Key Problems

  • Throughout the cold war, Pentagon strategists adopted a “containment” policy to prevent Soviet expansion.
  • The U.S. military did not foresee an end of the cold war and was caught without a new strategy when the Soviet Union collapsed.
  • To preserve most of the existing military, the Joint Chiefs identified third world “rogue states” as a new class of adversaries.
  • This strategy was immediately tested against Iraq in Desert Storm.

In theory, all aspects of U.S. military planning—the defense budget, the size and structure of the armed forces, weapons procurement, overseas troop deployments, and so on—are governed by a strategic blueprint crafted by senior Pentagon officials in response to perceived global threat conditions. During peacetime, however, the size of the budget and other vital decisions are often determined by extraneous considerations, such as the influence of particular military contractors and the interests of certain legislators. Nevertheless, basic U.S. military structure has been largely configured in accordance with certain strategic assumptions regarding the world security environment and the future role of American combat forces.

From the late 1940s to 1989, military planning was governed above all by the strategy of “containment” whereby the U.S. sought, with its allies, to prevent the expansion of Soviet power and influence and to ensure victory in any military engagement with Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. Because the Soviet Union was a major industrial power possessing large and well-equipped military troops, U.S. strategy called for the maintenance of powerful air, land, and sea forces armed with the most advanced and potent weapons available (including nuclear weapons). In accordance with its containment strategy, U.S. policy called for the “forward deployment” of U.S. forces on the outer boundaries of Soviet power (in Europe, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia) and for military intervention (direct or indirect) against Soviet-backed regimes in the developing world.

Throughout this period, U.S. military officials never conceived of a world beyond the cold war. Indeed, as recently as 1988, a presidential commission on long-term strategy concluded that the Soviet Union would remain America’s principal adversary for at least another 25 years. Thus, when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, the Pentagon was caught without plans or ideas for the post-Soviet era. This triggered a mad scramble to develop a substitute for its containment policy.

In devising a new strategy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell and his staff were determined to find a rationale for preserving most of America’s existing, Soviet-oriented military establishment. In contrast, many in Congress favored a sizable reduction in military spending and reallocation of the resulting “peace dividend” to domestic programs. To prevent this, the Pentagon had to show that the U.S. still faced powerful enemies.

Powell’s staff therefore identified a new class of potential adversaries: unfriendly third world powers equipped with large militaries and/or weapons of mass destruction. Dubbed “rogue states,” they were said to pose a threat to U.S. security almost as great as that once posed by the USSR (at least when teamed up together). Powell proposed a “new regional strategy” aimed at preparing U.S. forces for recurring clashes with these powers.

President Bush announced this “new regional strategy” on August 2, 1990—the very day that Iraqi forces swept into Kuwait. “In a world less driven by an immediate threat to Europe and the danger of global war,” Bush explained, “The size of our forces will increasingly be shaped by the needs of regional contingencies.” Bush advocated the maintenance of a “base force” of approximately 1.6 million active-duty troops—about three-quarters of the number deployed during the 1980s.

Discussion of the new strategy was soon overtaken by events, as Bush ordered U.S. forces to deploy to Saudi Arabia and to prepare for a full-scale war with Iraq. When the Gulf War was over, talk of the “peace dividend” largely disappeared as the Pentagon geared up for recurring conflicts with Iraq-like enemies and U.S. leaders reached consensus on the broad outlines of Powell’s new regional strategy.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • The Clinton administration’s Bottom-Up Review maintains that the U.S. must be prepared to fight simultaneously two regional wars against rogue states.
  • Under this strategy the U.S. will maintain indefinitely a large military structure.
  • The rogue-state theory is grossly exaggerated and deters from seriously addressing more likely threats to U.S. security.

Although President-elect Bill Clinton promised a thorough review of U.S. military policy, the regional strategy devised by Gen. Powell remains the basic blueprint. In its current form, this strategy is embodied in the “Bottom-Up Review” (BUR) report, conducted in 1993 by then Defense Secretary Les Aspin that states, “The United States must field forces sufficient to fight and win two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts.” That is, the U.S. must be prepared to fight two Desert Storm-like campaigns “nearly” simultaneously.

To satisfy the BUR’s two-war blueprint, the Defense Department advocated a permanent force structure of about 1.4 million active-duty troops. Although about one-third smaller than during the final decades of the cold war, this force is otherwise identical to that designed to fight the Warsaw Pact.

Since 1993 there has been much debate in Washington as to the capacity of the force structure designed by Aspin to conduct two major campaigns simultaneously, with most Republicans arguing that a larger force is needed and most Democrats saying that the existing force is adequate. However, no major American policy maker has challenged the basic principle that U.S. forces must be prepared to fight an endless series of Desert Storm-like campaigns against Iraq-like adversaries. Therefore there has been no move to impose significant cuts in military spending.

Another basic feature of the strategy—that the U.S. should continue to rely on nuclear weapons to deter and intimidate potential adversaries—has also gone largely unchallenged. Although some prominent former military chiefs have called for the elimination of nuclear weapons, Pentagon and White House leaders advocate maintaining a relatively large nuclear capability of several thousand nuclear warheads for the indefinite future. They claim this is needed to deter nuclear attack by Russia (especially if Yeltsin is succeeded by a hardline, anti-American regime) and to prevent and punish any future use by the rogues that hold weapons of mass destruction.

