The American people deserve more policy impact for their money. While some may conclude that the remedy is to appropriate less assistance, the greater need is for more flexible funding, available to exert immediate leverage where and when needed most. The administration should explore a working partnership to involve relevant members of Congress in real-time policy deliberations regarding the allocation of untied foreign-assistance funds. Congress has repeatedly demonstrated that it appreciates the impact of freezing assistance when it wants to send a tough message to a foreign government; the two branches should now explore modalities to use assistance as a positive inducement when an important policy opportunity is at hand. All players would have much to gain by creating a mechanism linking the urgent needs of ambassadors and combatant commanders with oversight-committee members and staff in Congress, resulting in a more effective foreign-assistance capability.
Dozens of retired general officers have warned that burdens on the military will only increase if deep cuts are applied to the diplomatic function, security assistance and development programs. Even without such cuts, the U.S. military faces challenges of its own in sustaining necessary force levels, capabilities and combat readiness. While the U.S. Army’s operating concept, “Win in a Complex World: 2020–2040,” seeks to “present our enemies and adversaries with multiple dilemmas,” the reality is that the U.S. defense posture in 2017 is itself faced with serious dilemmas.
Two major armed interventions—Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003—deposed offending regimes quickly and with economy of force; yet more than a decade later, each imposes continuing costs on the military, with neither yet approaching a satisfactory political end state. A precipitous pullout in either place would be unwise, but as senior military leaders have repeatedly warned, military force alone is not the solution. Officials frequently cite the “complex” nature of challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, Somalia, the South China Sea, South Sudan and elsewhere. Complexity, however, does not excuse policymakers from the requirement to define achievable conditions where U.S. interests would no longer be at risk. The U.S. military needs and deserves robust policy support from civilian agencies, not simply to facilitate tactical operations, but to navigate and lead strategies in pursuit of acceptable political outcomes.
Cost-benefit discipline must be imposed on a Department of Defense enterprise where the services continue to maintain duplicative support functions, and where congressional as well as industrial pressures have long outmaneuvered management initiatives to defund obsolete systems, unneeded facilities and unproductive programs. In addition to counterterrorism operations, the expanding capabilities of Russia and China and missile threats from North Korea and Iran all require credible defense and deterrence, best accomplished with a decisive margin of superiority. Cyber and information-warfare threats—now embodied in Russian and Chinese doctrines—have demonstrated an alarming capacity to perturb the American political system. Our military must be capable of defending against these threats while retaining the ability to surge forces and assure operational access to space and the electromagnetic spectrum, and to do so while holding adversaries’ interests at risk far from home. These strategic requirements will not be easily met.
If future tensions were ever to escalate to general war between the United States and any significant military power such as Russia, China or even Iran, this would constitute a major policy failure, notwithstanding the presumption that the U.S. military would prevail in any conflict. The core tenet of U.S. national-security strategy is to preserve the national interest at the lowest cost; while the U.S. defense establishment has met this test, it can do better. Although the majority of U.S. combat power serves the “peacetime” purpose of deterring war, for most of this century American forces have been in combat somewhere every day. As Bob Scales, a retired major general, writes in his book Scales on War, U.S. adversaries are convinced “that the United States can be bested through a strategy that succeeds principally by killing U.S. Soldiers.” He points out that defense investments have largely bypassed the small fraction of the force engaged in “close combat,” whose casualty rate is dramatically higher than the rest of the military. With retired general James Mattis now heading the Defense Department, the needs of those who accept the greatest risk are receiving attention. A well-supported technology effort can increase the margin of tactical superiority—hence survivability—of U.S. fighting forces. By reducing an enemy’s ability to kill American troops and corrode American willpower, this will improve not only the efficacy of armed intervention, but the deterrent power of such a prospect.
