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January 07, 2009

What Keeps the Military Big
Posted by Michael Cohen

I want to add my two cents to Moira's excellent post below. In Matt Yglesias's original missive he suggests that those who support a larger military (such as military contractors) financially support think tank denizens who share this view - thus perpetuating the notion that we need to keep spending more and more on the military. In the original post that inspired this conversation, Steven Walt goes even further:

A well-financed group of Beltway bandits and Washington think tanks stand ready to question the patriotism of any politician (and especially any Democrat) who tries to put the Pentagon on a diet.

But, I think this is a rather limited view. Sure you have the Frank Gaffneys of the world who never saw a defense program they didn't like, but it's not necessarily think tank money that is driving that view - hawkish money tends to find hawkish individuals.  And I certainly share the view that politics drives much of this. We've reached a point where our army is seemingly beyond reproach and politicians bend over backwards to praise them and fulfill their requests for more spending. I, for one, find it astounding that in all of the finger-pointing over the Iraq debacle almost no criticism has been heaped on the military leadership for its failure to stand up the civilian leadership and for the poor strategic thinking that accompanied the invasion of Iraq (I'm looking at you Tommy Franks). This is not to let Bush off the hook, but the military leadership didn't exactly cover itself in glory either.

But, in general this discussion misses a larger truth; the problem is less the military contractors and more the military itself. In particular, the service rivalries that drive so much of the waste on defense spending (if the Army gets a new artillery system, then the Navy has to have a new carrier etc). Or, in order to justify the maintenance of an enormous conventional force, we create new responsibilities for the military, like post-conflict reconstruction, that would be better handled by civilians.

Also, it reflects a lack of serious strategic thinking by both the civilian and military leadership. Indeed, this is a bipartisan problem. Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall we still have a military constructed to fight Cold War, set-piece style conflicts. Civilian leaders have been too wary of proposing significant strategic changes (ironically, the one Sec Def who probably made the best suggestions about military transformation was Don Rumsfeld) for fear of paying a political price and the uniformed military seems far more interested in protecting service turf, rather than thinking about America's long-term security challenges and how the U.S. military should be reconfigured to deal with them.

Indeed, I would argue that those in the think tank world, many of whom are backed by philanthropic foundations, can serve as the best possible incubators on new ideas for military structuring - because unfortunately, it's not going to come from the top ranks of the military.


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