American Defense Policy After Twenty Years Of War
America has always been a place where the abrasion of continuous debate eventually produces creative solutions. Let’s agree on those solutions, and make the next twenty years a time of clear purpose and affirmative global leadership.
The American scorecard for foreign policy achievements over the past twenty years is, frankly, pretty dismal. And without talking our way all around the globe, it’s clear that the most dismal score goes to the stupidest mistakes. We fought one war that we never should have fought and another war whose objectives grew so out of control that no amount of battlefield proficiency could overcome the naïve mission creep of the political and military leadership at the top that was defining what our troops were supposed to do. So, let me start with a couple of quotes from two pieces I wrote, one at the beginning of this twenty-year period and the other at the end.
On September 4, 2002, five months before the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq, I wrote the following as part of a larger editorial for the Washington Post, warning that an invasion would be a strategic blunder:
Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall. Indeed, if one gives the Chinese credit for having a long-term strategy — and those who love to quote Sun Tzu might consider his nationality — it lends credence to their insistent cultivation of the Muslim world. An “American war” with the Muslims, occupying the very seat of their civilization, would allow the Chinese to isolate the United States diplomatically as they furthered their own ambitions in South and Southeast Asia.
Almost exactly nineteen years later as the military planners serving the Biden Administration executed a shamefully incompetent final withdrawal from Afghanistan, I wrote the following for The National Interest, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, in a piece entitled “Requiem for an Avoidable Disaster:”
…the war that we began was not the same war that we are finally bringing to an end. When we went into Afghanistan in 2001 our national concern was to eliminate terrorist entities who desired to attack us. The common understanding at the time was that we would operate with maneuver elements capable of attacking and neutralizing terrorist entities. It was never to occupy territory with permanent bases or to attempt to change the societal and governmental structure of the Afghan people. This “mission creep” began after a few years of successful operations and was obvious in 2004 when I was in the country as an embed journalist. The change in mission eventually increased our troop presence tenfold and sent our forces on an impossible political journey that no amount of military success could overcome.
Why did all this happen? And how can we rectify the damage that has been done to the institutions that were involved, and to our international credibility?
There’s an old saying that “success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan.” In this case, there were two entirely different categories of orphans, some of whom were not touched personally or even professionally, and some who gave up lives, limbs, and emotional health.
For the policymakers in Washington, these were wars to be remotely managed inside the guide rails of theoretical national strategy and uncontrolled financial planning. As with so many other drawn-out military commitments with vaguely defined and often changing objectives, America’s diplomatic credibility steadily decreased while the price tag rose through the roof, into trillions of dollars and thousands of combat deaths. There is no way around the reality that these hand-selected policymakers, military and civilian alike, failed the country, even as many of them were being lionized in the media and offered lucrative post-retirement positions in the private sector. Their immediate strategic goals, vague as they were from the outset, were not accomplished. The larger necessity of meeting global challenges, and particularly China’s determined expansion, was put on the back burner as our operational and diplomatic capabilities were diverted into a constantly quarreling region with the deserved reputation of being the “Graveyard of Empires.”
In the context of history, the human cost on the battlefield as viewed by those at the top was manageably small, and carried out by an all-volunteer military. Indeed, despite the length of twenty years of war and many ferocious engagements, the overall casualty numbers were historically low. DOD reports the total number of American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined over twenty years as 7,074, of which 5,474 were killed in action. This twenty-year number was about the same as six months of American casualties during any one of the peak years of fighting in Vietnam.
Emotionally, although there was much sympathy and respect for our soldiers we were not really a nation in a fully engaged war. As the wars continued, life in America went on without disruption. A very small percentage of the country was at human or even family risk. The wars did not interfere on a national scale with the lives of those who chose not to serve. The economy was largely good. In places like my home state of Virginia it absolutely boomed with tens of billions of dollars going to Virginia-based programs in the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
This societal disconnect gave the policymakers great latitude in the manner in which they ran the wars. It also resulted in very little congressional oversight, either in operational concepts or in much-need scrutiny of DOD and State Department management and budgets. Powerpoint presentations replaced vigorous discussion. Serious introspection by Pentagon staff members gave way to bland reports from Beltway Bandit consultants hired to provide answers to questions asked during committee hearings. An “Overseas Contingency Fund” with billions of unlabeled dollars allowed military leaders to fund programs that were never directly authorized or specifically appropriated by Congress. To be blunt, the Pentagon and the Joint commands were basically making their own rules, and to hell with everybody else.
