26 May 2011 - 28 Nov 2021
America 2021: The Military and the World
Our largest threat: Pakistan. Our alliances: reshuffled by demographics. Terrorism: on the wane (maybe). New frontier for conflict: the Arctic cirlce. Four experts discuss
The Defense Roundtable
he plague of short-term thinking endemic to Washington politics–the focus on yesterday’s press release, today’s televised teapot tempest–is only exacerbated when the conversation turns to national security. The wars we’re fighting now and the threats directly in front of us come to monopolize our attention at the expense of the big picture. Yet if the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that America and the world are best-served when policymakers and experts take a step back to consider not just the challenges of today and tomorrow–but the challenges of several tomorrows from now.
Where will our armed forces be in ten years, and what will we ask of them? Will we still be in Afghanistan and Iraq? How might our changing demographics change our alliances?
In April, we brought together four distinguished military experts–Lawrence Korb, P.W. Singer, Heather Hurlburt, and Robert Hunter–to grapple with and debate the big picture. We didn’t ask them technical questions about force structure or weapons acquisitions. We instead looked for insight into American strategy and the kinds of challenges we’re likely to confront in the years ahead.
At the foundation of this discussion were two questions: When the dust settles from our current contretemps, what will be the same, and what will be different? And, as we are a progressive journal, we must approach this subject from a progressive perspective, so: What can progressives offer, not only to advance their side in the debate, but to enhance America’s position in the world?
E.J. Dionne, Jr., Democracy’s Editorial Chair, moderated the discussion. Editors Michael Tomasky and Ethan Porter also participated.
What follows is a transcript of the conversation. With it, Democracy is inaugurating a new series, “America 2021,” which will bring together some of the brightest progressive minds to discuss what our country might look like roughly a decade from now.
E.J. Dionne, Jr.: The year is 2021. A new president has been sworn in, and having retreated to the Oval Office for the first time, calls to seek your advice. What conflicts and crises is this president facing? And what do you advise him or her to do?
Lawrence Korb: I think there’ll be two things. One, India and Pakistan will still be very much at odds. Pakistan won’t be stable, and will have been producing more nuclear weapons and more nuclear material. The question is, do you want to get involved, and if so, how do you want to handle it? The second thing is climate change, which will create an increasing number of weak and failing states, particularly in the so-called Third World or under-developed world, which will have led to instability, the spread of disease, migration, militias running around, and possibly created havens for terrorists. I’d ask the president: Do you want to get involved to the extent of using military forces?
Heather Hurlburt: In 2021, the president will need a mix of tools to help him or her deal with a resurgent China, which will have gotten much further along with its economy and its military. But China will also be facing tremendous crises at home, dealing with demographic and environmental concerns, as well as other internal political issues that get expressed externally. In dealing with China, India, and Pakistan, the president will discover that our civilian toolbox has further atrophied. And just about anything the president wants to, whether it’s military or not, will have to be done through the Department of Defense, because that will be the last adequately resourced part of our international affairs structure.
EJD: Any good news?
P.W. Singer: Compared with what we have now, three things will be different. One is the type of conflicts that the president in the year 2021 may be dealing with. By that point, cyber-warfare will be a far more real zone of competition and conflict. War in space will also be on the agenda. And I don’t mean Klingons; I mean the fact that our global security apparatus will depend on nodes in space, and we’ll likely see more competition and even conflict there. Second, to build off what Larry was saying, one of the implications of global warming is that the Arctic is melting and underneath it you’ll have as much oil and natural gas as Saudi Arabia does. You will have a division of the globe that will have to be figured out that will be the largest division of land area since the Pope divided the New World. Finally, the America the president leads in 2021 will be different. Detroit won’t be a powerhouse of manufacturing, as it’s been for past presidents; in an ideal world, maybe it’s a powerhouse of green energy. Or, in a less ideal world, it’s just done. The demographics of America will be very different. The nation will be as much as 30 percent Latino. That has huge implications for our alliances and potential alliances. Maybe we’re looking more southward, instead of toward NATO, for allies. Finally, the president in 2021, and a majority of his or her staff, won’t be of the Boomer generation. If you go into the 2021 White House and say, we have to avoid another Vietnam, that’s a lot like going to Obama right now and making a comparison to World War II. Because, to a president in 2021, Vietnam will be as distant as World War II is to Obama.
