Thursday, November 20, 2008

Military stays dominant in the field -- or not?

By Carol Gee

Conflicts large and small are going on around the world. The United States is underrepresented in some of them, and over represented in others. What is deemed to be in the national security interest will, in all likelihood, change with the Obama administration. However, just because the United States will have a new president in a couple of months, that does not necessarily mean much will change right away on the war fronts. The advice of military commanders will be heavily weighted in the decision making until the President gains his confidence and footing. What would happen if the new President and his advisers, with the help of thinkers who have studied jihadis closely and rationally, reevaluated the conventional wisdom about relative terrorist threats around the world, and redeployed our military forces based on new information?

If President-elect Obama sticks to his promise of getting out of Iraq, that may or not mean leaving completely. Criteria for troop draw-downs will probably depend on the degree of stability at the battlefronts. The definition of "stability" varies widely among the various stakeholders. It will depend on the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement, and whether a new administration has any flexibility to modify it. And it depends on what is going on at the benchmark times as they occur, in other words, the conditions on the ground. The commanders need to be able to withdraw the forces safely, both personnel and materiel. What if we took the Iraqis at their word that they would just handle whatever happened? And what if we were to declare victory there and move on to peace-making between the Israelis and Palestinians?

If President-elect Obama sticks to his promise of refocusing U.S. military operations into Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan, that probably means a trip to that theater for a lot of the soldiers, rather than a trip home. And it is doubtful that war fighting expenditures will go down appreciably in the near future. What is the new government of Pakistan came to believe that they had better clean up the tribal areas soon, or the United States would do it for them? What if the United States made an authentic and significant effort to substitute alternative cash crops for Afghan farmers in place of opium poppies?

And what if the balance of power between the influence of the Defense Department and the State Department with the President were to be adjusted for more soft power and less hard power. Would Hillary Clinton have the strength and wisdom to make such a fight within the administration? What if the rejuvenation of our alliances meant that there were much better uses of the United Nations and NATO? What would happen if our new President took a fresh look at Africa, seeing it as a large source of instability and of possibility. And what if AFRICOM were split into the separate elements of military and diplomatic/aid forces, and we put more of our money into non-kinetic helpers and teachers and aid workers?

If our next president is as good as I think he is, he should be able to energize a new and sophisticated effort to rebalance the relative influence away from the military-industrial complex in the direction of smarter and tougher diplomatic interventions in trouble spots. What if the United States tried to become a true example of a free and open society, with a strong Middle Class whose children could, once again, hope to do better than their parents? Who knows what might happen to the millions now consigned to hopelessness around the world. Do I dream too much?

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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