When President Obama and Mitt Romney cross swords on defense policy, it can sound like a schoolyard fight: Who loves the military more? Who is tougher? Who would lead a more muscular America?
This is the way we expect candidates to talk about defense: in terms of power, force, even national pride. But increasingly, when it comes to the role the Department of Defense actually plays for the nation, it misses the point. Over the past decade, the Pentagon has become far more complex than the conversation about it would suggest. What “military” means has changed sharply as the Pentagon has acquired an immense range of new expertise. What began as the world’s most lethal strike force has grown into something much more wide-ranging and influential.
Today, the Pentagon is the chief agent of nearly all American foreign policy, and a major player in domestic policy as well. Its planning staff is charting approaches not only toward China but toward Latin America, Africa, and much of the Middle East. It’s in part a development agency, and in part a diplomatic one, providing America’s main avenue of contact with Africa and with pivotal oil-producing regimes. It has convened battalions of agriculture specialists, development experts, and economic analysts that dwarf the resources at the disposal of USAID or the State Department. It’s responsible for protecting America’s computer networks. In May of this year, the Pentagon announced it was creating its own new clandestine intelligence service. And the Pentagon has emerged as a surprisingly progressive voice in energy policy, openly acknowledging climate change and funding research into renewable energy sources.
The huge expansion of the Pentagon’s mission has, not surprisingly, rung plenty of alarm bells. In the policy sphere, critics worry about the militarization of American foreign policy, and the fact that much of the world—especially the most volatile and unstable parts—now encounters America almost exclusively in the form of armed troops. Hawkish critics worry that the Pentagon’s ballooning responsibilities are a distraction from its main job of providing a focused and prepared fighting force. But this new reality will be with us for a while, and in the short term it creates an opportunity for the next president. Super-empowered and quickly deployable, the Pentagon has become a one-stop shop for any policy objective, no matter how far removed from traditional warfare.
That means the next administration will have ample room to shape the priorities, and even perhaps to reimagine the mission of a Pentagon that plays a leading role in areas from language research to fighting the drug trade. And it means that voters will need to consider the full breadth of its capabilities when they hear candidates talk about “defense.”
In campaigning so far, neither candidate has seriously engaged with the real challenges of steering the most diverse and powerful entity under his control. For both Obama and Romney, the most central question about foreign policy—and even some of their domestic priorities—may be how creatively and effectively they can use the Pentagon to further their aims.
The current balance of power in Washington runs counter to most of American history. Traditionally, the United States has related to the world chiefly through diplomats: A civilian president set the policy, civilian envoys worked to implement it, and gunboats stepped in only when diplomacy failed. Indeed, until World War II, the Department of State outranked Defense in size as well as influence. That began to change in the 1940s, first with the huge mobilization of World War II and then the Cold War. Funding and power began to accumulate permanently in the Pentagon.
In the decade since 9/11, the Pentagon has undergone another transformation. The military was asked to fight two complex wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while also engaging in a sprawling operation dubbed the Global War on Terror. In practice, this meant soldiers and other troops were asked to design nation-building operations on the fly; produce the kind of pro-democracy propaganda that decades earlier was the province of the Voice of America; and do police, intelligence, and development work in conflict zones that had long bedeviled experts in far more stable locales. In Iraq, the Pentagon was essentially expected to provide the full gamut of services normally offered by a national government. Army commanders in provincial outposts dispensed cash grants to business start-ups, supervised building renovations, managed police forces, and built electricity plants.
As American involvement in those wars winds down, we are left with a Department of Defense that has become Washington’s default tool for getting things done in the world. Unlike diplomats, who serve abroad for limited stints and who can refuse to work in dangerous places, military personnel have to go where ordered, and stay as long as the government needs them. They haven’t always succeeded, leaving any number of failed governance projects in their wake. But it’s understandable why the White House has turned more and more often to warriors. The military is undeniably good at taking action: A lieutenant colonel can spend a hundred thousand dollars on a day’s notice to dig a well or refurbish a mayor’s office or rebuild a village market. In contrast, civilian USAID specialists operating under the agency’s rules would take months, or even years, to put out bids and hire a local subcontractor to do the same job.
“The president who comes into office and thinks about what he wants to do, when he looks around for capabilities he tends to see someone in uniform,” says Gordon Adams, an American University political scientist and expert in the defense budget. “The uniformed military are really the only global operational capacity the president has.”