Robert Hunter: General Norman Schwarzkopf once said–I think it was him–that: If you told me when I took the oath at West Point that I’d be spending my career in places like Kuwait, Panama, and Vietnam, I would have thought you were crazy. Predicting what we will be doing in the world in 2021 is thus virtually impossible. However, by 2021, it’s almost certain that there will be a greater need for the integration of the elements of power and influence, far greater than we have today. We’re going to need a smarter military–not that people aren’t smart now–but with higher levels of education, and cross fertilization with non-military activities. Furthermore, the trend of 2010 that will continue is that shaping the security environment on our behalf is going to require us to have allies and partners much more than we did before.
EJD: In 2021, will we be talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, and what will we make of what we did there?
LK: Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be like Vietnam: we are never going to do that again. I cannot conceive of any president sending 100,000 people into two Muslim countries again. I think the future model will be like Yemen–maybe some Special Forces off shore to balance limited in-country operations–but I don’t think you’ll ever do Iraq or Afghanistan again. So if we’re not going to do Iraq and Afghanistan again, we’ll have to take a hard look at the size of our active duty Army and Marine Corps.
HH: The other way that Iraq and Afghanistan will be to 2021 what Vietnam has been to the boomer generation is that the folks who are running the military will be the people who served their first tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The people elected to the White House and Congress will be people whose first political experiences, and possibly the things that drove them into politics, will be the experiences of responding to Iraq and Afghanistan.
PWS: I’ve been wrestling with this idea, of what the next generation in power will think, for a book project I’m working on. As part of this project, we’re taking surveys of high school student leaders from around the United States, and getting those students’ views on politics, policy, and national security. And just like Vietnam was a dividing line for the boomers, for this upcoming generation it’s this combination of 9/11, the Iraq war, and then, interestingly enough, Hurricane Katrina. The ways they are thinking about politics are shaped through those lenses.
HH: By 2021, if we keep going as we’re going, government is going to have very little legitimacy. Katrina is an important touchstone for that. We’re in a 20-year slide in belief in government, and in belief that government has efficacy. A lot of people hoped that 2008 marked a turnaround on this front, but you have to ask yourself if it marked a turnaround or a hiccup in a continual decline, and what that will mean for our president in 2021–him or her, though I’m not too optimistic on the her.
You do have to wonder if belief in government is just going to get lower and lower.
PWS: There are two current trends happening now that link to that. They both relate to outsourcing. By 2021, will the American military be more or less reliant on private military contractors to conduct its operations? This outsourcing is both a symptom and a cause of the distrust of government. And the other trend relates to technology. We’re fighting three wars right now, the last of which–in Pakistan–we don’t talk about because it’s basically being conducted by unmanned systems via air strike. How will that play out by 2021?
RH: This is a very important point: the extent to which there is saliency in the body politic for the use of military force. We don’t have a draft; less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military and except when you have reserves going off to war or a spike in people getting killed, a lot of this is out of sight, out of mind. We pay very little public attention now to Iraq. And in Afghanistan, you don’t have the groundswell of opposition, in part because it doesn’t affect people the way it did in Vietnam.
The American vocation of being the “City on the Hill,” which gets ridiculed depending on what form is used, each new generation seems to adopt it in a new guise. Whether we will reach a point by 2021 of saying that there are some things not only that we can’t do, but maybe we shouldn’t do–or if they should be done, let somebody else do it. I don’t yet see any basic transformation on our perspective on that point.
Michael Tomasky: None of you identified terrorism as one of the major challenges of the future. Is that because you feel it can be contained, or that it’s chiefly an intelligence matter, or what?
LK: I think you’re never going to eliminate terrorism; you’re always going to have violent extremists. Within ten years it’ll be there, but it won’t be all consuming, and people won’t focus on it as much. It’s interesting: 2001 was almost ten years ago. You talk to people about 2001 now who are in high school or even college, and it doesn’t have the same resonance as it did with us. In ten years, assuming that Al Qaeda doesn’t get a nuclear weapon or launch another spectacular attack, then yes, terrorists will still be out there, but they’ll sort of be like the Red Brigades in Europe in the 1970s and 80s.
RH: Let me issue an important qualifier. One reason terrorism has gone down in our perception is that we haven’t had a major terrorism incident since 9/11. We have had some minor ones. Objectively speaking, terrorism tends to be just a nuisance, unless it involves a weapon of mass destruction. But the psychological impact of it, particularly of an attack in the lower 48, can still be immense. And as we move forward, it may not be Islamist elements that are attempting to use this weapon. It may be some others, especially from more deprived parts of the world.
