United We Stand

Soon after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, an American delegation visited the region to reassure Saudi Arabia and other nearby states that the United States would stand by them as the consequences of the Iranian revolution played out. Defense Secretary Harold Brown, leading the delegation, asked Robert Murray to memorialize the outcome of his talks with the Saudis in a jointly drafted press release expressing their governments’ resolve. So the young Defense Department official spent 20 minutes with a senior Saudi official, but to no avail, as they couldn’t agree on what the release would say. 

Murray remembers that when he asked why, the Saudi official replied: “Look, we are a small country. We don’t issue joint press statements with the United States. We point out our problems to you, we urge you to help, but then we fold our tents and go into the desert and wait to see the outcome.” 

Now president of CNA, a nonprofit research organization involved in analysis of public issues for the government, Murray recounted this episode as we were talking about Robert Kagan’s new book, The World America Made (Knopf, 2012). His was a great parable about America’s role in the world, then and now, and it supports Kagan’s thesis that many nations want the United States engaged in their corners of the world, if not always too visibly. 

President Obama has praised the book. And it seems in concert with Mitt Romney’s view of the world. So, perhaps, it may be read as a blueprint for U.S. defense and foreign policy in the years to come. 

But there’s a key question: Will budgets support our sprawling military presence? Or will we demand a postwar peace dividend so large as to compromise our ability to project power around the world? Obama has said the wars’ end would help us in “nation-building at home.” 

The president’s budget gives some clues. In constant 2005 dollars, defense spending peaked at an annual
rate of about $600 billion between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2012. Once the wars are done, the budget projects that defense spending will level out at $450 billion in 2005 dollars between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2017. That’s a considerable cut—25 percent. But it does not get us back down to levels of defense spending during the last period of peace, after the Cold War ended. In the last five years of the Clinton administration, defense spending averaged $350 billion in 2005 dollars. 

So we will continue to spend at a high level. I explored some of the reasons for this during a Sept. 25
Government Executive event with Undersecretary of Defense Robert Hale, comptroller and chief financial officer of the department. Hale noted the cost of military pay has increased far faster than inflation in the past decade. That’s true too of defense-funded health care for active-duty and retired military personnel and their families—a huge budget item that’s of increasing concern to defense leaders. But the most important point is the projected budgets are geared to meet the nation’s continuing ambition to play a global role. 

The Defense Department unveiled a long-range strategy in January. In an introduction, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promised a “smaller and leaner”
military “will have global presence emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East while still ensuring our ability to maintain our defense commitments to Europe, and strengthening alliances and partnerships across all regions.”

Kagan says it’s important to be spending enough to ensure our global reach. He observes that the era of American prominence after World War II has encouraged an unprecedented spread of prosperity, lifting billions of people out of poverty. He says the U.S. example has greatly influenced the spread of democracy—to more than 100 nations. And finally he credits American policy with preventing Great-Power warfare. In part because of America’s role, he said in a recent presentation, the world has enjoyed a 60-year “era that is extraordinarily unique.”

In summer 2011, Kagan calculated the United States had about 500,000 troops deployed overseas, including 200,000 in the two Middle East wars. The worldwide presence costs a lot of money, but helps buy us wide influence. 

He asks us to consider the “costs of losing it.” We might live in a world of autocracies, not democracies. Trade routes would be less secure with reduced American naval presence. Regional wars might break out “among great powers because they were no longer constrained by the American superpower.” Finally, he says many nations, including China and Saudi Arabia, want the geopolitical stability American power promotes—as Murray had found years ago in the Saudi desert. 

Kagan offers an intellectual foundation for continuing America’s policy of deep military engagement with actors around the world. Our leaders seem to agree. In late September, Obama declared, “as long as I’m commander in chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known.” Romney the same day told a veterans gathering: “I will not cut our commitment to our military.” And, in an
Oct. 8 foreign policy address Romney added: “I believe that if America does not lead, others will.”

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