Strong on Defense

In a short post, I used the term “strong national defense.”

Republicans won’t win voters for whom social liberalism comes first, and they shouldn’t. But it makes sense to be competitive with those for whom social liberalism comes fourth or fifth after support for an open economy and cheaper, more effective government and a strong national defense.

This is, of course, shorthand, and pretty malleable shorthand at that. The same is true of an “open economy.” “Open” means “not closed,” or not rigid or creative and plastic. I don’t like shorthand, but I’ve been using it more in the course of talking to new audiences. So what does “a strong national defense” mean?

A “strong national defense” is a security policy that keeps the United States safe. In the Mackinderian or Mahanian sense, this potentially means a lot of things — you go pretty quickly from securing the border to ensuring geopolitical diversity in Eurasia, to prevent the emergence of a “cauchemar des coalitions,” etc.

As Barack Obama argued throughout his presidential campaign, the nature of security threats is such that keeping the U.S. safe will sometimes involve deepening cooperation on a wide variety of over-the-horizon issues, ranging from the threat of pandemics to the threat of piracy. “Strength” suggests efficacy. A “strong defense” policy can be cheap and cautious, and a “weak defense” policy can be expensive and hyperactive.

Actually, an astute observer might have interpreted the above paragraph to read, “a strong national defense means robust support for the State of Israel,” as that would fit the political context, i.e., what are the issues that would motivate voters disinterested or disengaged from social issues, or who are social liberals or moderates, to support the culturally conservative party. A not inconsiderable number of social moderates who vote Republican, or who might be inclined to do so, are very keen on strong (there’s that word again) support for U.S. allies.

My erstwhile co-blogger “Ben Dueholm”: writes:

The boldfaced phrase above is, in itself, quite meaningless—like “center-right nation” or “pragmatist.” More precisely, if it refers to a policy of lavishly funding the military, pursuing far-flung and open-ended deployments on a constant basis, and engaging in military actions of a targeted nature once in a while to preserve the quasi-imperial order, then the Democrats and the Obama administration will live up to it quite handily. If, as I suspect, Reihan is using it the way all conservatives seem to use it, i.e. to mean a policy of starting and/or prolonging pointless wars, disparaging diplomacy, and indulging in a little bellicose rhetoric at every opportunity, then, no, Obama will leave much to be desired.

Ben is a very smart guy and a logic-chopper, so I get the fact that he finds shorthand distasteful. I am also heartened by his affection for Obama, which is very understandable. But unless there is some esoteric truth to be divined from my writing on these subjects, I have to say that I don’t think this is totally accurate, nor do I think it’s true of most center-right pragmatists in this center-right nation — which, when compared to other advanced market democracies, certainly counts as center-right, insofar as left-right distinctions make sense at all. Like a lot of center-right pragmatists, I think that “pointless wars” can have the effect of sapping national security strength. Granted, I don’t think that the fighting in Iraq is pointless, and I don’t think the fighting in Afghanistan is pointless either. I’d be happy to write about either conflict at length, though I think the relevant points have been adequately rehearsed by this point.

I will say that I’m struck by those who argue that those who adhere to the Bush-Obama policy of keeping the United States engaged in Iraq are the ones who want to “prolong” the conflict, as the shadow war between these two countries has been going on since at least 1990, if you include the devastating effect of sanctions and the low-level air war. There is real chance that the war might finally end, provided we extend security guarantees and help achieve a durable political settlement. And yes, I understand that my use of the “Bush-Obama policy” will raises hackles. It’s meant to — the gap at this point between AEI and the Center for a New American Security is small and shrinking, as the post-2006 shift in Iraq has forced informed observers to take a more pragmatic approach.

Also, I’ve explicitly said that bellicose rhetoric directed against Iran has been a mistake, not least because it has had the effect of severely constraining the range of military and diplomatic options we can pursue. So these different factors cut against each other in complicated ways.

For me, at least, the idea of “national security strength” is tied to what William Wohlforth called “the stability of a unipolar world.” In contrast to some Pax Americana realists, Wohlforth never made sweeping claims on behalf of benevolent American hegemony. Unipolarity means something very narrow in Wohlforth’s framework, but significant nonetheless because it dampens security competition. Security competition is bad. It really does waste valuable resources, which could be more productively channeled to growing economies. The economic expansion of the latter half of the twentieth century was due in no small part to the relative absence of security competition within western Europe. As David Frum has argued, tensions in our relations with those same states today relies on the fact that whereas western Europe “borrowed” security from the U.S. during the Cold War, we have been “borrowing” security from Europe during our protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no wonder that there has been tension, misunderstanding, and sharp disagreement.

I’m hoping to write something on climate change policy as it relates to the demographic balance, but I’m afraid I left this excellent book at a neighboring Korean restaurant, not to mention this other really awesome book that I just purchased. Am peeved with myself. Will try to find it.