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Commentary

A Good Military a Terrible Thing to Waste


     
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The speed with which U.S. military forces were able to begin combat operations in Libya last month, following the president’s order to intervene in the unfolding civil war, is a tribute to the professionalism and combat readiness of the U.S. armed forces.

But it also should give us great pause. Unless the United States has been attacked, military intervention should be a very difficult, sobering decision requiring painstaking reflection.

The trouble is: with U.S. forces now deployed all over the globe, military intervention has become too easy. If it wasn’t so easy perhaps we would do less of it.

Even before the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly a quarter of all U.S. active duty forces—250,000 of the more than 1 million men and women in the active duty military—were deployed overseas.

They’re virtually everywhere—with installations in dozens of countries, including Greenland, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Qatar and Kyrgyzstan. In less enlightened times, some would call this an “empire.”

Although the Cold War is long since over and there is no threat of Soviet tanks bursting through the Fulda Gap, one of the military fault lines that separated the former East and West Germany, the United States still has 50 Army installations and four Air Force bases in Germany. Elsewhere in Europe, we also have bases in Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Who are we defending against what enemy and at what cost?

In East Asia, the United States has upward of 70,000 troops, mostly in Japan and South Korea. We also have bases in Singapore, Australia, the Philippines and in the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean (not to mention the U.S. territory of Guam). In addition, one of our Navy’s 11 carrier groups is based in Japan.

The problem with such a sprawling global military footprint, which also includes six U.S. “carrier groups” that typically are on deployment at any given time (each including an aircraft carrier, its air wing, cruise-missile armed cruisers, destroyers and attack submarines) is that it can encourage U.S. intervention by making it easy.

There are those who believe this is a good thing. In his memoirs, Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalls a conversation with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in which she allegedly argued, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?” In other words, a good military is a terrible thing to waste.

To a president with a hammer as large as America’s military, every problem can readily look like a nail. Employing military force becomes easy and the temptation to do so great.

To be sure, America’s military also can be used for humanitarian purposes, such as providing supplies and assisting victims of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. But that is not a reason for U.S. taxpayers to spend more than $500 billion a year on defense. No matter how precisely employed, military force is still a blunt instrument intended to destroy and kill.

Ultimately, the only way to wean the United States from using the military to try to solve the world’s problems—which are seldom solved by the use of force—is to reduce the size and footprint of U.S. forces.

The good news is that we can do so and still be safe. America is fortunate to have friendly countries to the north and south and two vast oceans on our flanks. We do not need to contain the Soviet Union—as we did during the Cold War—and there is no successor rival power on the horizon.

While we clearly have enemies, none has the power to seriously threaten the U.S. homeland.

The United States shouldn’t be the first responder to crises that do not threaten our security, such as Libya. If U.S. forces weren’t deployed here, there and everywhere, it would be much easier to say “no” when the rest of the world cries out for America to intervene.


Charles Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.

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