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US Needs a Bold New Vision on Defense

AT some point in the 40-year history of the cold war, the United States-Soviet arms race developed a momentum of its own quite apart from differences of values and ideology. Each side churned out weapons to meet hypothetical threats made real only by the other's fearful responses to its moves. But few observers anticipated that even with the definitive end of that rivalry, the competition would continue unabated, a one-nation race against no one, countering threats that no longer exist while largely neglecting the all-too-actual perils of a world facing unprecedented upheaval.

The Pentagon's recently released ``bottom-up review,'' which charts US military strategy for the next five years, reflects this anomaly. It is a backward-looking document rather than a bold new vision. Characterized as ``Bush-lite'' by Reagan-era Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, it suffers from the same penchant for tepid compromise that has characterized so many Clinton initiatives, both foreign and domestic. Trimming the armed forces by just 200,000 more than the 1.6 million base force proposed by President Bush before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the plan makes modest downward revisions in the Air Force but actually raises force levels in the Marine Corps. Moreover, it calls for maintaining 12 aircraft-carrier groups and building another Seawolf submarine, redundant and costly weapons systems for which the rationale is far more political than strategic.

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Acknowledging that the threat from the East has dramatically diminished in recent years, the plan focuses instead on unspecified threats from the developing world and sets itself the daunting task of unilaterally winning two ``major regional conflicts'' at once. Pressed to explain how such a scenario might arise, Pentagon planners suggest that North Korea might invade South Korea while Iraq or Iran might attack Saudi Arabia. Both are rather implausible events. Since the Soviet Union's demise and China's recent overtures to South Korea, North Korea has become increasingly isolated. Given the momentum of rapprochement between East, West, and Middle East, North and South Korea may soon find it in their interests to settle with one another. For its part, a heavily armed Saudi Arabia buttressed by Western security guarantees would make a poor target for invasion. Beyond these distant possibilities, Pentagon planners decline to be specific, citing instead the new, all-purpose adversary: uncertainty.

Yet there are real and present dangers for which little of the baroque arsenal and armed forces envisioned in the bottom-up review has any relevance. Of what use will be a Seawolf submarine, an aircraft carrier, or a Marine Corps brigade in any of the bloody conflicts now underway in Bosnia, Central America, Africa, or the former Soviet empire? The weapons and forces being created today are utterly inappropriate to the tasks they will need to perform in the different future we are now entering. Built to project massive destructive force, they are far too crude to introduce into the delicate dynamics of civil war and ethnic enmity that increasingly characterize conflict worldwide. We no longer live in a jungle but a china shop, where deadly dinosaurs are no longer welcome.

To its credit, the plan enumerates several nontraditional roles for a post-cold-war US military, ranging from cooperative threat reduction and nuclear nonproliferation to humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and economic and environmental security. But following a perfunctory rhetorical nod, the plan consigns these promising strategies to its back pages and eschews most specifics. Yet these are among the most constructive roles played by the US military today and could become its most vital work in the decades ahead.

Instead of drilling its soldiers to refight past wars, the US military needs to retrain them for an era of still-precarious peace, to perform the highly specialized work of: monitoring cease-fires and arms agreements, providing relief supplies for human and natural disasters, assisting in environmental cleanup, and mediating conflicts before they erupt into violence. If the armed forces are unwilling or unable to do this, then other civilian agencies - national and international, public and nonprofit - should be given the assignment, financed by the resources now squandered on technologically advanced but strategically antiquarian arms.

``We have an opportunity to do so much in the post-cold-war era, and this plan does so little to fulfill that promise,'' says Carl Conetta, codirector of the innovative Project on Defense Alternatives of the Commonwealth Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Pointing out that no potential ``threat state'' is capable of mustering even one-tenth the military power of the former Warsaw Pact, Mr. Conetta argues for a significantly scaled-back US military with ``a relatively small but highly ready, rapidly deployable active armed force, a substantial second tier of active and reserve follow-on forces, and a large reserve component.'' He nests this more modest military, however, in a greatly strengthened international community with the power to wield effective economic sanctions and the personnel and resources necessary to monitor and enforce the peace in dozens of places at once.

This is a vision commensurate to the exigencies of the new era, a cooperative rather than unilateral strategy to assure both national and global security. But it is only faintly discernible in the Clinton plan. One can understand the president's predicament, knowing the entrenched political forces with which he must deal. Even liberals defend the turf of their threatened military industries and installations as if they were the Alamo. But the time has come to eliminate what is no longer useful in order to create what is desperately needed. Sometimes boldness is more prudent than compromise. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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