Out of the Frying Pan

A Spencer Ackerman source offers an all-too-plausible account of why some in the military might not be all that unhappy with Barack Obama withdrawing from Iraq:

Another challenge for Obama, beyond Petraeus and Iraq, would be senior officers’ desire “to get back to preparing –and procuring — for the big, conventional Russia-China scenario the U.S. military institutionally prefers,” the anonymous Pentagon official said. But the current financial crisis and massive budget deficits create their own pressures on defense spending.

It’s important to avoid simply lurching from one military policy mistake into a different kind of mistake. Or, more broadly, it’s important not to let our foreign policy priorities be defined by the military’s desire to have a good reason for an extremely large procurement budget. Rather, we need to think about what our major priorities are on the international agenda — I would say stabilizing the world economy, combating climate change, curbing nuclear proliferation, eliminating al-Qaeda, and promoting peace and development in the poor world — and then think realistically about the military’s ability to contribute to advancing our agenda on those items relative to other modalities of national power. Note also that the negative space defined by those priorities suggests that maintaining a basically positive relationship with the other major powers is a crucial background condition for progress. Orienting our defense posture around preparing for conflict with Russia and China is antithetical to that.

I think we’ll of course want to maintain a capability to deter attack from another major country, as will Russia and China. But it should be a diplomatic priority to ensure that US-Chinese and US-Russian mutual deterrence take place on a mutually beneficial low-intensity equilibrium (with, e.g., the US and Russia both cutting nuclear arsenals and the Chinese not growing theirs) rather than a mutually destructive arms race. Similarly, the positive lessons from Iraq need to be applied to help us to better conduct stability operations in the future while guarding against hubris and staying cautious about which situations it’s really appropriate for us to involve ourselves in.