Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Military Says We're Overmilitarized

If that's not a "Man Bites Dog" headline, I don't know what is.

This concerns a study, of potentially huge significance (PDF), authored by senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff office. They write pseudonymously – though not anonymously – as "Mr. Y," very consciously invoking the gravitas of George Kennan's pen name "X" for his Cold War manifesto of 1946. The obligatory disclaimer states that the views of Mr. Y "do not reflect... official policy," but if these views weren't being batted around at the highest levels of the military, it's doubtful Captain Porter and Colonel Myckleby would have appended their real names.

One writer synopsised Mr. Y's conclusions thusly: "The report says Americans are overreacting to Islamic extremism, underinvesting in their youth, and failing to embrace the sense of competition and opportunity that made America a world power." It does say that, and much more besides. They find threats to our security in Third World poverty and illiteracy, arguing "We cannot isolate our own prosperity and security from the global system." Well, that's true, but we sure have been giving it the old college try, haven't we?

The story has been showing up in Left Blogistan this week, but certainly not in any legacy media that crosses my threshold. When I google the authors, the first dead-tree site that comes up is the USC student paper. What this tells me is that it would help if we lesser mortals helped to get the word out, by writing a LTTE, tossing up a Facebook link, or, in my case, spouting off to my little audience here. So gather round the campfire, droogies.

Like Kennan, the Mr. Y authors are contemplating a pivot point in our history. In Kennan's case, the end of the system of European colonialism and the emerging bipolar world of the Cold War. In our case, it's the brief and hubristic "unipolar world" that US planners have been trying to keep standing since the Cold War ended.  The authors can see that the time of absolute US hegemony is ultimately unsustainable and may be coming to an end sooner than we think.
America emerged from the Twentieth Century as the most powerful nation on earth. But we failed to recognize that dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable source of energy. The new century brought with it a reminder that the world, in fact, is a complex, open system – constantly changing. And change brings with it uncertainty. What we really failed to recognize, is that in uncertainty and change, there is opportunity and hope.
The insight is by no means unique, unless one considers the source. Johan Galtung has been predicting the impending End of Empire for some time now. Professor Alfred McCoy has a great piece at Tomgram this week describing the US empire's flailing and counterproductive efforts to sustain unipolarity. In the past, we've hedged our bets by supporting both sides in Third World conflicts, notably in the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. More recently, we funneled cash both to Egyptian dissidents and the regime they opposed. But our ability to cover that many bets in the global casino is going the way of all gambling streaks. Cheney's Iraq war was the accelerant that led to our current case of imperial overstretch.

Reportedly, the US military argued against intervention in Libya, telling Obama there simply was no low-cost regime change option. The high-cost option, as Obama pointed out in his televised speech, is no longer available, thanks to Cheney's debt-financed debacles in West Asia. Intentionally or not, Obama's refusal (or inability) to take the "leading role" in the kinetic action points the way to a multipolar world order.

What is unique in the Y manifesto is the willingness and even optimism with which these military thinkers urge us down that road. Channelling Paul Hawken, they even talk of the need for sustainability:
It is time for America to re-focus our national interests and principles through a long lens on the global environment of tomorrow. It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement. We must recognize that security means more than defense, and sustaining security requires adaptation and evolution, the leverage of converging interests and interdependencies.
For thirty years we've been throwing more money at the Pentagon than they know what to do with. One of the consequences of that spending binge is that the bulk of our R&D funds are directed towards the military, and also that they have the means to sponsor a lot of serious scholarship. And what all that brainpower has bought is this "duh" moment: the notion that military force is not the answer to everything. For people who argue, instead, that military force isn't the answer to anything, this may be small comfort. But it's also a huge opening.

The military has already issued reports on the national security threats associated with global warming. JCS Chair Mullen has argued about the security implications of our long-term debt (which may seem to play into Tea Party hands except that they have no credible solutions). Outgoing SecDef Gates has spoken out on the need for "demilitarizing" our foreign policy and relying more on "soft power" resources like diplomacy. Ultimately, it's clear to the strategic thinkers at the Pentagon that our "American Century" of dominance rested on our economic strength, which flowed from our investments in manufacturing and education. And they've reached the obvious conclusion that we've squandered those advantages to the extent that our national security is threatened.

It's possible to overstate the implications of this kind of rhetoric; one shouldn't look to the Pentagon for leadership in the struggle for global peace and justice. But the military is still one of the most respected institutions in our society. Progressives should be leaping at the opportunity to leverage these views into our national argument – not only with Tea Party Republicans but with deficit peacock Democrats as well. The GOP is insisting on further defunding investments in our national infrastructure, education, and clean energy future – while insisting that the Pentagon budget is off the table. The White House alternative offers sadly inadequate military cuts, relative to the level of waste available for targeting.

But if the military-industrial complex, or, slow down, some faction within it, has come to the conclusion that Ike was right when he warned about their acquisition of "unwarranted" influence – well then, that's a game changer. The End of Empire is inevitable; only the timing is in doubt. But a transition to a republic is far from inevitable. The coming years could see an increasingly squeezed US public willing to embrace far-right solutions that will exacerbate this dilemma still further. If cooler heads are to prevail, let's snuggle up to whatever bedfellows climb under the covers.

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