Saturday, January 8, 2011

Effects of Grand Strategy without Grand Enemies on Budget Debates: GS/GE Part III

I'm going to just label this topic thread GS/GE (Grand Strategy / Grand Enemy) because I'm getting tired of typing it out. I had another post in this series planned in my head, but thanks to twitter I'm going to jump on a target of opportunity: budget debates without a grand enemy.

In short, these debates lack rigor. The budget aspect of grand strategy is essential as it limits a state's ability to react or project itself towards its interests. What else is the administration of government than this distribution of its assets? The defense sector likely among the largest and most critical (for both security and by the impact of it being among the largest). Sure, there are battles of ideas on defense budget issues in times of peace and war as well at times when there is a clear enemy and when there isn't. I'm sure the folks in the Pentagon are conducting rigorous analyses on the programs and monies under their control. But in the public sphere, this debate is becoming ludicrous.

In general, the disparate camps (with regard to defense budgets) could probably be classified as doves (we should spend less on defense, more on aid and domestic issues), "pragmatists" (what a strong defense, but understand that spending has to be limited at some point), and hawks (who would have a hard time ever finding a limit in order to have the strongest defense money could buy). While there are many bad arguments in each of these groups, I am going to pick on defense budget hawks today, and Max Boot in particular.

This afternoon, Mr. Boot linked via twitter to a column he wrote for The Weekly Standard Magazine. In it, he makes the following points:
  1. The U.S. Army had a strength of 710,000 troops in 1991.
  2. The U.S. Army has a strength of 566,000 today.
  3. This reduction was a really bad idea and led to our not doing so well in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  4. The Army intends to cut another approximately 50,000 active duty positions starting in 2015.
  5. This is also a really bad idea and the President should provide explanation and assurances on what this bad decision for further cuts should happen.
Oh my. Firstly, I'm not terribly sure what on earth U.S. Army personnel strengths in 1991 have anything to do with our strength today. Those numbers were based on the strategic realities of 1991 (and the likelihood of a ground war in Europe - which we considered vital to our national interest). Secondly, point 3 is just ridiculous statement that is not just inaccurate, but not argued at all. Rumsfeld didn't use more troops in the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq because he felt that it should be done quickly with a small footprint as a matter of principle, not because there weren't enough forces. The reason both conflicts went/are going so badly is because of piss poor planning assumptions and intelligence, not active duty strength levels.

As for points 4 and 5, my question to Mr. Boot is: after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw down to minimal footprints, how many soldiers do we need? What would they all do? Mr. Boot asks for certainty and assurances on the assumptions used to substantiate the draw down and then states that such assurances cannot be given. I ask Mr. Boot for certainty and assurances that we'll need to intervene in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia in the foreseeable future that would substantiate, not only the maintenance of current personnel levels, but likely the return to 1991 levels. Oh right. Such assurances cannot be given. In fact, I'm more inclined to take assurances that we won't be trying to do regime change/governance and state building / general meddling with large numbers of boots on the ground any time soon without a really, really good reason. Mainly because we've been doing it for a while and it's taking a toll on the military and our country. If a war of necessity does arise, that's what the Reserves and National Guard are for - they don't get that drill pay to play soldier, they get it so they're ready when they're needed. If you account for them in possible deployable numbers, we're talking just under a million potential pairs of boots.

While this post is dragging on longer than intended, just one more points. Saying that defense spending is "only" 20% of the USG's budget is misleading, considering how much of the total budget is non-discretionary (social security, etc.). It's 50% of discretionary spending - half of the money the USG can spend on things it chooses to. And we're still spending half of the world's budget on defense. Half. How much would be enough?

