Voice

The War We Won, and the Wars to Come

D-Day is a hallowed day and, fittingly, follows close after Memorial Day, when we Americans grieve and celebrate our war dead. On June 6, 1944, 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops took the beachhead at Normandy against withering fire and fought their way into Nazi-occupied Europe. The young men who defeated Hitler's Wehrmacht are now old men, and we haven't much longer to thank them for the world they bequeathed us. We all ought to take the opportunity to shake the hands and kiss the cheeks of the men who really did make the world safe for democracy. 

This solemn day gives rise to two other reflections about warfare: one about the demands of fighting wars we might actually lose and the other about the United States as an ally. Some considerable time has elapsed since the United States actually fought an enemy that could impose a defeat that would affect the lives of Americans. Our wars since World War II have actually all been wars of choice -- Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They have been wars that we could tire of and retreat from without it too much denting our security. Even when al Qaeda achieved something that no state had since 1941 -- an attack on United States territory -- we had a range of choices about how to punish them and prevent recurrence. Terrorist and criminal organizations have ambitions to harm us that we are currently underrating, both in their determination and their capabilities.

But it has been a very long time since the United States fought a military that we actually risked losing to in the way that Eisenhower and the Allied command feared: If the D-Day landings were turned back, they might thereafter lack the means to challenge Nazi control of all Europe. No military since at least the end of the Cold War (and probably 15 years before that) could hope to fight against the American military and win. Our tactical, operational, and technological dominance has been so pervasive that it has driven enemy adaptation to the margins of the conflict spectrum: They seek nuclear weapons or conduct terrorist attacks and insurgencies because they cannot realistically expect to take on the United States military in its strong suits and prevail.

To its great and lasting credit, our military has found ways even at its weakest points to adapt to these challenges and prevent our enemies from succeeding militarily. It genuinely dominates the entire spectrum of conflict.

That may be about to change. States -- or at least one state -- have arisen with the ambition and resources to contest us as peers. A rising China needn't be an adversary, and there are significant domestic and economic pressures that may prevent China's continued success and change its political direction. But the rising China we are currently facing sure looks like a state that wants to contest American power, at least in its region, and is making the kinds of military investments that will challenge U.S. dominance in several domains of warfare, and with at least a military (if not a Communist Party leadership) that aspires to hold American territory at risk to achieve their aims.

China has fostered a new generation of military officers who take more initiative and are more aggressive than their predecessors. They are early adapters to cyberattacks and have none of the inhibitions we do about unleashing their military to conduct offensive operations in peacetime. Their government is shoveling resources into defense and utilizing gray commercial companies as adjuncts. They begin to excel at technological challenges that will bring our easy assumptions of air dominance, safe transit, and reliable communications into doubt. The United States is not yet bringing an equivalent effort into maintaining our advantages.

It is not just the rise of a potential peer that could impose these problems. Technologies are proliferating that will not require the resources of a great country to surge past U.S. abilities and impose strategic losses. The day may soon be upon us when we cannot land troops because we cannot get aircraft into contested airspace, we cannot supply them because our ships are being sunk en route, where we cannot tell enemy from friend on the battlefield because the enemy has compromised our information and communications systems. These threats are not confined to our military alone, either: We may lose our ability to shield our population from the fight. We have been a military at war these last 13 years -- going forward we may once again have to fight with the resources of our whole country, because they will be targeted in ways we cannot protect them from.

The second reflection D-Day occasions is about the United States as an ally. Being part of the ancien regime, my reflexes still encompass preemption, and I am preemptively cringing at the braggadocio I fear President Obama will unleash at the Normandy commemoration. He is on a bender about American exceptionalism, and it is unattractive. It is especially so in light of what we look like to our World War II allies, who suffered for years before we consented to join the war effort.

Among friends, Brits will eventually admit that, courageous and essential as we were, we sure took our time about it. Britain was at war nearly two and a half years before Hitler foolishly declared war on the United States and Roosevelt took our country to war in Europe. Our narrative of the war is of ourselves as the indispensable nation. That is part of Europeans' version, but theirs also includes a chapter on our reticence to be drawn in, and the obstacles Roosevelt had to surmount to get public support.

We congratulate ourselves on our stalwart commitment; it looks more tenuous to those who suffered the viciousness of Nazi attacks and occupation while we remained safe. And it colors how they look at our reticence now to honor the Budapest Agreement committing to the territorial integrity of Ukraine, our skating backwards from the president's red line on Syria, our hesitation to call a coup the Egyptian military's overthrow of their elected government, and our proclamations about a common defense with our allies. Given how important allies are in warfare, we ought to give some considerable thought to being a better ally to the countries that are willing to stand alongside us. And the very least we owe our European allies on D-Day is the humility to respect all they suffered that we did not in the war that we won together.

JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

D-Day is a Reminder of What a Grand Strategy of Restraint Can Cost

Has there ever been an administration that needed a milestone D-Day anniversary more urgently than this one?

