Shadow Government

A draft might bind the military to American society, or perhaps just bind the military

Every year between Memorial Day and the 4th of July there is a flurry of interest in reviving the draft.  I expect some of my FP colleagues will post seasonal items on the subject -- Josh Rogin already has.

This is the hardy perennial of American civil-military debates.  And since I have the most parochial of interests in civil-military debates, who am I to complain about civil-military debates that will never end?

So I won't complain about the re-occurrence, but I do have a complaint about what is missing in the debate.  Usually, the draft is presented as a way to close the gap between the military and American society.  The gap arises because we ask a few to protect the many, and this creates the potential that each side will become alienated from the other, especially if the few becomes drawn ever more narrowly from a self-selected segment of American society. Sometimes, the draft is also presented as a way to make it more difficult to use the military in a cavalier fashion -- not merely to bind the military to American society, but to bind the military, period, or at least bind the hands of political leaders who have the authority to order the military into battle.

However, I have yet to read a compelling case for reviving the draft that is premised on making the military more effective -- more capable of defending American national interest, which is, after all, its primary purpose.  The reason those arguments are not made in a compelling fashion is because the most likely result of a draft is a less capable military.  

Today, the United States is protected by the best trained, best equipped, most capable fighting force in history.  That boast has been made for the past two decades and it has been true every year.  Indeed, the U.S. military of today is vastly more capable than the draft-era military.

Moreover, it is especially more capable at fighting the way American society has increasingly asked to fight, namely with exceeding care simultaneously to reduce our own casualties and civilian casualties on the battlefield. That is emphatically not how the draft-era militaries fought because they had neither the technology nor the training to do so.

I suspect many of the proponents of the draft would be content with the less capable U.S. military that would result because they believe that the higher goal is to limit the use of the American military.  They believe American leaders have been too quick to intervene militarily, so this diminished capacity might not be a bug but a feature of the draft-based force.  And given the controversial interventions of the past two decades, they have a point. But there have also been numerous controversial non-interventions (Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, etc.), which those proponents never seem to discuss much.  More importantly, there is little evidence that U.S. political leaders have been cavalier about committing U.S. troops to battle.  On the contrary, they have agonized about the decision, even in the controversial cases.

There is abundant evidence, however, that when committed, U.S. troops have been extraordinarily capable and proficient.  Would that be lost if we reverted to a draft?

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Shadow Government

Pivoting and rebalancing: The good, the bad, and the ugly

First the good:

1) The Obama administration has stopped calling its efforts to focus on Asia the "pivot" which implies turning your back on other crucial parts of the world.

2) The Obama administration is building upon diplomatic and strategic efforts of its predecessors and has dropped the White House adolescent trash-talking of "we are back" in Asia.

3) These efforts include serious attempts to build the free trade area of the Pacific first envisioned by the George H.W. Bush administration; upgrading relations with Taiwan and Japan begun by the Clinton administration; and the breakthrough in relations with India, the creation of "mini-laterals" such as the U.S.-Japan-Australia, and the movement of more forces into the Pacific that was the work of the George W. Bush administration.

4) For its part the Obama administration has started a relationship with Burma, tightened relations in South East Asia, and increased the tempo of U.S. military presence in the region.

Now the bad:

1) There is a danger of overpromising. The new defense guidelines were released in January 2012 at same time as talk of a "pivot" began. Concurrently, details of a new operational concept called Air Sea Battle were released, that despite protestations to the contrary, is more or less about how to defeat China in a conflict. This coincidence of events has regional allies believing that the U.S. has carefully developed some new "secret sauce" to keep the peace in Asia. The reality so far is two Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore, some good speeches in Vietnam, and some marines in Australia.

2) The administration is making critical strategic choices that will affect its posture in Asia.  One choice is to slash the defense budget. It already did so in 2009 to the tune of about $400 billion. This year the Budget Control Act will kick in lopping off hundreds of billions more.  The president has every right to choose the salvaging of and creation of more social welfare programs over the defense that is needed in Asia, but it is dangerous to misalign your stated strategic goals and your resources -- this is the famous "Lippman Gap."

3) The defense cuts badly affect the forces we need in Asia. The stealthy F-35 program has taken a big hit. The navy has said it needs anywhere from 500 to 313 ships in its fleet. It will end up with around 285 total ships by the end of the next five year defense program. The much touted next generation long-range bomber is underfunded -- by 2017 it is unlikely that we will have more than an industrial competition to build it, which means years before it comes on line. The list goes on: missile defense takes a hit, as does most certainly the workhorse of any Asian contingency -- attack submarines.

4) India. There is simply no way to check China's power if Afghanistan descends into chaos and India has to respond. In the rough and tumble of international politics it is very difficult to get regions to conform with U.S. government flow charts. India can only fully integrate into East Asia if there is some semblance of security along its land borders.

5) It is also unrealistic to think we can spend less time on the Middle East in order to spend more time in Asia for two reasons. First, the Chinese are competing with us in that critical region to mostly bad effect. Second, our allies depend on the stability we provide in the Middle East for oil.

Now the ugly:

1) Things with China will get ugly. Our talk of rebalancing is a response to Chinese power and provocations. The competition is intensifying. We repeat the mantra that our efforts in Asia are not about China as if saying it makes it true. In reality, politics, like physics, has an action-reaction cycle. While we are doing the right thing, China certainly views our actions as hostile. We should expect China to up its game militarily.

2) Related to the above, we need presidential leadership to explain to a war-weary public the need to maintain the power advantage in our competition with China. The public will ask understandable questions like why die for Taipei, or Manila or even Seoul and Tokyo? (Remember the questions "why die for Danzig or Berlin?") The debate will arise and could get ugly. It would be better to start this public education campaign now. We seek no conflict or quarrel, rather the commitments we are making are to maintain our position in a critical part of the world.  

The best course is not to cut down commitments at this dangerous time, but rather to bring resources in line with those commitments. Any other course will not lead to a "peaceful retrenchment." Rather, if the U.S. stopped playing the role of benign hegemon in Asia chaos would ensue.   No one would lead efforts to further build upon a economically vital region, stem proliferation, or keep great power peace. Deterrence is expensive, chaos more so. The president should explain to the public what he means to do in Asia and why.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages