By Sandra I. Erwin
President Obama last week said the United States is ready to move beyond the war on terror. The nation’s military, meanwhile, is preparing for a future of continuous combat.
“I don’t see any indication that things are going to settle down or become peaceful,” said Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.
Speaking at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., May 29, Amos said he is convinced that the U.S. military during the next two decades will be just as busy as it has been during the past 12 years of war. When asked to forecast the Marine Corps’ future missions, Amos said, “I see much of what we’re going through right now. I don’t see any of it waning away. I don’t see major theater wars. I see thorny, difficult, challenging, human intensive — not necessarily technology intensive — conflicts.”
Amos cited the crisis in Syria, the activities of Lebanon’s Islamist group Hezbollah, developments in Iran, Iraq, Mali and North Korea as potentially requiring U.S. armed intervention over the coming years. None of these boiling pots will settle down, he said. Extremist groups continue to threaten the United States, Amos added. “We may think we are done with them. But they are not necessarily done with us.” The nation might be inclined to cut military spending, but “You can’t ignore the world I just described,” Amos said. “You can’t turn your back on it.”
Amos’ vision of the future echoes the views of other military leaders who believe the post-Afghanistan era will be one of perpetual war.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, has said the military expects to be on a permanent war footing. Defense officials do not see the end of the Afghanistan war as the beginning of a peaceful era. They view the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear ambitions as ticking time bombs. Although the odds of a large-scale war are low, the “chance of violence for ideological and other purposes is exponentially greater,” according to Dempsey.
The military chiefs’ worldviews, while not diametrically opposed to the one Obama laid out May 23, illustrate the challenge the administration faces as it tries to reshape national security priorities and comply with congressionally mandated budget cuts.
In a speech at the National Defense University last week, which mostly focused on the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists, Obama described the future of the war on terror as one that requires a different, not necessarily military, response. “Our nation is still threatened by terrorists. … We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11,” Obama said. “Now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them. … We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”
Unrest in the Arab world has allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria, he said. But there are differences from 9/11. “In some cases, we confront state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals. … While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.”
Framing the debate over the future missions of the U.S. military is a defense budget crunch that will squeeze all branches of the armed services. Amos acknowledged that mandatory budget cuts, known as sequestration, are “real,” and not likely to go away. Nonetheless, he said, it is important for the military to maintain its global presence. The Marine Corps, for instance, will downsize from 202,000 to 182,000. It plans to redeploy forces that are currently in Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific region.
How that will be accomplished with less money remains to be seen. Analysts have criticized Pentagon officials for being unrealistic about what they can afford to do in the future. “It has become uncommon to show in any detail how the quantity of proposed forces — the number of units, assets, and personnel — actually correlate with specific security challenges and outcomes,” said Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Center for International Policy.
In the current debate, he said, “vague generalities have prevailed. … America’s current strategic and economic circumstances require a stricter interrogation of what passes for defense requirements.”
Amos said budget cuts “will have real impact,” but at the same time, “there are engagement responsibilities our nation needs to acknowledge,” he said. “I am not in denial on sequestration [but] we do have global responsibilities.”