And that capacity stretches into some surprising domains. The Pentagon maintains an international rule of law office staffed with do-gooder lawyers. It has trained and deployed agriculture battalions. Its regional commands, as well as its war-fighting generals in Afghanistan and Iraq, have tapped hundreds of economists, anthropologists, and other field experts as unconventional military assets. Its special operators conduct the kind of clandestine operations once reserved for the CIA, but also do a lot of in-the-field political advising for local leaders in unstable countries. The US Cyber Command runs a kind of geek tech shop in charge of protecting America’s computer networks. The world’s most high-tech navy runs counter-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia, essentially serving as a taxpayer-funded security force for private shipping companies. Much of drug policy is executed by the military, which is in charge of intercepting drug shipments and has been the key player in drug-supplying countries like Colombia.
With little fanfare, the Pentagon—currently the greatest single consumer of fossil fuels in all of America, accounting for 1 percent of all use—has begun promoting fuel efficiency and alternate energy sources through its Office of Operation Energy Plans and Programs. Using its gargantuan research and development budget, and its market-making purchasing power, the Defense Department has demanded more efficient motors and batteries. Its approach amounts to a major official policy shift and huge national investment in green energy, sidestepping the ideological debate that would likely hamstring any comparable effort in Congress.
This huge expansion of what the Department of Defense does is not the same thing as a runaway military, though there are critics who see it that way. At the height of the Cold War, the United States dedicated far more of its budget to defense—around 60 percent, compared to 20 percent now. It is more a matter of vast “mission creep.” Inevitably, it is to the Pentagon that the government will turn when it faces urgent, unexpected needs: Hurricane Andrew, the 2005 tsunami in Asia, propaganda in the Islamic world. Men and women in camouflage uniforms can be found helping domestic law enforcement pursue cattle rustlers in North Dakota using loaned military drones, or working with Afghan farmers to increase crop yields.
Paul Eaton, a major general in the US Army who retired in 2006 and now advises a Washington think tank called the National Security Network, describes a meeting he attended in Kampala, Uganda, this May, convened by the American general in charge of the Africa Command, or AfriCom. The top commanders of 35 militaries on the continent gather every other year, hash out policy matters, and forge personal ties.
“It was as much diplomacy and politics as anything else,” Eaton said. “Nobody could give me an example of the State Department doing anything like that.”
What should a president do about this metamorphosed Pentagon? Or more practically, what should be done with it? A question to watch for in the coming presidential debates is whether either candidate is willing to discuss reorienting the Pentagon toward its core mission of armed defense, shedding its new capacities in the interest of keeping it focused or saving money. Neither candidate has suggested so far that he will.
Pentagon cutbacks are politically difficult. No president likes to argue against national defense, and Pentagon spending by design sprawls across congressional districts, creating a built-in bipartisan lobby against cuts. But a president who tried to return the Pentagon to a more strictly military mission could expect at least some support from the Department of Defense itself. Many career officers view the extra missions with dismay, fearing that the Pentagon will get worse at fighting wars as it spends more and more time patrolling cyberspace, organizing diplomatic retreats, and deploying agricultural battalions to train farmers in war zones. Eaton, whose three children all serve in the armed forces, has been a vocal critic of the new military, and thinks the best thing the next administration could do is defund and shut down all the niche capacities that have sprung up since 9/11.
The past two US defense secretaries, including George W. Bush appointee Robert Gates, have also expressed concern about the department’s expansion. In a 2008 speech, while still in office, Gates ripped into the “creeping militarization” of foreign policy, expressing concern that the Pentagon was like an “800-pound gorilla” taking over the intelligence community, foreign aid, and diplomacy in conflict zones. Both Gates and his successor, Leon Panetta, have vociferously advocated for a bigger, better-funded State Department more capable of deploying around the world, conducting diplomacy in hot zones, and dispensing emergency relief and development aid.
It’s hard to imagine the Pentagon shedding capacity anytime soon. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan subside, the Defense Department appears likely to keep most of its enormous budget. During a period when most branches of government will be struggling to survive budget cutting, the Pentagon will more than ever have the global reach and the policy planning muscle to set the agenda and execute foreign policy.
So in the next several months, we should be on the lookout for specific ideas from candidates about what do with this excess power—at the least, an acknowledgment that it exists. Domestically, the Pentagon has the opportunity to shape university research priorities; it influences White House policy planning anytime a crisis erupts in a new place. Abroad, the military can do considerable good by using its money and expertise to improve quality of life, burnishing America’s reputation as a font of positive development rather than just counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.
But while it lasts, the breadth of the current military presents grave challenges, not least for a democratic country that in principle, if not always in policy, opposes military dictatorships around the world. Even Pentagon insiders worry about this dissonance. Whatever good our deployments can do, it will be harder to promote civilian ideals so long as our foreign policy wears a uniform.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.