This consensus on military strategy remains firm because most senior policymakers accept that U.S. security is seriously threatened by a phalanx of well-armed rogue states. Although these states are rarely named and often discussed only in superficial terms, leaders of both parties agree the U.S. must be prepared to fight two such states simultaneously and consequently must maintain indefinitely a cold war-like military establishment.

Close examination reveals, however, that the “rogue-state threat” has been grossly exaggerated. The five nations most frequently mentioned as rogue powers—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea—all have weak economies and restive populations, and would encounter serious obstacles in any future military adventures. Iraq, still the most powerful of the group, is but a shell of its pre-Desert Storm strength. All the others are seriously weakened by the lack of finances or the presence of powerful neighbors.

The flaws in U.S. strategy are especially evident when looking at the military capabilities of the so-called rogues. The Pentagon blueprint assumes that U.S. forces will confront two such powers, each of which would enjoy the same strength and strategic advantages as pre-Desert Storm Iraq—that is, a force with nearly one million soldiers, large numbers of tanks and aircraft, and relatively weak neighbors. But no such powers exist: Iraq has one-third the forces it once possessed: Iran lost most of its heavy equipment in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-87; Libya has a tiny army of under 100,000; while both Syria and North Korea face powerful neighbors (Israel and South Korea, respectively). Together, these five nations spend about $12 billion annually on defense—less than one-twentieth of what the U.S. spends.

Under a 1996 Congressional mandate, the Defense Department is currently engaged in a major review of strategy and force requirements. Known as the Quadrennial Review, this study probably will propose various modifications in military policy. Although some military leaders favor abandonment of the existing two-war strategy in favor of something less demanding (so as to conserve military resources), it is unlikely that the review will result in any fundamental shift. Indeed, it is possible that the hawks in Congress will use the review to reinforce the two-war strategy and push for more Pentagon spending.

So long as Congress accepts the rogue-states military strategy, the defense budget will remain at near cold war levels. All future cuts in federal spending, such as will be required to balance the budget, will have to come from domestic programs, which will have severe impact on poor and disadvantaged American citizens. In addition, continued adherence to a flawed strategy will prevent the military establishment from addressing other, more likely threats to U.S. security. A force that is designed to fight Operation Desert Storm over and over again is not well positioned to engage in international peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and rescue, multilateral stability operations (as in Bosnia), and other actions of an unconventional nature.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • The U.S. should adopt a new strategy aimed at abating and containing ethnic and sectarian conflicts.
  • A new strategy of “prudent response” would stress early warning, prevention, diplomacy, and a minimal, multifunctional use of force in collaboration with other countries.
  • This would allow a significant reduction in defense spending and better prepare the U.S. to face the most likely security threats in the future.

In place of its existing, highly flawed military doctrine, the U.S. should adopt a new strategy more attuned to the global realities of the post-cold war era. Such a strategy should reflect a fresh assessment of the world security environment, a balanced appraisal of America’s economic and budgetary priorities, and a hard-nosed review of the military’s future role.

No one, of course, can predict the course of future events. Many experts agree, however, that the most likely threats to international peace and security will arise from further outbreaks of ethnic and sectarian conflict. Such outbreaks may not affect U.S. interests directly, but will undermine stability in many areas and thus contribute to a global environment of disorder and violence. As it intensifies, this disorder will jeopardize the free movement of goods and people and produce humanitarian disasters of immense proportions—outcomes that the U.S. will not be able to ignore.

In response to these dangers, the U.S. should adopt a new strategy aimed at preventing, containing, and abating ethnic and sectarian violence. Such a strategy should entail economic aid to distressed societies, stepped-up mediation and diplomacy, and participation, where warranted, in multinational peacekeeping operations. So that American forces can make the best possible contribution to these operations—while minimizing casualties—the Department of Defense should place more emphasis on the training and material requirements of such endeavors.

Ethnic and sectarian conflict is not, of course, the only sort of danger that the U.S. may have to deal with in the years ahead. It is also conceivable that we will face a newly remilitarized regime in Russia or an expansionist regime in China. Any of these developments would threaten U.S. interests in a significant way, and could produce a U.S. military response. But none of these dangers now exists, and we would have ample warning time to hone our defenses if such a threat were to arise in some future period.

On the basis of this assessment, the U.S. should adopt a strategy of “prudent response,” allowing a modest but flexible riposte to future challenges and crises. Such an approach would stress early warning, prevention, diplomacy, and minimal use of force. Any U.S. forces committed to such contingencies should be light, agile, multifunctional, and capable of working closely with the soldiers and civilian personnel of other countries. If need be, these forces could be backed up by a mobile reserve based in the United States. Such a reserve could also provide the nucleus of a larger force should the U.S. again face a major adversary in the decades ahead.

If adopted, such a strategy would permit a significant reduction in peacetime military strength. Many of the Pentagon’s heavier units—armored divisions, long-range bombers wings, carrier battle groups, and so on—could be retired or placed on reserve status. Some additional equipment might be needed for rescue and peacekeeping operations, but this would not involve high-tech weapons of the sort now favored by the Department of Defense. Such a reorganization would eventually allow a significant drop in military spending, thereby freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars for domestic programs or deficit reduction. Most important, this strategy would best prepare the U.S. to face the most likely challenges of the 21st century.

Written by Michael Klare, Arms Sales Monitoring Project.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.