PWS: There is really one possible asteroid to American governance and sense of democracy: the scenario of a WMD used inside America. It would fundamentally affect not just our economy, but even how we respect the Constitution could fall by the wayside. I think terrorism is more of a threat than we’ve talked about. Even in those domains I’ve spoken about–cyber and space–not to mention traditional warfare or counterinsurgency, you will see terrorism continuing. The role of individual, non-state actors is not going away. Their lethality is growing. During World War II, FDR and the U.S. military didn’t have to worry about Hitler’s Luftwaffe hitting the United States, as the Luftwaffe did not have the capacity to do so. Several years ago, a 77- year-old blind man built his own aerial drone that flew across the Atlantic Ocean. This is the world we’re heading into.
: It’s important not to approach this as something that we don’t have any control over, that what happens in ten years is unknowable and we can’t see it. We have an enormous amount of control over how we structure our own thinking and talking about resilience and response. Because, as you say, as people are empowered to do all kinds of things outside traditional government structures, the potential for lethality will grow. But the potential for lethality to equal societal disruption doesn’t have to grow along with it. In fact, it can shrink and go back down as people see what we can absorb. On the other hand, if somebody detonated a nuclear weapon, that would change everything.
RH: I have to ask: What is the level of casualties that is the threshold level? We had an incident with somebody on an airplane in Detroit last Christmas Day that bent the media out of shape. Did the average American respond to that? What is the threshold that pushes people to action?
HH: I don’t think there is a threshold. There’s no number you can pick out. It’s much more about how a government responds and how non-government entities respond, and how different societal actors respond. Peter, what you’re saying about something new, scary and different is relevant here. What was so terrifying about the [Twin] Towers was that unless you worked in terrorism you hadn’t thought about this before.
RH: But are there things that could happen that would prompt the experts to say: This isn’t really a threat to our national security? When I was working on the framework for the Quadrennial Defense Review six years ago, the Pentagon insisted that, for the future, it needed to be thinking mostly about terrorism. And that was ludicrous.
PWS: The important word Heather used is “resilience,” which should be broken down into its two different meanings. There’s resilience of your infrastructure, resilience of critical nodes in your national security apparatus, and resilience of your economic system. And those can be put under siege by a terrorist or a state actor. And resilience can be thought of in another way, which is the example of the British with the IRA, which measures how your society can weather the storm. That’s one of the particular dangers here–when politicians turn terrorist threats into political opportunities. When we see people in politics and the partisan media reacting with almost glee to the Christmas Day crotch bomber, literally seeing this as an opportunity to make political hay–that needs to be knocked down, not on partisan sides but saying: “Look, you’re helping the other side, you’re harming our nation’s ability to respond effectively to their intent to terrorize, if you react hysterically every time something, or even nothing, happens.”
LK: We’re assuming here by 2021 that this extreme partisanship is over. I recently spoke to a group of people from the NATO countries, and I was trying to explain to them that we’ve always had this Tea Party bit in this country–the Know Nothings, etc.–but the political leaders have always been able to tone it down. You need mature leaders who say, like they should have after the Christmas Day bombing, “Let’s relax and realize that this isn’t the beginning of World War III.” But the way the parties are structured now, I don’t see a change–base voters are too important. Maybe with the changing demographics it will change.
EJD: If each of the four of you were asked to define a strategy and purpose for the American military right now, what do we need to care about? What should our priorities be?
LK: I’d increase Special Forces, and I’d downplay nuclear weapons. There’s a great article in Strategic Studies Quarterly in which three experts say we can cut the number of nukes to 311. That’s incredible. The other thing I’d do is buy more existing equipment instead of spending so much on new next-generation conventional weapons. That would actually modernize our forces more rapidly and more completely. I also think you want to develop a long-range bomber so you’d be able to project power from the United States without putting people on the ground like we’ve done.
RH: The idea of projecting power from the United States can only be effective if you already have relationships with other countries. We are right now behind the eight ball on Pakistan. Because of congressional limits on military aid to Pakistan many years ago, we have no relationship with the Pakistani military, something that is incredibly important in terms not so much of waging wars, but preventing them. Now, we obviously need to hedge against the future of China, but a threat to our security would most likely come to fruition only if we were really stupid on how we work on our relationship with China. The same is true of the Russians. But methodology matters. By seeing military power and effectiveness just in terms of what we need to buy, instead of how we need to get what we buy to work with non-military instruments–and to get that done at the highest level of government, and all the way down to the field level, on an integrated basis. I think that’s more important than the individual weapons decisions.