This was not the Congress in which I had worked as a full committee counsel during the Carter Administration. Nor was it the Pentagon in which I had served as an assistant secretary of defense and Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan.
At the other end of the pipeline, it was different. For those who did serve, and especially for those who served in ground combat units and in special operations, being thrown into the middle of a region where violence and bitter retribution is the norm was often a life-altering experience. Repetitive combat tours pulled them away from home, from family, and from the normal routines of their peers again and again, creating burnout from unresolved personal issues of stress and readjustment to civilian life. So-called “stop loss” programs kept many soldiers on active duty after their initial terms of service were supposed to end, a policy that brought the not-unreal slogan that stop-loss was, in reality, nothing more than a back-door version of the draft: We have you. And we are going to keep you until we no longer need you. The traditional policy of allowing troops a two-to-one ratio of “dwell time” at home between deployments was repeatedly shortened until, for the Army, the ratio was less than one-to-one, requiring soldiers to return to combat for fifteen months with only twelve months at home to recuperate, refurbish, and retrain. Those who left the military after one enlistment rather than choosing a career were largely ignored by commands that provided little post-military guidance and sent battle-weary young soldiers home without much more than a goodbye.
But along the way, as with those who have served our country in uniform in every other war, our young military did the job that they were sent to do, no matter the overall wisdom of the mission itself.
With respect to these capable and dedicated young Americans who stepped forward to serve, I feel fortunate to have been able to play a part in making sure that the public was aware of the contributions they made, and to put into place policies that recognized and properly rewarded their service. And as a writer, journalist and later a Senator I was able to use whatever pulpit was available in order to emphasize that our greatest strategic challenges were not in the places where our elites had decided to invest our people and our national treasure, and to call for the country’s leadership to cease its unfortunate obsession with a region that has never needed a permanent American ground presence as a means of mediating, much less resolving, its centuries-old conflicts. You don’t take out a hornet’s nest by sitting on top of it. We’re smarter than that, and also more capable.
In addition to working on strongly felt issues such as economic fairness and criminal justice reform, once I was elected to the Senate I took a two-pronged approach to resolving the mess that had been made in our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first involved our larger strategic interests. I immediately gained a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two years later was named Chairman of the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. From our immediate office, I designed a staff—and a legislative approach—that would energetically re-emphasize our commitment to relations in East Asia, and recruited good people to carry out that approach. My mission to my staff was that we were going to work to invigorate American relations in East Asia, particularly in South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines, and we were going to open up Burma to the outside world. We did more than talk about this, averaging three intense trips every year where I was able to meet with top leaders in those countries as well as almost every other country in ASEAN.
Barack Obama later announced a similar policy after he was elected two years later, calling it the “Pivot to Asia.” Unfortunately, his administration’s approach skirted the largest issue in the region by avoiding any major confrontations with China. The pivot was largely abandoned at a crucial period in 2012 after China claimed sovereignty over a two million square kilometer area of the South China Sea, and began militarizing numerous contested islands claimed by several other countries. The Obama administration declined to criticize China’s actions, saying that the United States would not take a position on sovereignty issues. Quite obviously, not taking a position in this matter was defaulting to China’s aggressive acts. I responded by introducing a Senate resolution condemning any use of military force in the resolution of sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, which passed with a unanimous vote.
The second involved the day-to-day manner in which our wars were being fought, and the way that our younger military people were being treated by those at the top.
I participated in numerous hearings on all aspects from my seats on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, becoming even more concerned about the lack of serious congressional oversight. During one Foreign Relations Committee hearing on post-invasion reconstruction efforts, an assistant secretary of state testified that the United States had spent 32 billion dollars on different smaller-scale projects. I asked him to provide me and the committee a complete list of every project, as well as the cost. That was in 2007. I’m still waiting for his answer. This was clearly not the way things worked when I was a counsel in the House, where such requests were often answered within a day or two, from information that had already been compiled. In fact, the lack of an answer, despite follow-up calls from my staff, followed a broader pattern that had evolved after 9/11 when vague answers and delayed responses had become the norm, a deliberate and increasingly routine snub of the Congress by higher-level members of the executive branch.
