BARELY TWO weeks ago, the United States seemed on the verge of a historic shift. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent the first signal: “Pentagon plans to shrink Army to pre-World War II level,” a New York Times headline in late February read. Hagel’s announcement included a potent symbol of the change: the complete elimination of the Air Force’s prized A-10 attack aircraft, which was developed — tellingly — in the 1970s to counter a Soviet ground assault against western Europe. Nearly a quarter-century after the USSR collapsed, the Cold War thaw would finally reach the Pentagon.
The defense budget that President Obama sent to Congress last week was to send a second signal of transformation. The proposed figure of $496 billion for defense is gargantuan, but still represents a massive drop from the more than $600 billion appropriated in 2013. War costs account for a chunk of that decrease, but Hagel acknowledged a new era in which “America’s dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.” More to the point, the budget plan begins to recognize that there are significant constraints, both moral and practical, on the use of American military power. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address, “America must move off a permanent war footing.”
Whether Congress will go along now is anyone’s guess. Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula has stiffened resistance among Republican hawks. “What kind of message are we sending,” asked John McCain, “when we’re slashing our military?” Yet this crisis won’t be resolved by American military force, and it can’t be; as Vladimir Putin well knows, the United States isn’t about to go to war with a nuclear-armed Russia over this predominantly Russian-speaking area of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the episode has ignited in Washington an all too familiar reaction of bluster and threat. But war?
Politically, no president wants to be seen as retreating from the high military purpose that, for two generations, has structured the economy of the United States as well as its identity. Yet, in the mundane business of postwar reorganization after Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as of reckoning with fiscal constraints imposed by Congress, Obama had been quietly doing just that before the Ukraine crisis. His budget does not trumpet any surrender of military ambition, but a profound shift is nevertheless embedded in those numbers.
Gone from the administration’s new budget is any illusion that America can simultaneously fight two wars in different regions of the globe — the end of a proud boast that epitomized the post-9/11 hypermobilization. That ambition, of course, went sorely unfulfilled in the two adjacent wars that actually presented themselves.
Despite the taboo against acknowledging any limits to America’s military capacity, such limits are real — even for justified humanitarian intervention, especially when the US acts alone. Its military exists only to defend the security of the nation, and violent projection of power can be justified only by imminent threat. Preventive war, that is, no longer forms part of American martial doctrine. The lesson of the Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures is that coercion of other peoples, short of wholesale destruction, does not succeed. And wholesale destruction is immoral.
Obama cannot describe his adjustments as strategic retreat, especially now, with Republicans ready to pounce. But here is the irony: the dangerous situation in Ukraine proves the wisdom of the basic course Obama has set. No one, not even gun-happy McCain or other war-party honchos, wants a military response to Russia’s action. The irrelevance of the Pentagon’s Cold War calibrations — like the US nuclear arsenal itself — has never been clearer.
The time has come for a new American grand strategy. If it were fully articulated, as opposed to merely implied in budget numbers, it would begin by acknowledging that the United States no longer claims unipolar supremacy and understands itself as part of a multilateral order. It is fully committed to international norms of self-defense, the very norms it now accuses Russia of violating.
The Washington-led global response to Moscow — firm diplomacy and economic pressure — makes the point better than any speech about a new global order. Despite current strains, a possible future is opening even now: War does not work. The world is learning that, including the United States. For political reasons, the president must take the turn toward that future without fanfare. Yet the turn is being made.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.