PWS: We have what I call the Shane Lechler problem. Shane Lechler is a football player for the Oakland Raiders. He’s really good–much better than his predecessor. He will probably one day be in the Hall of Fame. Except he’s a punter. And our critical strategic problem right now is that we’re like Lechler and the Raiders: We’re doing our job well, much better than in the past, but the thing we are doing best is that we’re punting on a series of demands and issues that aren’t going to go away. And the problem is, by not deciding on them right now, it will be far more difficult in the future to deal with them as the defense budget goes flat or goes down. Punting may be an appealing tactic for those who mainly care about playing inside the “game” of politics, but in neither football nor national security can the overall team win by punting.
EJD: Can you list where we’re punting?
PWS: We don’t seem to understand that strategy is not about identifying priorities, but setting them. In World War II, strategy was setting the priority of Europe first, saying Japan can wait, so we’re going to put more resources into Europe. The current QDR, however, says something like: Europe’s a problem and Japan’s a problem. The same lack of priority-setting happens within areas like personnel and acquisitions. Within the military structure, for example, the problem with the budget is that prices are going up in each acquisition program, which in turn is making acquisitions determine the strategy you’ll have at the end. Costs are driving strategy and doctrine out, which is the opposite of the way it’s supposed to be.
HH: Is the strategy that we most need one that uses the military as a primary counterinsurgency force and as a means of remaking societies? Or is our primary strategic concern the capacity for our military to act as a stabilizing force–during a period when we go from the United States being the only guarantor of global security to being the most powerful of a number of guarantors? There are a whole lot of arrangements around the globe that depend on assumptions about U.S. military forces, and if those assumptions are abruptly brought into question, then you have a whole lot of instability. This doesn’t mean we need to be frozen in stone for all eternity, but it means you don’t want a situation where we wake up one morning and realize that actually there is no U.S. deterrent in Asia anymore, because it’s all sitting in Afghanistan.
RH: The one time I did work on the QDR, and Larry will have more experience on this, the questions went out to the commanders: What do you really need and what can you run some risk on? Now, if you’d given them a choice, each one of them would have wanted to have the entire defense budget. None of them would step forward and say, “I can take a pass on this.” They just won’t do it.
LK: We have to develop, as soon as we can, a unified national security budget, where you decide how much you can afford to spend on dealing with these problems in total and then make tradeoffs between the offensive, defensive, and preventive components of national security. Until we do a unified national security budget, since resources are going to be scarce given our economic situation, we need to take some funds from DOD and move them into Homeland Security and State where we can get more bang for the buck. The executive branch can do this right away.
PWS: But even if you have a unified budget, you’ll still have to make hard decisions. And we are entering an era where we’ll have to make some very hard decisions, where people are going to have to put their names to decisions and going to have to take a stand. And that’s not easy. And that’s why I refer to the punter. Simply put, it’s only a question of when we’ll make those decisions that will determine how hard they are. And so far we’ve tried to push them down the road. Take a micro example–the Air Force tanker deal. I honestly don’t care what tanker gets bought. I really don’t. What I do care about is, this is a cornerstone to America’s national power. Getting this program done is something we identified as a national priority not last year, but ten years ago. And each time it comes up to the point of making a decision we mangle the decision, and then punt it once more, saying let’s wait another year to try it again.
RH: We are now in the Middle East with an incredible amount of resources and an incredible opportunity cost in terms of what we’d like to do elsewhere in the world and at home. I’m in favor of trying to build a new security structure for the Middle East, which might, if it worked, enable us to secure our interests with less expenditure of blood and treasure. We need others to start doing our work for us. Unless we start moving in that direction, we’re going to be stuck there way past 2021. We need a new metric, which measures what contribution our allies are making to security in the largest sense. If you add up foreign aid and other non-military activities, a lot of them do extremely well.
Ethan Porter: What’s the breaking point for the military budget? At what point does it come down–and what if there is no breaking point?
