FPI Bulletin: Pentagon Unveils New National Military Strategy

July 8, 2015

Last week, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released an updated National Military Strategy (NMS), which consists mostly of truisms intended to dispel any hint of controversy. Yet when read alongside its predecessor, the 2011 NMS, the new version testifies to the array of strategic surprises that have confronted the Obama administration in recent years. Moreover, the new strategy’s emphasis on global disorder and rising threats is a potent reminder that the President and Congress erred gravely when they imposed nearly a trillion dollars of cuts on the U.S. military by means of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The new report’s language about Russia provides an apt demonstration of how the Obama administration’s unrealistic hopes have been thwarted. In 2011, at the height of the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, the previous NMS pledged to “increase dialogue and military-to-military relations with Russia, building on our successful efforts in strategic arms reduction.” The document also said it would “welcome [Russia] playing a more active role in preserving security and stability in Asia.”

What a difference a few short years can make. The new NMS presents Russia as the first of four “revisionist states” that pose a serious threat to the U.S.-led international order. The document notes that “Russia’s military actions are undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces.” This much is obvious.  More remarkable is how the administration once believed it could wish away Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and bellicose rhetoric toward its neighbors.

The 2011 NMS also saw a bright a future for “a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship with China that welcomes it to take on a responsible leadership role.” The new report instead places China squarely in the camp of the revisionist states. The 2015 strategy expresses particular concern about Beijing’s illegitimate claims “to nearly the entire South China Sea.” Once again, while these developments have only recently garnered headlines, they were by no means a secret in 2011.

The subject of Iran is one of the few were the NMS was as clear-eyed four years ago as it is today, although this suggests that the White House played no role in drafting the update. The new strategy observes that “Iran’s actions have destabilized the region and brought misery to countless people.” Unlike the White House, it offers no hope that a deal with Tehran will moderate its behavior either at home or abroad.

The fourth and final revisionist state is North Korea, which the 2011 strategy also identified as a major threat. The new edition observes that a North Korean cyber attack caused “major damage to a U.S. corporation,” without registering the extent to which the capability to do so represented a major surprise. Yet the 2015 NMS carefully avoids any comparison of the world today with official expectations circa 2011, lest it become obvious just how often the administration fell prey to unpleasant surprises.

With regard to threats from non-state actors, the 2011 NMS faithfully reflected conventional wisdom with its observation that violent extremism—the administration’s preferred term for Islamist terrorism—represented the greatest threat to national security at the time. Issued in February 2011, the document preceded the death of Osama bin Laden and the President’s claims that al-Qaida—or at least “core al-Qaida” had become a “shadow of its former self.” Yet while the 2011 NMS was hardly complacent about the threat of violent extremism, its description of the threat illustrates the selective concern that left the administration seemingly confounded when the Islamic State rose to power.

An essential premise of the 2011 NMS is that extremist threats within Iraq were no longer a cause of concern. The strategy confirmed that the Armed Forces’ would “shift the focus of [their] assistance from Iraqi’s internal domestic security to its external national defense.” Although Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was already pursuing a divisive sectarian agenda that would eviscerate the formidable military that Americans had trained and equipped during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 2011 NMS had nothing to say on that point.

Not surprisingly, the new NMS recognizes the severity of the current threat posed by ISIS. Yet rather than confront a lack of progress in the campaign against it, the NMS advertises the “broad coalition of over 60 nations” now participating in a “sustainable” effort to defeat the extremists. While emphasizing the need to train and equip local partners, the strategy remains silent about the disappointing outcomes of such efforts in Iraq and Syria.

While complacent about Iraq, the 2011 NMS placed a heavy emphasis on defeating al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the epicenter of violent extremism.” In contrast, the new NMS presents Afghanistan as a success story, driven by the insight that counterterrorist campaigns “must be conducted in a politically, financially, and militarily sustainable manner that optimizes the power of coalitions.” This optimistic read ignores the fact that the administration’s plan to completely withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year would jeopardize the hard won gains that Americans and our allies have made in the country.

While one may disagree with key points in the NMS, it remains important to ask whether the U.S. military can execute the strategy at all, in light of hundreds of billions of dollars of cuts to the defense budget since 2011. In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and author of the new NMS, said that even if the Pentagon received an additional $35 billion this year, it would “remain at the lower ragged edge of manageable risk in our ability to execute the defense strategy.” (Emphasis in original.) Despite this blunt warning, which was echoed by all the other chiefs of staff, the NMS devotes only a single paragraph to “Resourcing the Strategy”, in which it mildly notes that the strategy’s goals cannot be realized “without sufficient resources.”

If the U.S. plans to recover the credibility it has lost because of the persistent weakness of its foreign policy, there is no better place to begin than rebuilding the Armed Forces, whose strength helps both to prevent war and to achieve victory if war cannot be avoided.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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