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War Games

9:05 AM, Jan 12, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Earlier this month, the Obama administration came out with a plan for the country’s defense and its military needs. It is a bold, even radical, plan that dramatically alters the nation’s strategic outlook. So of course it received almost as much media attention as the shouting matches between Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs, three years ago, over an indiscreet remark the first lady had made in France.

Obama phone

Such coverage as the new defense thinking did receive was devoted mostly to money. There will be less of it for the Pentagon. Though, as usual in Washington, what is being called a “cut,” is actually a spending increase that is smaller than had been planned. Still, while we will spend more money, we will be reducing our forces. Quite severely, in the case of the Marines and Army which will see personnel shrink by some 80,000.

The Navy and Air Force will, then, be expected to do the heavy lifting under the new strategic outlook which sees less nation-building (no more Iraqs or Afghanistans) in our future and more tensions in the Pacific which can only mean with China.

Could be. Who knows? The job of anticipating the next war and what it will take to fight it isn’t easy. The experts get it wrong, often spectacularly so. General Foch, the supreme soldier of his time, said that the airplane was “an interesting toy of no military value.” The U.S. Navy’s admirals argued, before Pearl Harbor, that the battleship was supreme in naval warfare while the aircraft carrier was useful, chiefly, for scouting. The Pentagon war-gamed a great tank battle in Europe through the ’50’s, then wound up fighting a jungle war in southeast Asia, managed by civilian experts, many of them from Harvard. And this is not strictly a modern theme. What Roman general doped out the possibility of a flank attack through the Alps, spearheaded by elephants? And who among the French men-at-arms divined the threat of the longbow before Agincourt?

You go to war, as Donald Rumsfeld said, with what you have, and you plan for war based on what you know and how you think.

Planners and strategists in the Obama administration made judgments—guesses, really—and we shall learn someday if they got it right.

But one feels qualms. Because this strategic rethinking seems plainly to have been driven not by military considerations so much as by the politics of overwhelming budget deficits. These “cuts” to defense, we are told will result in a “leaner” military that can do the job more efficiently. Leaving one to wonder why we never hear the same thing about any other arm of the government. Could we cut the budget of the Department of Education, make it leaner, and still see students rolling up higher test scores? Or perhaps the EPA could make the air cleaner and the water even more pure after a reduction in its appropriations? And surely a lean, mean HHS could do more for the health of seniors with less money for Medicare.

Such thinking is, of course, delusional. The inflexible dynamic of Washington is more money, more money, and still more money. Even to perform the same amount of work. If the Pentagon is to be leaner, then it will do less work.

The decisions to come about defense, then, will be driven by budget/deficit pressures and arrived at politically. Chicago style. They will be based on what works best in the political short run (there being no political long run), and the administration will approach these decisions the way it did the appropriation of money for Solyndra, the NLRB’s ruling on the South Carolina Boeing plant, and the equivocations over the Keystone Pipeline. That is to say, it will decide based on what is best for the political fortunes of the administration.

One suspects that this will probably come down even to decisions about weapons systems. The Army will roll into battle in Obama tanks and Emanuel fighting vehicles made in Detroit and proudly bearing the seal of the UAW. Our next generation air-superiority fighter could be something called the “Porkbarrelcat,” manufactured outside of Seattle by union workers. The Navy’s version will fly from the decks of the U.S.S. Chuck Schumer built and docked at the revitalized Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Generals, it is famously and often said, are always preparing to fight the last war, and maybe so. But is that any worse than politicians whose planning for war is based on the next election?

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