The bottom line for me, here, is that Mr. Boot isn't making an argument that we need to stop making cuts or even increase spending. He's making the same type of non-arguments that his opponents (who support the cuts) are making. No one has any idea what type of threat the United States should be preparing for - we have no idea what or who our enemies are or will be. Not even an inkling of an idea. Yet, pundits are waxing poetically from all sides of the budget debate without laying out realistic strategic foundations that would justify such a budget (yes, I know, it was an article in a newspaper...). I'm picking on Mr. Boot today, probably unfairly as he certainly is not the only one on any side doing this. But I am adamant that I am not at all interested in any budgetary ideas based on preconceived political ideologies devoid of strategic substantiation. And no Mr. Boot and others, naming countries that just really piss us off sometimes is not a strategic substantiation - it does not make them grand enemies for which to build a grand strategy.


  1. No one has any idea what type of threat the United States should be preparing for - we have no idea what or who our enemies are or will be. Not even an inkling of an idea.

    Good point. The prediction business is terrible. There are too many variables.

    That's why I stressed dynamism and mobility in my previous comment. If we are intellectually and economically dynamic and retain good "mobility" (what do I mean? I suppose my dabblings in logistics makes me wary of people that don't pay attention to how you get A to B. People, stuff, money. Mobilization, I suppose).

    My recent blogging focus on South Asia is not because I am trying to make enemies out of anyone (not saying you were referring to me : ) but because I don't want us to carry our 20th century mindsets into this century simply out of habit.

    A lot of people argue out of habit and conventional wisdoms.

    We all ought to make a pact this year to do a few posts poking at common conventional wisdoms accepted by all political sides.

    This is hard but intellectually rewarding.

  2. The argument could be made that a smaller military, if properly resourced and trained, could be more lethal if we cut out some of the bureaucratic bloat that slows down adaptation.

    Isn't that what COL. Gentile always says? Something about adaptation and the American Way of War?

  3. But I am adamant that I am not at all interested in any budgetary ideas based on preconceived political ideologies devoid of strategic substantiation. And no Mr. Boot and others, naming countries that just really piss us off sometimes is not a strategic substantiation - it does not make them grand enemies for which to build a grand strategy.

    Don't budgetary ideas to an extent nearly always flow from preconceived political ideologies that are strategically substantiated at varying degrees of rigor? Boot has his ideology, which I'm sure he feels has been validated. Boot: the invasion of Iraq was a great strategic idea to begin with --> the post-invasion period unraveled into some level of chaos --> a measure of control was reestablished by the great strategic idea of "surging" more troops --> conclusion: an under-sized initial force was the point of failure, and the budgetary logic can flow from there. Now I don't agree with the assumptions and logic, and I'm not in the man's head, but seems a plausible enough example to me given what Boot has written over the years.

    I agree with you that Boot's article has its problems (to say the least), but I don't know that we should be discounting the utility of political ideology in understanding strategic and budgetary preferences. Especially in a time like now, where grand strategy is in flux as we try to reach a consensus on our self-conception, preconceived political ideology may be the best lens by which to explain widely divergent budgetary prescriptions. And I think the same lens can be useful in explaining folks' claims about or dismissal of the next "great enemy".

  4. Reluctant as I am to mark myself out as a doctrine geek, and as much as I know most people are pretty bored with this line of inquiry, we really need to talk about the lexicon before we can get too deeply into any of these subjects. We've been struggling with this topic throughout this series of posts (and really throughout the broader conversation in the blogosphere/twitterverse): where's the line between grand strategy and strategy? I think when you get into the examination of specific programs, you're talking about strategy. And when you're talking one step up from that, about capabilities to satisfy certain mission sets -- which is really about the way you envision using dollars to enable specific behaviors -- you're right on the dividing line.

