DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

America's Declining State of Readiness

By David Brin, Ph.D.

As we prepare for another political season, some dismal patterns seem ripe for repetition. While an unpopular administration wallows in a myriad failures of policy and competence, Democrats seem unlikely, yet again, to exploit Republican weakness. That is, they seem unlikely to get their act together well enough to overcome gerrymandering and dozens of other systemic disadvantages that have accumulated in recent years.

"Democrats don't yet have a fully worked-out alternative program," explained E.J. Dionne Jr., recently, in the Washington Post. As usual, they cannot seem to decide between two mutually inconsistent goals:

  1. Pursuing the emotional satisfactions of ideological purity, by portraying all conservatives as evil, focusing on partisan hot-button issues, and dismissing moderates as DINOS or "Democrats in name only."

  2. Creating a big enough tent to welcome millions of sincere voters who are not classic liberals, but who are waking up to the debacle of Bush Era neoconservatism -- a calamitous movement that promulgated divisive "culture war" and betrayed many American values, including conservative ones.

Those preaching for strategy #1 fear that any appeal to conservatives and moderates will mean turning away from core democratic principles, at best putting in office limp-wristed versions of Bush-Cheney, who will only put bandaids over the depredations of a rampaging kleptocracy.

But it is worth noting that the neocons themselves -- despite staunchly-held dogmas of their own -- never shirked from luring votes wherever they might be found. They did this by offering lip-service promises to both tax-slashing spendthrifts and fiscal conservatives; to both isolationists and interventionists; to both fundamentalists and libertarians; to both border activists and business interests demanding a flood of undocumented workers.

Of course, this cynical, Janus approach to realpolitik is contemptible at many levels. (Especially since the movement actually delivered almost nothing tangible to many of those constituencies!)

And yet, only fools would refuse to scrutinize how Karl Rove and his compatriots achieved such an impressive political feat, luring one constituency after another, until their coalition's "tent" was big enough to seize every branch of government.

Liberals who feel only contempt for the Neoconservative Revolution and no grudging respect are deluding themselves and hurting their own cause by not studying how that revolution was achieved. Ask yourself the fundamental question: whose tactics have achieved power, and whose tactics have not? The neocons' relentless march from post-Watergate nadir to unprecedented dominion should be studied carefully, even by those who want to turn America away from amoral ruthlessness.

Especially by those hoping for politics that is more elevated, reasoned and mature, in the land of Franklin, Marshall, Eisenhower and King.

Noteworthy, above all, is this fact:

The opposite of Karl Rove's hypocritical neoconservative Big Tent is not a "small tent."

The genuine opposite is an even Bigger Tent1. One that draws in a multitude of sincere Americans, willing to drop the habit of waging bitter culture war. A tent filled with pragmatic liberals and (yes) decent conservatives and others, eager to negotiate with, and listen to, their neighbors, seeking tangible improvements in the society and nation we all love.


[image from Princeton University]

Reclaiming Patriotism

I'll put it as clearly as possible: Military readiness could be a winning issue for the Democratic Party, as it was for JFK in 1960.

Only with a difference. Way back in 1960, Kennedy's "Missile Gap" turned out to be overstated. But today's hollowing out of the US military -- chivvied and purged, attrited and drained -- is so blatant that it borders on treason. While crony contractors wallow at the trough, our actual readiness has plummeted to levels not seen since Pearl Harbor.

A bold and provocative statement, yet easy to back up. Can anyone honestly claim that we're better prepared, today, to deal with emergencies -- ranging from natural disasters to surprise attack, or an urgent call for help from some ally -- than we were before 9/11?

Of course this problem has many layers, some of them diplomatic. Given the plummet of our international popularity and stature, would anyone bet that our allies are now more ready to leap to our aid than in 2001? Or take the way that political operatives have been inveigled into top positions at all of the intelligence services, security agencies and organizations like FEMA, where professionalism traditionally took first place, ahead of partisanship.

Can anyone doubt that this, too, affects readiness?

Or that such matters could be worthy topics for an election year?2


[image from Wikipedia]

The Assumptions That Underly Our Professional Military Doctrine

All right, then. Let's focus on the issue of readiness. Especially the purely military aspects of readiness.

Consider the fundamental premise underlying recent developments in US military doctrine, from our all-volunteer Army to improvements in education levels, from the force-multiplying effects of high technology to a daunting proliferation of strange and unprecedented new kinds of threats, each requiring new systems of training and response.

Any informed observer must be impressed with the intelligence and agility with which our skilled professional defenders have confronted every issue, addressing a bewildering variety of new dangers with enhanced skill sets and rapidly-adapting technology.

And yet, these costly trends were -- naturally -- accompanied by reductions in overall manpower, to the point where we currently have fewer active army and marine divisions than at any time since 1939.

Nothing too worrisome about that, so far. This doctrinal trend has some very strong backing, in both logic and deep military thinking. Clearly -- up to a point -- raw numbers can be replaced by a combination of technology and professional skill. (What is the alternative? A return to the draft?)

