Andrew J. Bacevich

America’s skewed national security priorities

By Andrew J. Bacevich
June 4, 2010

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WHEN REQUIREMENTS are great and resources limited, setting the right priorities becomes essential. Yet events in recent years — the ineffective government response to the BP oil spill being the latest — have made it clear that US national security priorities are badly out of whack.

Last week, President Obama designated the oil spill his “top priority.’’ No doubt the president spoke from the heart. For the national security establishment over which he presides, however, pacifying Kandahar continues to take precedence over protecting Louisiana’s Grand Isle.

Money tells the tale. Since the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, the United States has expended hundreds of billions of dollars (along with the lives of several thousand US troops) in vainly attempting to determine the course of events across the Greater Middle East. Resting on the assumption that the application of American hard power fosters order and stability, that effort continues today, with no end in sight.

Little evidence exists to suggest that US exertions, whether aimed at liberating, transforming, or dominating the Islamic world, are achieving success. No matter: Washington shows no sign of relenting. In Congress, new appropriations to fund the war in Afghanistan are pending — $58 billion — with passage assured.

Yet during this period when the Greater Middle East has commanded top billing among US national security concerns, the American people have endured repeated assaults, exacting a punishing toll. Today the problem is oil befouling our southern coastline. In 2005 it was Hurricane Katrina, the failure of levees along the Mississippi devastating New Orleans. In 2001, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, executed entirely within our own borders. Interspersed among these calamities were recurring greed-induced economic crises — the Enron bankruptcy, the Madoff scandal, the bursting of the real estate bubble, the market collapse of 2008.

From one administration to the next, the US government has failed to anticipate the threats actually endangering the well-being of the American people. Worse, when those threats materialize — here at home, not in Central Asia or the Persian Gulf — authorities respond belatedly and ineffectually. Even as Washington has fixated on distant wars of dubious necessity, Americans have lost their savings, lost their jobs, and lost their homes. Some have lost their lives, others have lost their livelihood.

A century ago, Americans paid considerable attention to their “near abroad.’’ Today they all but ignore it. Compare US policy toward Afghanistan, located on the other side of the world, with US policy toward our neighbor, Mexico. To assist Afghans, Washington will seemingly spare no expense. When it comes to Mexico, Washington builds a chain-link fence. Yet whether the issue is trade, drugs, or security, Mexico’s importance to the United States outranks Afghanistan’s by orders of magnitude.

What’s going on here? Americans have somehow persuaded themselves that faraway problems deserve the most attention. Just the reverse is true. Here in the northern half of the Western Hemisphere is where the future of the American way of life is being determined.

Efforts to determine the course of events in the Greater Middle East will avail us nothing if we prove incapable of coping with the problems — many of our own making — that we face in our own quartersphere. Paramount among those problems are these two: first, reconciling the exercise of freedom (typically defined in terms of consumption) with environmental preservation; second, making our own riotous standard of living acceptable to neighboring countries still wrestling with poverty and underdevelopment.

In addressing these problems — which are moral as well as practical — hard power will not get us very far. So funneling ever greater sums to the Pentagon, as Congress is wont to do, doesn’t offer a solution. The needed modification of national security priorities, in other words, goes beyond geography to encompass methods as well.

Politicians and pundits insist that the United States must choose global leadership and isolationism. In fact, the real choice is between being smart and being stupid. For too long now, Washington has chosen stupid. The oil that continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico suggests that we can ill-afford to indulge this habit much longer.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, out this summer, is “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.’’

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