U.S. Still in Denial About 21st Century Threats, Says Former Obama National Security Adviser
The Pentagon has survived previous down cycles, and will do so again this time, he said. But he cautioned that there are more pressing long-term problems than the budget for the Defense Department to address, such as figuring out how the U.S. military should adapt to a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape.
Pentagon brass and civilian leaders are about to embark on a review of military missions in order to decide how to go about reducing expenses. In the process, they should concentrate on planning for the future instead of wasting resources on bureaucratic infighting, Jones said last week at a Washington, D.C., conference hosted by Tufts University’s Fletcher School of international security studies.
“Before you start worrying about roles and missions, you should worry about understanding the environment,” he told military officers at the conference. “You have to be able to compete in the environment, understand who your competitors are … be clear eyed about what you're trying to achieve.”
The U.S. military still has not come to grips with the “security environment of the 21st century,” said Jones. The recent wave of uprisings in the Middle East is a case in point. Unlike the predictable world in which the U.S. military is comfortable operating, “change now happens every single day,” said Jones.
“We're still at a crossroads of the new century … still trying to understand what fundamental adjustments we have to make,” Jones said
The military’s change averse culture is only partly to blame, he noted. The White House National Security Council also is ill organized to prepare for the future. The NSC staff is geared to respond to the crisis of the day, said Jones. “You wind up becoming more tactical instead of strategic.”
The United States faces challenges to its superpower status that cannot be met with military strength alone, he said.
Jones insisted that he did not want to be pegged as yetanother pundit forecasting the end of U.S. superpowerdom. “In every decade I have heard people say ‘it’s over … the U.S. has peaked,” Jones said. But the latest predictions of America’s decline may not be off the mark, he said. “This is the first time that I've really been worried,” Jones said. “And it has nothing to do with the armed forces of the United States. It has everything to do with who we are and how we handle the things we must tackle.”
Case in point is how the nation is managing its fiscal crisis. Partisan gridlock and political grandstanding that nearly shut down the government over the 2011 federal budget are signs that the United States is not serious about putting its economic house has in order, Jones said. Losing economic competitiveness is the “greatest threat” the nation faces, he added.
Failure to set realistic energy policies also undermine the U.S. role as a world leader. “The idea of energy independence in today's globalized world is absurd,” said Jones.
Every U.S. president since the Nixon administration has made empty promises about fixing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. “Those were hollow words in 1973, and they're still hollow.” The United States has a Department of Energy that in practice is only the “department of nuclear energy,” Jones said. When the president wants to talk to DOE about alternative energy, DOE has no authority over it. Energy-related responsibilities today are scattered across nine major agencies in the Executive Branch. On Capitol Hill, more than 30 committees and subcommittees have oversight. When it comes to energy, there is no “strategic path” to the future, said Jones.
Dependence on oil continues to influence U.S. national security as the nation is forced to support oppressive petro-regimes. The credibility of the United States is taking a huge hit as democracy-seeking movements blame America for supporting dictators. “We can turn this thing around with enlightened leadership, visionary appeal and how we involve ourselves,” said Jones.
Jones envisions the U.S. military playing a greater diplomatic role as preventer of wars and protector of democratic ideals.
Such thinking has been controversial, and oftenderided by critics who accuse both the Bush and Obama administrations of having embraced soft-power theories that undermine the military’s core competencies — fighting wars.
Jones supports using the military in peacekeeping, nation-building roles, albeit selectively. He also believes that the military, because of its global presence, is best suited to bolster U.S. clout. “Based on my experience around the world, American leadership and participation is absolutely one of the most valued assets that every country puts a high premium on,” he said. “Most of the world wants America to live up to the high ideals and expectation of the 20th century, but carried out in a different manner. They don't want America in a declining role. They don't want America to fail to lead.”
Budget cuts notwithstanding, the military should not retreat from its “forward presence,” said Jones. He chided former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for advocating moving significant numbers of U.S. forces overseas back stateside. “If you do you that, you create a vacuum globally,” Jones said. “Those vacuums will be filled by others,” he said. Talking on the phone and via video-teleconference is not enough, he said. “Day in and day out there 's no substitute for boots on the ground and presence.”
With budgets under strain, the military will have to set priorities, he said. “We can't do everything. We're going to have to pick and choose and we'll be criticized for it.”
As to how the military services should cope with the looming funding crunch, Jones advised them to get out and promote what they do.
“If you have a product that is valuable and cost efficient, you have nothing to worry about,” he said. “You have to worry about marketing, about selling it.”
All the services, however, have to be prepared to give up some personnel and programs, he said. “Duplication of missions has to be reexamined.”