Given Poland’s fraught history of being caught between hammer and anvil, it is understandable that Duda would seek hard and permanent American combat power on his territory. Duda stated he was “convinced that such a decision lies in the Polish interest and in the interest of the United States.” This may make sound strategic sense from Warsaw, but is it in America’s interest?
In a recent commentary for Defense One, scholars Michael Hunzeker and Alexander Lanoszka argue that this new frontier outpost on Russia’s doorstep is a “good idea” and “would be worthwhile” from an American optic. Why? “A base there will deter Russian aggression and reassure our allies in Poland and the Baltic region.” The authors give four reasons why forward-deployed troops would be in America’s national interest. Specifically, such a move would deter Russia, save American lives in the event of a conflict, burnish Washington’s commitment to NATO’s Russia-facing border, and signal that America helps those who help themselves. Indeed, given President Trump’s oft-repeated frustration with free riders under American security umbrellas, that Duda has reportedly offered up billions in financial contributions is certainly a sweetener that would get American political attention.
Actually, “Fort Trump” is a terrible idea, and still would be for strategic and political reasons even if it were named “Fort Freedom.” The “end of history” and America’s “unipolar moment” saw a relentless eastward expansion of NATO, guided more by post-Cold War triumphalism than realism or strategy with respect to how all these new security partners might actually be defended at the coalface. “NATO’s ostensible purpose, collective defense, appears to have been barely in the minds of the sponsors of the organization’s enlargement,” noted Richard Betts in his book American Force.
Encouraging further American global military commitments absent a viable and enunciated grand strategy and unambiguous domestic popular support is not only misguided, it is dangerous. A pivot from the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR), specifically from Syria and Afghanistan, to the European Command (EUCOM) AOR, specifically Poland, would be a strategic pitfall. It would be wiser to return first to the principles of strategy and evaluate which deployments, if any, are truly vital to U.S. national security. To better understand why this is the case, we must consider the numerous ways America’s strategic efforts are unfocused at home, in Europe and beyond.
FIRST, TALK of host government financial “contributions” cloud the issues at hand. U.S. service personnel are not mercenaries and the discussion of money obfuscates a more important discussion of U.S. national interest. Poland paying $2 billion might be a major investment for them, but that’s a rounding error on the Pentagon’s massive budget, $716 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2019. That figure includes $89 billion in the slush fund for the vaguely named “overseas contingency operations”—a euphemism for our seemingly endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. The focus on the sum, however large or small, is overly transactional. Nor is paying us to defend Poland how a society should employ its fighting men and women. If $2 billion, or even $20 billion, sounds impressive, it would be well to consider how much a war with Russia would cost (even a regional one).
To put these sums in perspective, consider how much the United States has spent fighting insurgents who do not offer remotely similar offensive—much less strategic—capabilities as a near-peer adversary. The Stimson Center calculated in May 2018 that the United States has spent nearly $3 trillion on counterterrorism efforts between FY 2002 and 2017. Further, in its “Costs of War” project, Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs has estimated a nearly $6 trillion-dollar price tag for the war(s) on terror through FY 2019. The mind boggles at what productive efforts could have benefitted from such sums, especially because America has nothing to show for these expenditures. A regional conflict with a near-peer (and nuclear-armed) adversary would dwarf these already astronomical figures.
Second, a “tripwire” type of force (mostly symbolic) means that the United States will have decided that the risks of catastrophic escalation are less than the benefits of this “deterrence.” Escalation is dangerous because it takes on a life of its own, and off-ramps are often ignored in favor of ever-deeper commitments to redeem what has been lost. Quagmires from Vietnam to Afghanistan offer ample reminders of this slippery slope with our strategic interest being lost in the process. The only constant result is a shedding of much power, prestige, money and lives. What is the purpose of such a small conventional force in Poland? According to Hunzeker and Lanoszka, it is both to enhance combat power and also show that America has “skin in the game.” In the event of hostilities with Russia, it would be more than “skin,” but rather battalions of dead Americans, presumably so that other Americans will be outraged and run to their nearest military recruiting office. This logic has not held true since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in very different historical circumstances. It may be useful to recall that military recruiting, in fact, did not surge after 9/11, and by 2005 the Army missed its recruiting goal. That year the Army couldn’t find 80,000 military-aged Americans willing and qualified to serve.
Third, America is not ready for another war, and increasing defense commitments only add to the planning burden and confusion. Our armed forces have been repeatedly described as “stretched” and even “broken” as a result of the cumulative effects of sequestration amidst repeated high-tempo deployments, especially among the special forces community. Service chiefs have testified that everything from fleet sizes to flying hours has been reduced and personnel readiness remains a lingering problem. Recently allocated funds for modernization, maintenance, training and personnel will go some way toward service chiefs feeling better about the state of affairs, but if repeated deployments of active and reserve forces to the CENTCOM AOR have left our forces in such a sorry state, where would a peer or near-peer conflict leave the military? The answer should be obvious.
Despite occasional calls for national service and even some lone wolves asking for a draft, the American people remain all too removed from their foreign policy, and especially their armed forces. Repeated studies have shown a shocking misunderstanding of the military, but policymakers and the military seem to uncritically assume that the American people are ready, even reluctantly, for a fight far removed from American soil or core national interests. In a peer conflict, American citizens would need to do far more than “support the troops,” especially over the long haul. Is there any evidence to underpin such an assumption of participatory support? Judging by the fact that most Americans are opposed to compulsory service and have little interest in, or conception of, what military service actually involves, probably not. To bridge this gap the Department of Defense even resorted to “paid patriotism” at sporting events in an expensive and misguided attempt to connect sports-loving Americans with their military. The fact that Erik Prince’s repeated efforts to privatize America’s overseas military efforts via mercenary outfits gets more attention in Washington than proposals for national service is revealing about where lawmakers and the American people are when considering who specifically might rally to Uncle Sam’s banner in a near-peer conflict. Indeed, with the same predictable punctuality as the German rail system, Prince seized on Trump’s announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria by suggesting that this inherently governmental activity could instead be done by his mercenary army.
FOURTH, EVEN if America had a metaphorical cavalry to call upon if Russia were to go on the offensive in the Baltics, Washington seems incapable of deciding which devil to slay first, and the lack of priorities reveals this confusion. For example, the United States has been consumed fighting enemies, both real and perceived, in the Middle East, from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the Islamic State in Syria, and now threatening Iran. National Security Advisor John Bolton underscored his view of the latest threat emanating from Tehran by stating there would be “hell to pay” if they harmed Americans or its allies. Bolton also suggested that American service personnel would remain in Syria fighting the “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” although he was overruled by his boss when the latter ordered U.S. troops home from Syria.