HH: This is a question I’ve been thinking about. There’s a lot of writing coming out of the military warning of declining and flat budgets from here on out. There’s this notion that the economy by itself will work to curb military spending, and those of us who think there’s room for reform can ride on that. I actually take the opposite view. Public respect for other institutions is declining, while the military remains one of the last respected institutions in public life. No matter how much you think could be done better by civilian agencies, it has the wherewithal that the civil agencies don’t. So if you’re sitting in the White House and you want to get something done, you turn to the military.
Mitt Romney was ridiculed, and rightly so, for suggesting in his book that we should get rid of the State Department and Defense should run embassies. But if we’re honest, we’re moving in Romney’s direction. The question for progressives is, if you really think this is a bad idea, what are you willing to do to reverse it?
RH: Heather’s exactly right. Over the last three or four years, we’ve had an incredible number of studies from think tanks and the like on increasing funding for the non-military agencies. But yet we see almost nothing change. If we’re going to be serious about U.S. foreign and security policy, we’re going to need to find a way to do what Heather is suggesting, and get more practical resources on the ground–not just Foreign Service Officers, but others as well, who can take part in a serious reorientation of our efforts away from just military instruments. Somebody mentioned outsourcing earlier. USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], which could be a major tool, now has a tiny handful of people who work for the government and the rest are outside employees on contract. As a result, we’ve lost a generation of people who know what they’re doing. The near-destruction of USAID under the Clinton Administration to try to please Senator Jesse Helms has deprived us of a tool that we really need right now. The elimination of USIA [the U.S. Information Agency] was even worse, and that was also done in the Clinton Administration.
LK: Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates has made some decisions, but he hasn’t made the hard decisions. You really need a [Robert] McNamara type–I’m not talking McNamara in Vietnam, I’m talking McNamara the manager. You don’t have that. You need a strong manager–or you need a president in his second term, when he’s freer to make the tough decisions.
RH: Jim Schlesinger [Defense Secretary under Nixon and Ford] used to say that there’s a sine curve, that goes up and down, and defense budgets after a while naturally go down as American society decides we’ve got enough of this military effort now. Larry, do you believe in that?
LK: No. The baseline has gone up 11 straight years. That’s the longest time it’s ever gone up continuously. There’s another reason, and that goes back to the personnel costs. People are afraid to take on the personnel costs. Gates said this year that Tricare premiums haven’t gone up since 1995. Why not? Why don’t you raise them? Why don’t you take on the veterans lobby? Clinton didn’t want to fight with the military, so he gave them Tricare for life. Up until then, when you were 65, you went into Medicare like the rest of the population.
PWS: Larry and I agree on a lot of stuff. But I’ve got to raise the red flag on McNamara as a model for Sec Def today.
RH: Me too.
PWS: He’s sort of the reverse side of the coin of a Rumsfeld.
LK: I just mean a strong manager.
RH: But, in terms of taking charge of the budget and keeping costs under control, he got rolled by the military!
PWS: We can talk about ideal ones–whether it’s [William] Perry or someone else–but McNamara wouldn’t be my model.
EJD: I can’t resist asking the following question; it’s a variation on my favorite joke. Obama gets to see God, and he asks God when will there be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. God replies, “Not in my lifetime.” In 2021, where will that conflict be in your view?
PWS: I’m not an optimist. I think that region unfortunately is cursed by bad leadership, and I don’t think that changes. One of the things that may play out over the next ten years, and we’re already seeing inklings of this today, is the very strange alliances that are being built there. Saudi Arabia and Israel are working together, and that would seem odd, but makes sense because of what’s happening there, as their interests align, even when they would seem to have nothing else in common.
I just asked an individual at CENTCOM what Iraq would look like in ten years, and he said that his ideal scenario is that it looks like Lebanon. And maybe that is the ideal–kind of a fragile, sometimes broken democracy that’s always on the verge of war, with neighbors always fiddling in its internal affairs–but that everyone works to prevent true war from happening. That’s a scary ideal vision of the Middle East.
HH: We know what the demographics between Israel and the Palestinians are going to look like in ten years and the question is, how can there be space for a Jewish democratic state and a Palestinian state? Just demographically–there’s no more immigration, there are no more pockets of Jews that want to go there. And birth rates are slowing. So we know what it’s going to look like. Are they going to seize the opportunity now to set up a durable arrangement for themselves? If they do, the U.S. military will be there as part of a deal. That’s the best-case scenario.
MT: The U.S. military will be there on an ongoing basis?