Take your choice. This was either incompetent leadership or deliberate obstruction. If the congressional liaisons from DOD were able to provide specific, complicated data within a day or two in 1977, certainly the computers of 2007 were capable of doing so after thirty years of technological progress.
I responded by co-authoring legislation along with Senator Claire McCaskill that created the Wartime Contracts Commission, modeled after the Truman Commission of World War Two. After three years of investigations, the commission’s final report estimated that due to major failures in our contracting system the United States had squandered up to 60 billion dollars through contract waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the commission lacked subpoena power or criminal jurisdiction over actions taken in the past, but it certainly got the attention of would-be fraudsters, led to better record-keeping, improved the oversight process, and put a marker down for contracts from that point forward.
Having grown up in the military, and serving as an infantry Marine in Vietnam, and with a son who had left college to enlist in the Marine Corps infantry and fought in Ramadi, Iraq during one of the worst periods in that war, I seized the opportunity – and undertook the obligation – to properly reward the contributions of those who had stepped forward to serve.
Immediately after I won the election to the Senate, and two months before actually being sworn in, I sat down with the Senate legislative counsel and drafted the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Having spent four years as a full committee counsel on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, my legislative model was the GI Bill that had been given to our World War Two veterans, the most generous GI Bill in history up to that time: pay for the veteran’s tuition and fees, buy the books, and provide a monthly living stipend. For every tax dollar that was spent on the World War Two GI bill, our treasury received eight dollars in tax remunerations from veterans who had gone on to successful lives. By contrast, the Vietnam Era GI Bill had provided only a monthly payment that in almost every case was far less than the costs of higher education, beginning in 1966 at a paltry rate of 50 dollars a month and ending in the early 1970s at $340 a month.
I introduced the Post-9/11 GI Bill on my first day as a Senator. I put together a bipartisan leadership team—two Republicans, John Warner and Chuck Hagel; two Democrats, Frank Lautenberg and myself; two of them World War Two veterans, and two of them Vietnam veterans. Sixteen months later in a modern-day Congressional miracle, the bill became law, ironically over the strong opposition of the Bush Administration to the very end. The White House and the Pentagon claimed that such a generous bill would affect retention, causing too many people to leave the military. The obvious but implicit message was, Don’t treat them too good; they’ll leave. This position was taken by general officers who were going to receive a couple of hundred thousand dollars every year in military retirement when they themselves decided to leave. Having spent five years in the Pentagon and being intimately familiar with manpower issues, I held a completely different belief, that the generosity of the new GI Bill would enhance enlistments and help broaden the base of our overall military. In a back-handed compliment, at least in my view, I was not invited to the White House for the ceremony when the President signed the bill. But to date, millions of post-9/11 veterans have used this Bill, which is beyond cavil the most generous GI Bill in history. It has created opportunities and empowered the careers of people who are now making their way into positions of leadership and influence throughout the country.
Shortly after I introduced the GI Bill, I introduced legislation to mandate a proper ratio for dwell time between overseas deployments. The legislation would have required that military members not be returned to combat unless they had been home for at least the amount of time that they had previously been gone. This was not unreasonable. A two-to-one ratio was a simple formula that reflected traditional rotation cycles. With the continuous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan it had fallen to less than one-to-one, which meant that for years our soldiers would be gone longer than they were at home, and when they were at home they would be spending much of their time getting ready to go back. This reality was clearly affecting not only morale but also the potential for long-term emotional difficulties such as post-traumatic stress.
Predictably, the White House and the Pentagon opposed the legislation. Some claimed that I had designed it with a hidden agenda to slow down the war in Iraq. Others, led by Senator Lindsey Graham, claimed that the legislation was unconstitutional, that Congress could not intervene in the operational tempo of the military since the President was the Commander in Chief. But a precedent was already set. During the Korean War, Congress had ceased the deployment of soldiers who were being sent to the war zone without proper training by mandating that no military members could be deployed overseas unless they had spent 120 days on active duty. If the military leaders weren’t going to take care of their people, it was only right that Congress should set proper boundaries.
The Republicans filibustered the legislation, which then required sixty votes for passage. Although the bill twice received a fifty-six vote majority, with several Republican votes for passage, we did not break the filibuster. But we did put the issue of dwell time firmly before Congress and the public, and the two-to-one deployment cycle eventually became the express goal inside the Department of Defense.
