It would have been surprising if Chuck Hagel had gone before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday to announce that he intended to reduce U.S. military forces to a size smaller than that of France, Russia, Pakistan, Israel or North Korea.
It is well known that the United States spends more on its military than all other nations combined. On the world stage the United States is the dominant military force, and as Hagel underwent questioning from senators, it was obligatory and expected that he would say he meant to keep it that way.
He was trying to deflect charges from some senators that he is “weak” on defense because he had turned against the Iraq war. He also had to establish that he supported President Obama’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. That’s because in the past he had been less than bellicose on the Iran question, arguing that diplomacy ought to be given a chance.
No politician wants to seem weak on defense, so anyone who hopes to be secretary of defense, or president, must swear his or her devotion to the idea of U.S. military supremacy.
Nevertheless, Hagel is joining the Obama administration at a crucial turning point. The war in Iraq is over, and the war in Afghanistan is ending. Therefore, reducing the size of the American military is an inevitability. Those wars have been bankrupting us, and it is a blessing that we will no longer have to squander our treasure on the slopes of the Hindu Kush.
But senators, even those who profess to be concerned about deficit spending, are often reluctant to endorse defense cuts, even cuts in wasteful, unnecessary spending, partly because defense plants in their states often receive extravagant largess. It is corporate welfare of the flag-draped variety.
Nevertheless, Hagel is well known as a skeptic of overseas military adventures. He has the Purple Hearts to give his skepticism credibility. Further, Obama, an early critic of the Iraq war, shares his skepticism. The waste of lives and money owing to misguided, mismanaged, unnecessary wars is something we can be glad that Obama and Hagel want to avoid.
Thus, Obama has pursued what has been called foreign policy with a light footprint, avoiding self-defeating quagmires in places such as Libya, Syria or Mali, while using special forces and drones to project American power to places where threats to our security are seen as real.
It is ironic that the light footprint was the approach that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brought to the Iraq war. He thought that a small force with sophisticated technology could be quickly in and out. But he misread Iraq, launching America into a bloody occupation with a force that was too small, too clueless and too poorly led.
The lesson we should have learned from recent events is to match means with ends. If we are undertaking a major military campaign, we need to have supremacy in conventional forces, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell advocated. But if our foe is an elusive band of guerrillas in the deserts of a remote nation that will be impossible to conquer, then we need different means. There is no single doctrine for every eventuality unless it is the doctrine of creative thinking and military flexibility.
Our budget deficits will demand defense budget cuts, and Hagel is seen as someone who can manage the scaling back of the post-Afghanistan military. As such, he will be carrying out the policies of his president, the man whose deft foreign policy management was endorsed by the American people last November.
Blustering senators may want to insist that Hagel and Obama are weak on foreign policy. They should let us know what they intend. Renewed war in Afghanistan? An occupation of Syria? Ground troops in the sands of Mali?
Bellicosity has run its course. It is an unruly world that does not follow direction from Washington. Managing the threats to U.S. security requires more than macho posturing. It requires intellectual vigilance and a willingness to question conventional wisdom. Hagel ought to be able to help Obama pursue that sort of policy.
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