D-Day anniversaries are a time for the country to honor heroes from a "good war." They are a time to marvel again at the audacity of draftees and the innovative genius of myriad strategic planners and designers who solved daunting logistical challenges and overcame seemingly impossible odds. They are a time to reflect, too, on the strategic courage necessary to risk decisive action -- General Eisenhower, the overall commander, was not certain the operation would succeed and had penned a message in case the landing failed. In an age when we herald far less consequential strategic gambles, remembering the D-Day wager gives us pause.

Taking a pause is precisely what the Obama administration needs right now. The combination of the VA scandal, the controversial Afghanistan end-game decision, the over-hyped West Point "strategy speech," and most recently the thoroughly mishandled return of Bowe Bergdahl -- and those are just the last few days -- would threaten to sink even the best-run White House. If one expands the time frame to the preceding weeks and months the list is really striking. For the team running Obama's administration, one wonders if all these signs are not an indication, to invert and repurpose another famous World War II reference, that we are finally seeing the "beginning of the end."

The D-Day anniversary gives the president a chance to wrap himself in the patriotic pride that comes from celebrating the heroism of others. It gives him a chance to speak only in the soaring rhetoric of higher purpose. As one witty friend of mine put it, we should not expect the President to give a moving speech about how D-Day was an example of "not doing stupid sh__."

Yes, there is a certain delicacy in the president's first event with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the start of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The contrast between the audacity of D-Day and the paucity of the western response to Ukraine will make for awkward commentary. But overall, the commemoration will be the most-welcome thing on the president's agenda, the only planned event under the White House's control that can provide temporary respite to an administration under siege.

The 50th anniversary functioned a bit like that for the Clinton Administration. I remember that well. I was serving at the time on the National Security Council staff and was one of many White House staffers contributing to the anniversary planning. The previous year or so had been an annus horribilis for President Clinton -- "don't ask, don't tell," Mogadishu, Haiti, Whitewater, "troopergate," the failed health care reform effort, Paula Jones, Rwanda, North Korea, and on and on. Like Obama, President Clinton headed to the beaches of Normandy carrying a great deal of political baggage -- and there, as the Obama team surely hopes to replicate, President Clinton delivered a mostly well-received performance that seemed symbolically to mark a turning point in his administration. He returned a bit more sure-footed, and while new and even bigger scandals were still yet to come, the Clinton White House managed the next 18 months better than they managed the previous 18 months.

So tactically, the D-Day commemoration is timely. But I think it is even more importantly a timely reminder of a key strategic debate: What are the costs and benefits of alternative ways for the United States to engage global challenges?

As a nation, we are currently debating America's role in the world. There are many voices, in both parties, who argue that for the past decade we have paid too high a price for global leadership. There are many who argue that it is better to risks the costs of mistakes of omission than to pay the price of more mistakes of commission.

Some knowledgeable observes say that what the United States needs is a grand strategy of restraint, one built around what academic theorists call "offshore balancing." Advocates, such as fellow FP blogger Steve Walt (see here and here), tout it as a way for the United States to defend national security interests at a much lower price than we have paid with the more forward-leaning grand strategy of the post-Cold War era.

Offshore balancing involves avoiding indefinite commitments that require pre-deployed forces, and wielding influence instead through aid, bribery, diplomacy, and covert operations. When light-touch efforts fail to preserve a balance of power necessary to protect our interests, then offshore balancing calls for the United States to fight its way on shore to settle the matter in a decisive fashion - and then to go back over the horizon until the next time.

As I have argued elsewhere, offshore balancing looks better in an academic seminar than it looks in policy practice, and often advocates of it shrink from defending the necessary corollaries of the strategy (compare critiques by offshore balancers of the quintessentially offshore balancing techniques of buying influence in Afghanistan and arming factions in Syria). For that and many other reasons, the United States has rarely relied on offshore balancing to protect really important interests since, well, since 70 years ago this week.

The last time the United States really did implement an offshore balancing grand strategy was in the interwar period -- after World War I and before World War II.

D-Day was the literal implementation of the most difficult and dangerous part of the offshore balancing strategy: fighting your way onshore when the balance of power has become intolerable. Because D-Day was successful, the offshore balancing strategy "worked," in the sense that the United States was able to restore a balance of power favorable to our interests. It also did so, as Walt has observed, at a lower price than what France or Britain or any of the other victorious Allied powers joining to remember D-Day paid.

But it was not at a cheap price, nor was it necessarily cheaper than what a wiser grand strategy during the inter-war period might have accomplished. Given all of the attention paid to the terrible human toll paid by the United States during the last dozen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is sobering to remember that the few days of the D-Day invasion alone came to close to half of that, with the toll mounting into the hundreds of thousands by the end of this "successful" war of offshore balancing.

The D-Day generation understood that offshore balancing was not an inexpensive grand strategy. That is why they supported the antithesis of offshore balancing, the establishment of NATO. That is why the D-Day commander decided to try to become President Eisenhower, rather than risk the country being run by a President Taft, who threatened to go back to an offshore balancing strategy.

It might be a necessary one under certain circumstances, and reasonable people can debate today whether the prospective costs in 2014 are low enough to make it a worthwhile gamble. But that debate should not forget the price of offshore balancing the last time the country really relied upon it as a grand strategy.

The 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion will not let us forget that price.

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