HH: This is the thing that people don’t talk about too much.
RH: It will be NATO, actually, with U.S. leadership.
HH: I’m not sure that the Israelis will buy it if it’s under a NATO flag as opposed to a U.S. flag. For similar demographic reasons, regardless of the rhetoric now, Iran will still be one of the top regional powers. Iran will still have the capacity to mess around. If the Israelis and Palestinians have made peace, that will reduce Iran’s capacity, but you’ll still have Lebanon and Iraq in perilous states. And given the historical, cultural, and geostrategic issues, the Iranians are not going to have magically lost all interest in nuclear power in ten years.
LK: With Iran, time is on our side. I’m optimistic. The regime has undermined its own legitimacy. If we’re patient, things will play out in our favor. I can’t see them maintaining the same type of government structure they have for another decade.
HH: The only way I’d differ with you is that, even if the Iranians got themselves a better government, which I agree there’s a good possibility they’ll do, there are structural reasons why Iranian interests and our interests aren’t going to coincide. As long as you’ve got the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as you’ve got fossil fuels, and as long as nuclear weapons are still sexy, our interests don’t align. A better government in Iran does not mean that problems between the United States and Iran are over.
RH: But we do have some compatible interests with the Iranians. We can explore–we’re not prepared to, but we could–whether in Iraq they would be able to support an outcome there that is not dysfunctional. We know they have worked with us in the past on Afghanistan. They helped us overthrow the Taliban, because they were on the Taliban’s hit list. They’re on the Al Qaeda hit list now. We’ve been unprepared to say to the Iranians: “If you behave ourselves and just do everything we want, we will give you security guarantees.” We won’t do it. Every country that’s gotten the atom bomb has done so primarily for security reasons, yet we’re not prepared to explore that angle.
PWS: A few key determinants for what the Middle East will look like over the next ten years are a combination of three factors we’ve brought up. One is the changing patterns of alliances between states. The second is the push of demographics. It’s a changing Middle East, where Yemen is going to have a greater population than Saudi Arabia. We’re seeing a new generation in the Middle East, where Egypt isn’t the same power it was but we still think of it that way. The UAE [United Arab Emirates], meanwhile, is far more dynamic and may have more currency, power, and influence. We also need to identify failed states in the Middle East moving forward. And Gaza is a quasi-failed state-let. Is Lebanon or Iraq going to fail? Or does Saudi Arabia, after leadership turmoil, become a failed state? Even Yemen? Those are the dynamics that will shape pushing forward. The problem is that none of them seem all that positive.
LK: We need to recognize that, by going into Afghanistan and Iraq, we have made Iran a major player. They’re going to be influential for a long time. The question becomes: Under what circumstances?
EJD: I want to take a step back for a moment. Readers of this magazine are interested in how political debates are carried out. On defense, the conventional wisdom says that liberals want to spend less money and conservatives want to spend more money, and that’s it where it ends. What’s the right defense debate to have–one that would be a better debate than the one we’re accustomed to having?
RH: We need to examine what world we want live in; what are the threats and challenges and what instruments we need; and with that in mind, what kind of military we need.
LK: The thing that gets lost is that no government agency gets everything it needs to carry out its job. They all have to make choices. Whether it’s the war on drugs, the war on cancer, whatever it is. The military is going to be short, because you can’t have perfect security–or maybe you could, if you spent the entire federal budget. But that’s why you have to make choices and I think if you go back and take a look at it, it was Nixon and the first President Bush who made those choices. Look at the program the first President Bush left for Clinton. Clinton actually spent more than Bush had projected because he didn’t want to fight with the military over budget issues.
PWS: I think Obama did rather well in the national security debate versus [John] McCain. And the key phrase here is national security–that’s how I would frame this. The advantages that the Democratic Party can bring to the table are prior decisions; it can point to decisions made, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, and claim to have a good track record comparatively in recent years. Second, the nature of the problems we deal with are not purely traditional military in focus. They’re multifaceted and multi-dimensional and global. That’s to the progressives’ advantage. The third and most important thing is that Democrats need to stop being scared to talk about national defense. Every time a foray was made during the campaign, it turned out to be beaten back. My favorite example was Future Combat Systems. Obama pointed to this program and said, this is a program we need to consider cutting. And the Republicans jumped and said that Obama is a traditional Democrat: He wants to cut the military, including all future combat systems. They had a problem, however, because McCain was actually on record as saying that Future Combat Systems–the specific program that Obama was talking about–should be cut. The new Democrats actually understood the defense issue better than the Republicans, making the same old attack. We see that happening a lot. You’ve got to be confident enough to have that kind of dialogue.
