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The Pentagon's New Plan

Is the new National Defense Strategy an improvement, or a step backward?

11:00 PM, Mar 24, 2005 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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NEWS FLASH: The brand-new National Defense Strategy of the United States--that's different from either the National Security Strategy (aka the "Bush Doctrine" of 2002) or the National Military Strategy (last year's attempt by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to pretend that the insurgency in Iraq was not happening)--is pretty good stuff. It's vintage Rumsfeld, preaching the gospel of "continuous transformation," which, when you think about it, is a uniquely American idea.

The strategy document is an attempt to begin to wrestle with the challenges of a post-Iraq world. "Irregular challenges" like the Iraq insurgency and the reconstruction of Afghanistan are "key" missions for "the foreseeable future," and we will need units capable of "sustained stability operations." You might regard this as an overwhelming obvious conclusion, but then, you probably don't work in government. Secretary Rumsfeld was one of the first to talk about a "long, hard slog" in the Middle East, but most of the government and too much of the military is still resisting this logic. "The United States is a nation at war," the document proclaims--and that's still controversial.

Another significant change is new language about alliances. Recent past strategy reviews have either yearned for the good old days of the Cold War and solidarity with our NATO European buddies. Now the Defense Department says it wants to "broaden" and "adapt" its partnerships, acknowledging that "shared values" and "a common view of threats" are the real adhesives in any useful alliance. In short, the United States is ready to reach out to new partners like India, or revitalizing the relationships with past partners, like Japan, in response to changing geopolitical and military circumstances. This might seem like simple common sense, but it's taken the awful experience of Iraq to awaken Americans to these new realities. Waiting for Europeans is, increasingly, wasted time. It would be nice if Europe adjusted to life in the 21st century, but don't hold your breath. Free security courtesy of the United States is a pretty attractive bargain.

Underlying this all is a renewed commitment to retaining strategic "freedom of action" and "access" to important reaches of the globe; as the document observes, "The United States cannot influence that which it cannot reach." This is likely to set off another round of tut-tutting about American unilateralism, with Democrats and realists of the Brent Scowcroft variety fretting about imperial overstretch and the dangers of hubris. But the central task of building any enduring coalition is to create the impression that we intend to win. The challenges of transforming the Middle East and containing China are tremendous--new allies aren't signing up for a free ride of the European sort, but rather for the strenuous life.

Unfortunately, a lot of old conceptual baggage remains in the defense strategy. For example, it still insists that the current moment is one of strategic "uncertainty." It's a little disconcerting to be told that we're a nation at war, but maybe we're not sure with whom. Also, the Pentagon is still asserting that it needs a "capabilities-based"--as distinct from threat-based--approach to building the force.

Thus the new strategy document retains the old and outmoded, pre-Iraq force-sizing construct. In other words, for all the talk about sustained stability operations, there's as yet no measure of that in U.S. force planning, with the result that the Army and the Marine Corps are almost certain to remain too small to do what we're asking them to do. This National Defense Strategy is supposed to be a key reference document for the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review, the process which is supposed to set basic planning--and shape budgets--for the next four years. The QDR is not really a review, but more of a validation process for what the Pentagon has already decided. Holding on to the old force-sizing construct suggests that the QDR will content itself to rearrange some deck chairs but won't tamper with basic structures.

It's also a signal that reinforces the one set by the Bush administration's recent revised defense budget guidance. Namely, that the Pentagon shouldn't expect significant or long-lasting budget increases. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will be treated as exceptions rather than new rules, and funded by "emergency" supplemental appropriations. This might suggest the worst of all possible worlds--not only will the size of U.S. ground forces be kept too small, but procurement programs will be cut more deeply. Still, this strategy is a big step forward.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.