Military force should be used reluctantly and as a last resort. But employing force should not mean that civilian policymakers hand over responsibility for the outcome to the military. Once launched, intervention has a psychological half-life that must be exploited politically while the opportunity exists. Too often in the past, tough diplomatic steps necessary to bring about the desired political end state have been deferred to the point that adversaries regained initiative and imposed costs on U.S. forces. In Beirut in 1982 and Baghdad in 2003, the sudden presence of superpower forces produced—for a period measured in months, not years—a more permissive environment in which appropriate political initiatives, boldly enacted, might have stabilized the situation.
Who is in charge of converting hard-won military objectives to lasting political gains? There has, of late, been no good answer, which is why national-security departments and agencies need to devise and undertake reforms together, aiming at a more potent, agile political-military capability. The National Security Council staff became the target of proposed legislative restrictions in 2016 because it had grown historically large and was seen as too involved in operational details. Yet the NSC’s expansion only mirrored the bloat in the State and Defense Departments, each with ever more positions of senior rank managing ever more diminished issue portfolios. All must now be streamlined in a coherent scheme. The Unified Command Plan should be adjusted to ensure that geographic combatant commanders no longer find themselves on opposite sides of a potential regional conflict such as between India and Pakistan, or Israel and neighboring Arab states. State Department regional bureaus should align with combatant command areas of responsibility, and one DAS-level official should be posted within each region, to coordinate departmental and embassy responses to transnational challenges.
The demands of the intelligence community, already wide ranging, must be further expanded in support of efforts to defuse contemporary threats. Greater insight is needed about conditions giving rise to vulnerable young people being recruited into extremist movements, and how media, including social media, are succeeding in their appeals. Where foreign governments and militaries have long been primary collection targets, now “the street” has emerged as a potent political force, and the intelligence community must be able to access average citizens in restrictive environments as sources without divulging sensitive information or requiring unmanageable security vetting. Insight about influential dissidents and nascent movements within autocratic countries will be valuable.
Policymakers need intelligence on many nontraditional topics, including: specific towns from which recruits have joined ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates, as well as the clerics who mentored them, with data on factors such as family size and education; mapping the ways in which populations in China, Russia, Iran and North Korea receive outside news and information, and tracking state efforts to censor information and monitor citizens’ communications; locating and estimating the concealed wealth of corrupt leaders and regimes; building a database of key international pathways and agents of illicit commerce, including shippers, bankers, trading companies, and favored ports and border crossings; and chronicling worldwide active measures, not just by Russia, but by Iran and other hostile intelligence services employing disinformation, agents of influence and false social-media posts to foment political discord and paralysis in targeted countries. In order to gain leverage against bad actors who thrive on secrecy, the United States should be armed with the information they are so determined to conceal from their own people and the world.
AN AREA requiring perhaps the greatest cultural change is the executive branch’s interactions with Congress on national-security and foreign-policy issues. Experience has shown the advantage of congressional support when U.S. military force is threatened or used against a foreign adversary. Funding to sustain military operations is no less vital than food, water and ammunition. Both the authorization for war and its funding engage congressional prerogatives.
For too long, the national-security community has sought to withhold from Congress disclosure of prospective actions before decisions are taken. Congress claims the need, and duty, to be involved in major national-security deliberations, a sentiment more acutely felt in the age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. The executive branch’s concern over leaks, and uncertainty about whom among 535 elected legislators to consult, have fed mutual mistrust, made worse as disagreements are often prosecuted through loyal staffs in both branches. This pattern impedes or delays national consensus and can diminish the intended impact of foreign aid, arms transfers and other tools.
With so many forces of political division at play, the National Security Strategy demands a special dispensation. Having suffered, and survived, massive leaks in recent years, the executive branch can tolerate the risk of premature disclosure. It needs to begin treating members of Congress, and their senior staff, as essential players on the home team confronting long-term challenges to America’s freedom and prosperity. While Congress will always reserve the right to oppose the president’s policy, and there will be leaks, the United States will enjoy more influence in the world once the White House, cabinet departments and agencies accept that Congress’s role in foreign and defense policy is vital to the success of U.S. strategy.