HH: Nobody thought in the spring of 2008 that any Democratic candidate could go toe to toe with McCain on security, and Obama did. The pivot point for progressives now is to recognize that they shouldn’t be afraid. There’s a track record: If you get out on the issues, you can do well. There’s a generation of political consultants who are still telling congressional candidates to pivot away from national security in favor of economics. What’s needed is a generation of folks to recognize that we’ve actually won some pretty big battles on this front. We need to engage. Second, progressives are the movement of reality. We don’t always have to go for the 100-page policy solution. But we can say that reality is complicated, and that you want to elect people who deal well with complex reality and present complex solutions. We have to embrace that.
RH: I still think Democrats should pivot from national security to economic issues. You’ll never win on national security.
HH: That’s not true. They won it on national security!
RH: Obama didn’t get elected on national security. He may have neutralized it, but he didn’t win on it.
EJD: But Iraq hurt the Republicans. In other words, something did happen in the last three years of President Bush’s term.
MT: A moment on Afghanistan. By 2021, will we have succeeded there?
LK: You’ve got to ask what your definition of success is. Mine is that it’s not a haven for Al Qaeda and doesn’t destabilize the region. To achieve that, you’re going to have to negotiate with the Taliban and bring them in. You can’t bring Mullah Omar in, but you can bring in others. I hope that Obama sticks with his plan to start withdrawing in the summer of 2011, because if he doesn’t then he’ll send the wrong signal to the Afghans and bolster the narrative of the occupiers.
RH: Larry’s right.
PWS: I love Rory Stewart’s description of the problem. We’re in a cage with a roaring kitten and a sleeping tiger. Afghanistan is the angry kitten and Pakistan is the important one, the sleeping tiger. The public needs to think more about the Pakistan issue. It’s not like there’s an easy solution to it, but we need to recognize that Pakistan is really more at the heart of the issue now–that what’s going on within Pakistan and the potential dangers there are far more at the core of the problem than Afghanistan. While we still look at Afghanistan through the 9/11 lens, the reality is that not only are the architects of 9/11 most likely in Pakistan instead, but that every scary scenario that keeps us up at night —whether it be state collapse or terrorists getting their hands on WMD and carrying out a much worse 9/11 redux is far, far, far more wedded to a Pakistan scenario than an Afghan one.
HH: We’re able to have a public conversation about Afghanistan because there are American troops there on the ground. And because Pakistan is not amenable to a hammer-on-the-nail military solution, we can’t have a sophisticated public conversation about it. So we’re stuck with this silly mismatch between what everyone agrees the problem is and the relative expenditure of resources.
EJD: Last question. It’s 2021 again. This time the president gathers you together and your sentence begins: We are really grateful that a decade ago Americans and their government were smart enough to do…what?
LK: Got out of Afghanistan; got to focus on the real threats to national security, primarily Pakistan. That’s the key issue. Also, we’ll hopefully have recognized the limits of our power, especially American military power, and begun to work more with other countries to manage the threats to our security.
PWS: Focused on building the global frameworks of our common security in the twenty-first century, as well as finally dealt with some of the key issues that were hollowing out American power at home, in fields like the economy, national debt, energy, and science education.
RH: In addition to what’s been said: We also have to build a new security structure in the Middle East so we can diminish our own direct exposure. Unfortunately, I’m afraid my second comment will be: Mr. President, ten years ago we didn’t do what we just recommended.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is also a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
P.W. Singer is a senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, and the author of Wired for War.
Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network, has two decades’ experience in foreign policy formation and advocacy. She has worked in Congress, think tanks, the State Department and as Special Assistant and speechwriter to President Clinton.
Robert Hunter is Senior Advisor at the RAND Corporation, Chairman of the Council for a Community of Democracies, and member of the Senior Advisory Group to the US European Command. From 1993-98, he was US Ambassador to NATO, and from 1977-81 was Director of European and Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the chair of the Democracy Editorial Committee and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is also a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
ISSUE #17, SUMMER 2010
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The Defense Roundtable consists of Lawrence Korb, P.W. Singer, Heather Hurlburt, and Robert Hunter.
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