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that this entire trend depended upon some basic assumptions:

  1. That those active professional divisions would not be committed to extended combat duty, say over a period of years, without support from the nation as a whole, in the form of strong manpower augmentations... as happened every other time in our history that the "thin blue line" went into major war. (A "major war" is one in which all combat soldiers can expect deployment and most units get rotated in-theater more than once.)

  2. That well-trained reserves would be available for immediate force augmentation, filling in during the transition, while society provided for longer-term solutions.

  3. That reserves would -- as quickly as possible -- return to their principle role as a rested and ready militia, and that high priority would also be given to returning regular divisions to their chief function, to train for service as supremely ready first-responders, available in case of any kind of surprise or emergency.

  4. That the high modern levels of per capita investment in today's individual soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines should result in maximum planning priority given to rapid and efficient problem-solving. Above all, modern doctrines call for avoiding extended conflicts that might either produce casualties or reduce re-enlistments, since the costs and timescales for replacing lost service personnel have become almost overwhelmingly daunting.

Have these premises been supported by recent events? Or dangerously betrayed?

  • This issue was brought to the fore recently when a Congressionally mandated commission of retired officers began work on proposals to change the way the reserves and National Guard should be structured and used. Among their concerns: at one point in 2005, nearly half of all US troops in Iraq were from the Guard and reserves, prompting a number of governors to complain that they lacked the ability to respond to at-home emergencies -- a reality brought into stark contrast during the debacle of Hurricane Katrina.

  • Or take this more concise fact: Since 2003 the military has had to deal with more than four thousand cases of desertion, a problem seldom reported in the news.

  • Or consider this news item:

    Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency.... Krepinevich points to the Army's 2005 recruiting slump... and its decision to offer much bigger enlistment bonuses.... "You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue."

  • Further underreported has been a steady draw-down from units based in potential future trouble spots, like the border with unstable North Korea. These removals were not the result of re-evaluated needs for an unstable region, but rather the desperate need for bodies to be sent to Iraq.

None of these facts would indict the U.S. leadership all by themselves. Not if we were truly in a bona fide state of national emergency -- and if determined efforts were underway to solve these temporary problems by gathering and applying fresh resources in money, manpower and resolve, the way earlier crises were met with national unity and determined sense of purpose.

But in the near total absence of such united resolve, what we are seeing month after month is a steady deterioration of national readiness, unlike any since the end of the Vietnam War, and possibly rivaling our situation before Pearl Harbor.

This, alone, could be a major issue in an election year. But one aspect stands out above all others: The near-demolition of our reserves and National Guard should have Democratic candidates shouting from the rooftops.3


[image from The Cool Mag]

The Distinction Between an Emergency and Elective Surgery

This point is crucial in considering how best to oppose the calamity of our intervention in Iraq: Democrats shoot themselves in the foot, yet again, by allowing the argument to be about whether or not it was a generally good idea to topple Saddam Hussein -- a horrible, mass-murdering tyrant who was a Bush-Cheney client long before he set his eyes upon conquering Kuwait.

Why would any sensible person allow themselves to be portrayed as wishing that a despot had been left in power?

No, the debate should revolve around whether the desirable goal of toppling a horrid dictator should have been pursued as an emergency. Was the matter so urgent that it was worth sacrificing civil liberties, our standing in the world, our moral rectitude, and our readiness to face genuine dangers in an uncertain world? So urgent that politicians felt justified over-ruling every bit of sage advice from skilled professionals? So urgent that no time and effort could be given to coming up with a better plan?

Seriously. After collapse of the WMD and terror arguments, even those who believe in the Iraq Intervention can no longer support the word "emergency."4 They should admit that spreading democracy in the Middle East is, and always was, a clearcut case of "elective surgery."

Now, one can reasonably argue that the professional units of our all-volunteer military are for implementation of national policy. That policy may be ill conceived and the top leadership may be incompetent, using bludgeons where scalpels might have worked. But at least one can envision both the goal and applying a professional tool to achieve it.

The central point: it is possible to justify the judicious use of our active duty forces in furtherance of national policy. Even in endeavors that fall under the category of elective surgery.

But there is a crucial difference between our regular armed forces and the reserves.

The former may, at times, be used as a tool of elective (non-emergency) policy. The latter should never be.


[image from Britannica.com]

The Precarious Condition of Our National Militia

By no conceivable excuse is it forgivable to expend and use up our reserves without a genuine emergency. Using them up, so that we are less ready for any kind of dangerous surprise than we were five years ago.

It bears endless repeating. The words "emergency" and "war" are utterly indefensible verbal ploys, under present circumstances.

Fewer Americans have fallen from terror in 20 years than die in a single month of traffic.

Moreover, even if that changes tomorrow, in some devastating attack, remember this: Most of us grew up worried about imminent, universal, nuclear annihilation!

And yet, even during the Cold War we would never have allowed a quasi-permanent "state of emergency" to excuse deceit, incompetence, cheating and secret evasion of accountability. (Would conservatives have swallowed this from Clinton?)

Yes, terror is an ongoing sickness that makes normal life less than perfect. Deeply worrisome, it must be fought with intelligence, diplomacy, cultural suasion and occasional but fiercely-effective use of pinpoint tactics.

