Intense debate over what the United States can or will do regarding its massive debt and deficits along with its drawdowns from Afghanistan and Iraq, possibly tempered by the Libyan fiasco, will put defense spending under political and public microscopes.

This is the first of a series of columns that examine this question and what the nation can do in providing for the common defense.

The past and present are indeed prologues to the future. Over the past century, the only war that the United States and its allies truly won in all senses was World War II. An existential threat to freedom and democracy was eliminated unconditionally. And Germany and Japan, the sources and founts of that threat, would become very productive and prosperous democracies under the rule of law.


The reasons for this success were self-evident. The nation and its allies rallied and were “prepared to pay any price and to bear any burden” to win. Germany and Japan lay in ruins in 1945 incapable of resistance or reconstruction. The occupations were unopposed. The roots of pluralism were present. And the ethnic homogeneity of both states was a bonus.

Korea was eventually successful after the war was halted in 1953. It took time to make the south into a pluralistic state under the rule of law. However, for reasons not dissimilar to the above, that happened.

Vietnam was a national calamity costing 58,000 U.S. and several million Vietnamese dead. Fortunately, losing that war had no strategic penalties and perhaps ironically helped turn China into a de facto ally or at least no longer an enemy. And it took the Vietnamese to rebuild their unified country under the communist rule we sought to prevent.

George Herbert Walker Bush got the first Iraq war right in 1991. Saddam Hussein and his army were beaten into a pulp but not occupied. Kuwait was liberated, although sadly not pluralized and de-monarchized. And Iraq still functioned as a counterweight to Iran.

Afghanistan and the second Iraq war were different. While it may not be over, over there yet, Iraq still doesn’t have a Cabinet; its economy has not recovered; violence continues; and Iran’s influence has grown.

In fairness, Afghanistan’s fate is uncertain. However, despite whatever gains have been made on the security side, governance and development are weak or missing legs that most likely will lead to more violence and instability as NATO and U.S. forces withdraw. And the costs of both wars turned out to be unaffordable.

Libya and the effort to force Moammar Gadhafi to stand down, while an extraordinary operational feat to bring NATO to bear so quickly, in all likelihood cannot succeed by air power alone.

Absent the political will to employ ground forces, who knows if or when Gadhafi capitulates and under what terms? Worse, should Gadhafi go and some humanitarian disaster break out impelled by starvation, disease or lack of basic services such as electricity, who is prepared to intervene and to what level?

Several observations should influence thinking about the shape and size of future defense and military power.

First, the real threat has shifted from powerful conventional armies and navies to small isolated groups that don’t need ships, tanks and aircraft to achieve their strategic or political objectives. This profound shift fundamentally challenges the basic building blocks for fielding traditional military forces.

Second, in these battles, as well as against al-Qaida, intelligence, law enforcement and special forces tools have become far more important and not just in targeted assassinations by drones and hit teams to decapitate the leaders of these many smaller groups. The training and assisting of locals is clearly essential and special forces have great application here.

Third, and the subject of the next column, we can no longer afford to fight these types of wars. The asymmetries of what it costs the enemy for example to use mines and booby traps — pennies — and us to armor, protect and provide often round the clock surveillance to safeguard our people are breaking the bank.

Finally, given the Arab Spring and spreading political unrest, solutions for assuring what we see as positive outcomes slide further from our grasp.

Take Egypt. Economic development is crucial to political stability. But who has the resources to that end?

The implications for defense are clear. We will need fewer forces tailored for the so-called high-intensity war against possible peer adversaries. This doesn’t mean abandoning those capabilities. They must be structured differently with perhaps greater reliance on reconstitution.

Second, building partnerships, as NATO did after the Soviet Union imploded are vital. That requires skilled professionals to teach and train, not vast sums of money.

Finally, intervention is a step of last resort. Surely, the last 70 years have taught us that lesson at obscene costs of human and national treasure.

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.