    "The budget aspect of grand strategy," in my mind, constitutes some sort of rough philosophy about the broad-brush allocation of national resources towards various priorities; it's really something that deals more with big picture economics than with budgets, per se. So for example you might prioritize the maintenance of a domestic manufacturing base, or a defense industrial base, or you might say that your national economic identity is built around mercantilism, or exploitation of a particular natural resource, and so on. This goes even further, I think, including something like a broad national consensus on questions of political philosophy that dramatically impact government spending and the relationship between a government and its people: what is the general view on how far the social contract goes? Will you be a welfare state? Are health care and/or employment rights of citizenship? So in a very, very foundational sense, this conversation about national identity will inform the basic outlines of a defense spending program: do we view defense and security -- or even more aggressively, a foreign policy and security apparatus that's capable of significant international engagement across a number of issue areas, making use of a number of different tools -- as a very significant part of what our government is meant to do for us? That question has long been answered in the affirmative in the U.S., but each country's mileage may vary.

  5. But more to the point of this post: I'm not sure it's fair to say that budget debates without a grand enemy "lack rigor." Really what you mean is that the strategic debates contain too much uncertainty to meaningfully inform spending decisions. And that's a difficulty that will always exist, whether you've got a grand enemy or not. Was there sufficient rigor in development of the Reagan Star Wars plan? I don't know, but what I will say is that there's incredible risk involved in the development of such a massive, expensive system with uncertain strategic consequences when you're working in an environment of limited information about both the enemy's intent and his capabilities. This problem wasn't solved by having one major adversary -- it was exacerbated.

    Operating in a multipolar world can actually offer advantages when it comes to resourcing decisions and the broader strategic conversation, if only because it allows you to define your own identity and force your adversaries to respond. And because you're the one initiating this action/reaction chain, you can work to anticipate the enemy's response and thus develop second-order (and beyond) solutions. But I'm getting a bit general and nebulous here.

    On the specific question of the here and now, and of Max Boot's arguments, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've written. But I think we're dealing with a few different issues in one post, and that the direction you've chosen veers very slightly out of the grand strategic realm and into a more narrowly circumscribed conversation about the grand strategic assumptions implicit in certain positions on the defense budget, and even more narrowly, the way allocation decisions are tied to particular strategic and operational approaches to the implementation of grand strategy. Max Boot assumes there's a consensus on a grand strategy of American primacy/global dominance. The problem we face is that 1) a lot of people disagree that his specific solutions are the best way to execute that grand strategy, 2) some people disagree with the foundational assumptions about grand strategy, but tend to be reluctant to express this disagreement for fear of being characterized as unserious, peaceniks naifs. We need to talk about both.

  6. @ Stilicho. You're right - there is plenty of utility for political ideology in understanding strategic and budgetary preferences. Of course there is and there should be. The point I was attempting to make is that Boot's piece was full of political ideology and almost completely devoid of strategic substantiation.

    I understand that he is a present-day neo-con, but stating so and then listing countries with whom the U.S. has difficulties does not present the case for why operations there might be necessary, driving the need for more troops just in case. That is an acute lack of rigor. As is the example you put forth (that strikes me as a likely train of thought in the Boot article), to say nothing of it flying in the face of history and reality.

    But yes, political ideology should inform grand strategy. It is not, however, the logic for it. To quote Josh Foust: "Show me your evidence."

  7. @ Gulliver - No, I meant that the debates lack rigor. Yes, the uncertainty in such debates affects the debate. But it also leaves the maneuver space for crap arguments to creep in and gain some validity. Ergo, Boot's argument linked here. I think his writing on this topic is not just based on poor assumptions (to include your point on consensus) but that he doesn't even make the case that in his own worldview. I'd say that's a lack of rigor.

  8. Jason -- I understand and agree that Boot's argument lacks rigor and fails to substantiate the WHY part. Maybe I misunderstood your initial point. When you wrote "budget debates without a grand enemy... In short, these debates lack rigor", I thought you meant that it's impossible to do rigorous assessment of different budget options without having an adversary to plan against. That understanding is what my entire comment was based on, so if I misread this, I withdraw.

  9. I seem to be suffering from chronic in-articulation in this series. I might have to take a little break from it to clear my head a bit.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.