Last March, when the Clinton Administration unveiled its proposed military budget for 1994, Defense Secretary Les Aspin conceded that the really tough decisions would have to await a “bottom-up review” of needs and programs.
The results of that review show no great surprises. In speech after speech, Aspin has been telegraphing where he was headed. Recognizing the desirability and inevitability of further defense cuts, and that neither Russia nor the other successor states of the Soviet Union are likely to pose any significant threat, he has argued for reductions that will be deeper than those proposed by the Bush Administration and for forces based on more realistic threats. And, mindful of the criticism that the last Democratic Administration had left the nation with “hollow” forces that were less capable than numbers alone might suggest, he has promised to maintain or even improve on the relatively high state of readiness and performance by American forces in Desert Storm.
In principle, a threat-based bottom-up review certainly makes sense, but whether Aspin’s “threats” are reasonable is open to question. Even more questionable is the implied assumption that the United States will be alone. The opportunities, challenges and problems of collective action find no place in any of the secretary’s speeches.
Not surprisingly, Desert Storm would seem to epitomize the preferred American approach to war: Apply overwhelming force to achieve a quick and decisive victory with limited losses, at least to our side. But Saddam Hussein is still in power, democratic government for Iraq seems as remote a possibility as ever, and, notwithstanding our ability to deliver ordnance with great precision, we inflicted enormous damage--in military jargon, collateral damage--on innocent Iraqis. They continue to suffer as a direct result of the war and from the continuing sanctions. We can reasonably be charged with creating a ruin and then walking away, as we did not do in Germany and Japan after World War II.
What of the likelihood of another massive attack such as in the Gulf, or of two concurrently? The military has had a hard time coming up with cases other than repetitions of the Gulf and Korean wars, neither of which seems probable. Bosnia, Somalia, Cambodia and Nagorno-Karabakh are better examples of conflicts that will demand our attention. Narrow American interests will not be at stake, but our broad interest in peace will be. Long term, the way such conflicts are dealt with ought to be of great international concern. The needs will be for dealing with ethnic conflict, civil war, terrorism and anarchy more than for repelling cross-border invasions and punishing aggressor states.
Aspin has argued that if we build and maintain forces adequate to deal with another Gulf War--or two--they will be more than adequate for these other contingencies. But it is by no means obvious that the forces Aspin can be expected to call for in his bottom-up review will be adequate for these kinds of conflicts, and clearly most of the big-ticket components will be superfluous. Certainly, there can be little case for expensive modernization, given the enormous performance gap between American weapons and those of the forces of realistic adversaries. There is potential, if we just face up to what are likely to be plausible “threats,” for reductions in the defense budget going far beyond those being considered.
The experience in Yugoslavia should teach us that without extensive planning and coordination among nations that should be involved, delay in reaching consensus may be so great as to preclude effective response. When we thought during the Cold War that there was a serious threat to Europe from the east, we wisely organized NATO and engaged in extensive joint planning and exercises. National forces were, to a degree, designed to be complementary. We need this again now, but with a broader range of nations involved and with a clear recognition of a central role for the United Nations.
There is essentially no reflection of this in Aspin’s bottom-up review. The problem is not so much possible military inadequacy or hollowness, but hollowness in international policy. We see a reflection of this in the contempt shown by the Serbs for the threats we have been making.
What is needed is a top-down view--and leadership to achieve coherence and consensus, both national and international--of what our role and that of the United Nations should be in dealing with the new threats to peace we are likely to face.