The West is in the process of drastic defense reductions, justified by the lack of existential or even serious military adversaries and catalyzed by the toughest economic times in decades.

This third column on an uncommon defense argues that absent an existential threat –and draconian budget cuts may well be the only prospect to fill that bill — history will repeat and, as a famous U.S. defense secretary once observed about dealing with defense cuts, “we will screw it up” unless …

The “unless” is crucial.


If the past holds, politics and ideology and not sound “strategic thinking” will dominate decisions on where and how to cut defense. The hope is that having exhausted other options, whatever they may have been, strategic thinking will re-emerge producing seemingly more rational decisions. The devil of course is in the meaning of rational and strategic thinking.

Yet, while appealing, why should sound strategic thinking suddenly materialize when it often has lain dormant, eclipsed by more powerful political forces? The answer is that it won’t unless political leaders are forced or convinced to rely on that capacity. Herein lie the rub and reality.

In most (or all) cases, politics and ideology overwhelm strategic thinking. To defeat John McCain in 2008, candidate Barack Obama needed to appear strong on defense. Afghanistan he argued, not Iraq was the right war and subsequently “doubled down” on it with more military forces, unable to harness the crucial civilian resources to enable Afghans to govern themselves nor those to incentivize more active Pakistani engagement.

Now, having made the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, relationships with Pakistan essential to success border on the adversarial and Afghan capacity to look after itself is, at best, debatable and probably unachievable.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy embarked on the Libyan campaign not on the basis of sound strategic thinking but on political and humanitarian considerations alone. In both countries, military advice wasn’t solicited in making decisions.

Unfortunately and possibly tragically, the humanitarian aim of protecting Libyan civilians has led to a stalemate. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi conceivably could stand down. But the only absolute way to accomplish that objective is through threatening and then, if needed, using ground forces to remove him, a strategic option so far publicly and repeatedly rejected.

A stunning lesson of history is that when “strategy” or strategic thinking, no matter how essential, abuts against politics it will be trumped, bypassed, ignored or diluted. That lesson may be so ironclad that, in providing for the future common defense, unless confronted by a “clear and present danger” such as a Nazi Germany or Soviet Union in which the magnitude of the threat is existential, strategic thinking is a nice but vestigial concept. Or, one hopes that the magnitude of economically driven budget cuts is so great that if not an existential threat to the future viability of a given military, it is serious enough to warrant an uncommon approach.

That is where I believe we are today. The current condition in the United Kingdom of an imploding military forced by fiscal austerity is one that will spread to the United States in the coming months and years. But herein rests an opportunity.

Now is the time for a no-holds-barred examination of defense in which nothing is off the table. Two prior columns offered several options to be considered and need not be repeated.

The imperative is to think through without precondition or limit, a number of alternative ways of conducting defense from reconfiguring forces to adapt to new environments; to reconstitution of forces if needed; to reforming the rules and regulations on how forces are bought and maintained.

Along that line, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to find billions of dollars of savings in the budget. That effort must be reintensified but with incentives such as returning a percent of those savings to the military to fund programs otherwise eliminated or reduced.

Finally, if we believe people are our most vital resource, then how we prepare our people for a more complicated and complex future in terms of advancing knowledge and learning through revitalization and reform of education and training must have the highest priority. As the famous U.S. sea captain John Paul Jones observed more than two centuries ago, “Men are more important than guns in the rating of a ship.” We must act on that with deeds not words.

This opportunity is also a last chance. If we aren’t courageous, bold and smart, the result will be a desiccated, hollow and unready force. Through hope, luck and absence of enemies, we may not be endangered. However, neither hope nor luck are the soundest strategic foundations for success.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.