All of that is history. I put it before you as something of a template to show the patterns that evolved and have continued over the past twenty years, as well as evidence that strong and informed leadership in Congress can turn things around. In many ways, this dislocation is between those who make policy—including military leaders—and those who carry it out. It continues due to the group mentality of a foreign policy aristocracy seeking common agreement rather than original thought. And it has exacerbated this ever-growing dislocation by freezing out those who are not, basically, in the club because their thinking does not fit the usual mantra and their ideas threaten the prevailing orthodoxy.
We need these other voices. There are lessons to be learned and unavoidable questions that need to be answered at every level. Some involve the articulation of our national security objectives and how we define national strategy. Some involve when and how we should use the military for operational missions in harm’s way. And some involve the actual makeup of these military missions, from their remote or covert or overt nature, and if deployed in large numbers how large that footprint should be, and what portion should consist of military contractors along the lines of the past twenty years. And for those who want to repair the damage, it challenges us to find clear ways where we can move forward.
Who do we hold accountable for the random and often changing strategic mistakes that have damaged our strength and our reputation? How do we move forward in the way we articulate and implement our national strategy here at home? How do we regain our respect in the international community, both among our friends who need us, and from potential adversaries who pray every day that America will lose its willpower, that we would be so overcome by military failures abroad and turbulence at home that the nation itself will atrophy and descend into the ranks of an also-ran, second-rate power?
We should begin with a vigorous and open discussion about the makeup, power, and influence of America’s massive defense establishment. And here I’m talking about the highest levels of our uniformed military, the civilian government officials, the powerful defense corporations, the numerous think tanks funded heavily by the defense industry, the hugely influential lobbying organizations, and—if not at the bottom, certainly in the bullseye of the efforts of all of these entities—the authorizing and appropriating committees in the Senate and House of Representatives. Couple that with the media of all sorts, particularly the huge growth of the internet and social media, and one can see how complicated the debate over any controversial issue can become.
We were warned about this, sixty years ago, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his well-remembered speech about the “military / industrial complex.” The speech was the president’s carefully placed farewell message to the American people, made just three days before he left office. His words resonate, symbolic in their timing as his final shot across the bow, and coming as they did from this former five-star general who knew the military with a completeness that no other American president could ever match.
After commenting that in the aftermath of World War Two the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” Eisenhower expressed his concern about the “total influence – economic, political, even spiritual” of this new reality “in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”
The outgoing, immensely popular President then bluntly called out the members of his own professional culture—the military itself—and the bond its top leaders were increasingly forming with America’s defense corporations. “In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military / industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Looking at the decades following his speech and particularly the past twenty years, I believe President Eisenhower would be amazed at how massively this military-industrial complex has grown, how entangled the relationships between the military and the industrial complex have become, and how much it has affected the career paths of civilian “experts,” as well as the positions taken by many senior flag officers facing retirement.
Lucrative civilian careers have been made through the “revolving doors” of serving for a few years in appointed posts in the Departments of Defense and State, or by working on committee staffs in the Congress, then rotating over the space of many years in and out of government into the defense-oriented industry and in the ever more influential think tanks, some of them heavily funded by corporations with major financial interests in defense contracts. The number of people involved in such revolving doors and the amount of money flowing back and forth would have stunned the understanding of people in Eisenhower’s era.
Likewise, many military officers have made similar career moves, taking advantage of skills and relationships that were developed while on active duty. Those in uniform and others who work in the area of national defense regularly comment about the potential for conflicts of interest among the most senior flag officers as they carry out their final active duty positions before retiring and prepare for their next career in the civilian world. Critical issues ranging from the procurement of weapons systems to carrying out politically sensitive military operations often comprise the way in which potential civilian employers decide on the next chapter in their lives. A hand played well can bring large financial benefits. A hand played poorly can result in media stigma or even being relieved of their duties, and a beach house in Tarpon Springs.
As with other areas of public service, it would be useful for Congress to examine the firewalls in place in order to maintain the vitally important separation of the military, on the one side, and the industrial complex on the other, just as President Dwight Eisenhower so prophetically pointed out sixty years ago.
