Republicans Losing Their Credibility on National Security and Defense

In a column in the Washington Post last week, Frederick Kagan, one of the Republican’s foremost national security experts and architect of the surge in Iraq, lambasted President Obama’s newly released defense strategy. He argued that President Obama’s plan to reduce the defense budget by cutting the number of soldiers is reprehensible because we will need those soldiers and their capable military leaders if we deploy abroad in the future, and that their experience cannot be regained quickly.  

Kagan’s position reveals a stunning lack of strategic understanding, all the more surprising coming from the man whose common sense approach to geography – that you don’t actually need to occupy all of Iraq to secure Iraq, and that a small reinforcement could secure the ground needed to bring stability – turned the war around. Like many Republicans, some of whom think all you need to know about national security is that you “kill the enemy,” Kagan is wrapped up in armchair general’s gauzy romanticism of infantry actions and heroic leadership and forgets the industrial and economic base that supports our armed forces as well as the nature of future threats to our international interests.

Only someone who is ignorant to what manufacturing actually entails could say that “… it need not take two decades to build a stealth fighter or even to refurbish an aircraft carrier, if the equipment is urgently needed.” American weapons today are far more intricate than their WWII counterparts, and the technological expertise and industrial capacity to make them is also far scarcer. We simply cannot role out M1-Abrams tanks like Shermans. If American manufacturing were truly as flexible in terms of scale and labor mobility as Kagan assumes, we would be making iPods here rather than in China. Moreover, while the military is increasingly utilizing technology from the private sector, this is generally limited to software and not durable hardware products that can withstand environmental stresses never experienced in the civilian world. Military manufacturing is a specialized industry serving a specialized need; even now we cannot ramp up production to counter losses caused by Great Power conflict. Our industrial base is our truly irreplaceable asset.

Kagan’s love of the infantry also ignores the fact that personnel costs are spiraling out of control.  Defense analysts have noted that personnel costs have exploded since 9/11, growing nearly 46 percent per person and absorbing nearly half of the total DOD budget.  Part of this is due to yearly pay raises, but mainly it is due to increasing health care costs since military personnel only pay about 10 percent of what civilians do for their health care, with our government responsible for covering the difference. Given the current budget climate and the fact that we are cutting everything else, these trends must be confronted and either the number of soldiers or their benefits must be reduced.

Moreover, as I argued last November, there is no strategic reason for maintaining the current land force size. The only argument to the contrary posits some unforeseen threat we need to hedge against, a threat which no one bothers to substantiate with evidence. In reality, with Al-Qaeda virtually extinguished, the only significant threat on the horizon is China or possible war between India and Pakistan. Neither threat requires armies to deal with because: (a) they have nuclear weapons that would level armies in the field; (b) they’re armies are far larger and it would be dumb to confront them with land forces; and (c) soldiers can’t walk on water, so we can’t invade them and vice versa unless we’re willing to consider campaigns on a scale that makes Operation Overlord and Barbarossa look like an elementary school field trip. Warnings of possible conflict between Israel and Iran are also vastly overblown, since every honest defense expert knows that any Israeli airstrike would fail to destroy Iran’s nuclear program and would invite devastating retaliation from numerous actors in the region. The conventional and unconventional threats to U.S. national security are clear as day, and military land power can’t fix any of them.

Even organizational arguments, such as Kagan’s idea that we cannot cut troop numbers without eliminating counterinsurgency knowledge was gained from Iraq and Afghanistan, is preposterous on the face of it. The U.S. military had soldiers serving in the field for a decade and not all of them will be fired; the top counterinsurgency theorist became the country’s most famous general; and the military invested vast amounts of money in life-like counterinsurgency exercises. If the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq haven’t been institutionalized at this point, they never will be.

This massive failure to take the basics of national security strategy planning into account – the relationship between a nation’s economy, technological capacity, and security environment - is stunning and raises the disturbing question: If even the best of the best among conservative strategists forgets this stuff (speaking nothing of politicians), how good is the party’s national security policy bench in general? If such elementary ignorance is common, then Republicans have lost all credibility over national security affairs.

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