Fresh Thinking on U.S. National Security Policy

More Athens, Less Sparta
More Athens, Less Sparta

Here, as promised, is what I hope is some fresh thinking.  I also posted this at Huffington Post.

Currently, so-called “fresh” thinking on national security from the Obama administration includes the pivot to Asia, more emphasis on cyberwar and drones, continued expansion of Special Forces, a withdrawal from Afghanistan in super-slow motion, and intervention (sending arms at minimum; troops possibly to follow) in Syria. “Defense” budgets are to remain high, with each service getting its usual assortment of high-priced weapons (most notoriously, the $400 billion devoted to procure the F-35 joint strike fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines).

In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual at the Pentagon.

How about some truly fresh thinking on national security? Here are five ideas that are more visionary than anything our sclerotic and self-absorbed bureaucracy will ever produce:

1. Eliminate nuclear weapons in U.S. military arsenals by the year 2025.

The U.S. remains the only country ever to use nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It would send a powerful message to the world if we took the lead in eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet. And we can afford to take this risk. Why? Precisely because of our enormous conventional (non-nuclear) military might. Such a bold step would also help to restore our moral standing in the world.

2. Get out of Afghanistan now.

If the Afghan National Army (ANA) isn’t ready to take charge after a decade of U.S. training and scores of billions of dollars, it never will be. The U.S. effort to train the ANA was always a case of putting the cart before the horse, since you can hardly create a national army where there is no nation. It’s time to cut our losses and leave.

3. Define a new “Good Neighbor” Policy.

Remember when FDR declared a “Good Neighbor” policy to improve relations with Latin American countries? Yes, it was eight decades ago. It’s high time that we reach out again to our immediate neighbors, even the “bad boy” ones like Cuba and Venezuela, rather than wasting resources in faraway places like Afghanistan.

4. Renew the Monroe Doctrine — With A Twist.

Remember the Monroe Doctrine? In the early 19th century, we said “hands off our hemisphere” to the other major powers of the world. Backed up by the power of Britain’s Royal Navy, we helped to keep foreign meddling in the Americas to a minimum (we, of course, filled the gap and did plenty of meddling of our own).

Related to (3) above, we need a new Monroe Doctrine, one in which we vow to keep our hands off of other hemispheres.

It’s time to come home, America. We’ve got plenty of problems to fix here. The kind that can’t be fixed by buying more ultra-expensive jet fighters, unwanted main battle tanks, and superfluous nuclear attack submarines.

5. Put an end to threat inflation. In other words, grow up.

Do we have to react like Chicken Little to every threat, real or unreal? China has a stealth fighter! So? We’ve had them for four decades. China has an aircraft carrier (Russian-built)! And they’re building another one! So? We have 10 carrier task forces and 90 years’ experience operating them. Indeed, our Navy must be ecstatic: Finally a problem we understand!

These are not “threats,” unless you’re trying to justify business as usual at the Pentagon and among major defense contractors.

The same goes for terrorist attacks, whether successful or failed. How long are we supposed to doff our shoes at airport security checkpoints because of the inept “shoe bomber”? Another 10 years? Twenty? Forever?

Most Americans know the world is a dangerous place. But the greatest danger isn’t Chinese stealth fighters or the occasional terrorist attack (however tragic for the victims). The greatest danger is the ongoing erosion of our rights as citizens as we continue to expand the militarization of our society in the name of “safety” and “patriotism.”

America is slowly being turned into an enormous prison in which we meekly acquiesce to being monitored and even “locked down” (for our own safety, naturally). This is not the nation of John Wayne and Gary Cooper that I admired in countless westerns I watched as a boy.

Well, there are my five steps to a better national security policy. As a bonus step (and an obvious one), the U.S. must close Gitmo. The prison there is a blot on our nation’s moral standing in the world, and a cause célèbre for would-be terrorists everywhere.

Finally, and perhaps most of all, we need to change our mentality. We need a much broader definition of what “national security” really means. It’s not about having the biggest military or 16 intelligence agencies or expensive weapons. It’s about living a life worth living in which we respect others.

After all, the U.S. is supposed to be a shining city on a hill, not a bristling citadel on a hill.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached atwjastore@gmail.com.

The Need for Fresh Thinking in National Security Policy

It's impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box
It’s impossible for Washington to think outside of the Pentagonal Box

Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor of international relations, writing in January 2009 as Barack Obama took office as president, made the following cogent observation about the need for true “change” in Washington:

When it comes to national security, the standard navigational charts used to guide the ship of state are obsolete.  The assumptions, doctrines, habits, and routines falling under the rubric of “national security policy” have outlived their usefulness.  The antidote to the disappointments and failures of the Bush years, illustrated most vividly in the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not to try harder, but to think differently.  Only then will it become possible to avoid the patently self-destructive behavior that today finds Americans facing the prospect of perpetual conflict that neither our army nor our economy can sustain.

Of course, Obama promised “change,” but with respect to national security policy, the sum total of the last five years of his watch has simply been more of the same.

Admittedly, the war in Iraq finally ended (for U.S. troops, not for the Iraqi people), but that was only because the Iraqis themselves refused to countenance the eternal presence of our troops there (of course, our boondoggle of an embassy in Baghdad survives).  Obama didn’t get us out of Iraq; he acquiesced to a deal Bush had already struck with the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains ensnared in Afghanistan, squandering lives and resources to the tune of $100 billion a year.  Vague promises are made of an American withdrawal in 2014, but with an “enduring presence” (God help us) for another ten years after that.  Under Obama, drone strikes have expanded and continue; the national security state remains fat as it ever was, garrisoning the globe and spying on the world (including, as we recently learned, American citizens); and various tough-talking “experts” in Congress continue to call for new military interventions in places like Iran and Syria.

Why has this happened?  One reason is that Obama and his team wanted to be reelected in 2012, so they embraced the Bush neo-conservative approach of a hyper-kinetic, interventionist, foreign policy.  Fresh thinking was nowhere to be found, since any downsizing of American military commitments or its national security apparatus would have exposed Obama to charges of being “soft” on (Muslim) terror.

With respect to a bloated national security apparatus and wasteful military interventions, change didn’t come in 2008.  It was a case, as The Who song says, of “Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.”  Nor is change coming, seemingly, in the future.  Americans remain wedded to a colossal national security state that neither the president nor the Congress appears willing to challenge, let alone change.

Fresh thinking is the one thing you can’t buy in Washington because it’s priceless.  And for the lack of it, we’re paying a very high price indeed.

Next Article: Some fresh thinking on where we should be headed.

W.J. Astore