Dwight Eisenhower would have liked General Robert Barrow, the twenty-seventh commandant of the Marine Corps. His leadership example personally inspired me, both during and after my service in the Corps. We had many personal discussions over the years, until he passed away in 2008. He was a great combat leader. He mastered guerrilla warfare while fighting Japanese units alongside Chinese soldiers in World War Two. In the Korean War, he received the Navy Cross, our country’s second-highest award, for extraordinary heroism as a company commander during the historic breakout from the Chosin Reservoir. And in Vietnam, he was known as one of the war’s finest regimental commanders. He knew war, he knew loyalty, and he knew his Marines.
General Barrow was fond of emphasizing that moral courage was often harder, and more exemplary, than physical courage. On matters of principle, he would not bend. During one difficult period when he was dealing with serious issues in the political process, the four-star Commandant calmly pointed out to me that his obligation was to run the Marine Corps “the same way a good company commander runs his rifle company: I’ll do the best job I know how to do, and if you don’t like what I’m doing, then fire me.”
It is rare these days to see such leaders wearing the stars of a general or an admiral. And thinking of President Eisenhower’s prescient warnings about what he termed the “the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals,” I have no doubt that he and General Barrow shared the same concerns. General Barrow held another firm belief. Having served as Commandant of the Marine Corps, he believed it would soil the dignity of that office by trading on its credibility for financial gain through banging on doors in Washington as a lobbyist or serving as a board member giving a defense-related corporation his prized insider’s advice on how to sell their product.
The Japanese have a saying that “life is a generation, but reputation is forever.” And General Barrow’s pristine motivation will forever preserve his honor.
I grew up in the military. I know the price that families must pay when their fathers or now even their mothers are continuously deployed, because I lived it as a very young boy. My father, a pilot who flew B-17s and B-29s in World War Two and cargo planes in the Berlin Airlift, was continually deployed either overseas or on bases with no family housing, at one point for more than three years. I know the demands and yet the honor of leading infantry Marines in combat and then spending years in and out of the hospital after being wounded. I know what it is like to be a father with a son deployed in a very bad place as an enlisted infantry Marine. And most of all I know the pride that comes from being able to say for the rest of my life that when my country called, I was there, and I took care of my people.
My other major point today is that our top leaders in all sectors of national defense need to get going and develop a clearly articulated foreign policy. We have lost twenty years, unfortunately fulfilling the prediction that I made in the Washington Post five months before the invasion of Iraq that “Nations such as China can only view the prospect of an American military consumed for the next generation by the turmoil of the Middle East as a glorious windfall.” And for China, indeed it was.
It’s ironic that we are now hearing frantic warnings from our uniformed leaders about China’s determined expansionism, both military and economic, and particularly about how recent reports of Chinese technological leaps might be something of a new “Sputnik” moment where America has been caught off-guard and now must rush to catch up. Too bad they weren’t following this as these policies and technological improvements were developed by the Chinese over at least the past two decades, while our focus remained intently on the never-ending and never-resolved brawls in the Middle East.
The very people who now are wringing their hands and calling for a full-fledged effort to counter such threats are the same people who should have been warning the nation of their possibility ten or even twenty years ago.
So, ask yourself: If things go wrong, who then shall we blame?
Much of the world is now uneasy with China’s unremitting aggression on its home turf in Asia. Over the past decade, China has been calling its own shots, rejecting international law and public opinion while flexing its muscle to signal its view that it will soon replace the United States as the region’s dominant military, diplomatic and economic power. Beijing has taken down Hong Kong’s democracy movement; started military spats with India; disrupted life for tens of millions by damming the headwaters of the Mekong River; conducted what our government now deems a campaign of genocide against Muslim Uighurs; escalated tensions with Japan over the Senkaku Islands; consolidated its illegal occupation and militarization of islands in the South China Sea; and made repeated bellicose gestures designed to test the international community’s resistance to “unifying” the “renegade province” of Taiwan. China’s military is expanding and modernizing and its Navy is becoming not only technological but global.
While we expended a huge portion of our human capital, emotional energy, and national treasure on two wars, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has had a major economic impact in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and with individual governments on other continents. In Africa, whose population has quadrupled since 1970 and which counts only one of the world’s top thirty countries in Gross National Product, more than forty countries have signed on to China’s BRI.
Let’s get going. We have alliances to enhance, and extensive national security interests to protect. We need to address these issues immediately and with clarity. America has always been a place where the abrasion of continuous debate eventually produces creative solutions. Eventually is now. Let’s agree on those solutions, and make the next twenty years a time of clear purpose and affirmative global leadership.