Not by letting the terrorists win by pushing a great and free nation into a state of Permanent Emergency.5


[image from National Guard]

Returning the Militia to the People

Let someone say this aloud, at last.

The Guard and reserves are not meant to be instruments of administration policy. Rather, they are the robust manifestations of a united and motivated citizenry.

They are noble descendants of the old militia that all of a community's husbands and fathers used to join on weekends, eager to defend their home, community, state and nation -- in that order.

History shows that militia are far less useful in the projection of imperial power. Rather, they represent the resiliency that America has always relied upon, each time we were ever struck by something that our professional protectors and anticipators failed to detect in time.

If used properly -- with mature awareness of what they are for -- the Guard and reserves cannot be depleted! Because an aroused America will refill the ranks, the way a unified country always has, whenever real crises erupted in the past!

But not this time. Re-enlistments in the reserves are plummeting. More proof that most of us simply don't see a crisis. No "war."

We're unconvinced.

What we do see is brave, noble militia men and women being used, spent, expended on a project that at best is optional, elective surgery. A project that should be handled professionally, efficiently, and ethically, or not at all.


[image from The Q and O blog]

Democrats Fail To See an Issue

So why are almost no Democrats raising these points? Arguments that would be effective almost across the breadth of the political spectrum, offering a way around Karl Rove's contrived, artificial and treacherously divisive "culture war"?

Alas, political reflexes are dismal. Except for Representative Murtha, and maybe Senator Clinton, who else is speaking up for the abused Guard, or decrying our eviscerated state of readiness? Or standing up for the militia?

Are liberals really so reflexive that they cannot even perceive an opportunity to win, the way JFK did, through patriotism?

It appears they might be.

And so, Karl Rove is left with his flank protected, knowing that his opponents will not even try exploiting his most calamitous weakness, or turn attention upon his most heinous betrayal of trust.

The End

Notes

1 REACHING OUT FOR WINNING ISSUES: Can we learn from successful neocon tactics, without following them down a road of dogmatic fanaticism, incompetent statecraft and national betrayal?

One thing is clear: There are issues... and there are issues. Liberal activists appear determined to return, ever and again, to battleground topics that only feed into Karl Rove's "culture war."

No, I am not suggesting that Democrats abandon their drive for fuel efficiency standards, energy research, and health insurance for all children. I certainly support their continuing call for a more open and accountable society that relies more on citizen power and less on obsessive secrecy. Nevertheless, what is growing clear is that balance and agility are desirable political traits.

An agile and ecumenical liberalism would supplement favorite core issues with others that reassure and acknowledge the legitimate concerns of other voters, refuting the worst caricatures of liberalism -- those strawman slanders about liberalism that are spread relentlessly on Fox News.

There are plenty of issues that could work. And techniques to deliver them into every American home.

Of particular interest might be to closely reappraise Newt Gingrich's 1994 Republican Contract With America, which, according to E.J. Dionne, "gave inexperienced Republican candidates something to say once the political tide started moving the GOP's way."

Elsewhere I examine the 1994 "contract" with some 21st Century perspective, as one of the most masterful examples of political polemic in generations, as well as a rich source of ideas for a re-invigorated and pragmatically successful liberalism.

But for the sake of this article, let me pick just one issue to use as an example. An issue that could be a powerful one for the Democrats -- that is, if only they would look past a few unimaginative reflexes and clichés. return to where you left off

2 WHY LET KARL CHOOSE THE BATTLEGROUND?: Try to imagine Karl Rove's worst nightmare.

His uphill task? He must keep winning his "culture war" with a party that is handicapped by unprecedented scandal and corruption, by a stunning record of arrogance and incompetence, and by growing public distrust in the Administration's assault upon accountability. Poor Karl.

Still, he can take solace in one thing: Democrats will keep offering a fixed target. They will return to the same fixations, over and over, allowing him to hold a safe monopoly on "mother-apple pie" issues like patriotism, national defense and securing freedom in a dangerous world. Even though the record of his neocon crew is dismal in every one of these areas!

Rove's worst nightmare? That his opponents will stop standing still, rigid and repetitious, ceding the neocons every bit of patriotic high ground. He must shudder and thrash at night, over the slim chance that Democrats may turn rigidity into agility, crafting a broad appeal to every value that Americans hold dear.

Including a kind of patriotic strength that is based upon honor, maturity and true freedom. The version of patriotism that brave Union soldiers took into the war to end slavery, or that bolstered our dads in their fight against fascism. Or that held us to Harry Truman's calm and mature long-term strategy against Soviet hegemony. Or that roused us to rescue hope in the Balkans, when Europe failed a test of resolve.

The kind of patriotism that we can all get behind, in a world that still needs a dynamic and grownup United States. return to where you left off

3 IS THIS AN EMERGENCY?: Consider the primary purpose of all this ruction in Iraq. Ponder the cost in soldiers, civilian lives -- and money -- as well as disruption of our peacetime way of life.

Wasn't it all supposed to be about making us safer?

The events of 9/11 took us by surprise -- as did the calamity of Hurricane Katrina. Shouldn't that have taught us a lesson about making assumptions in an uncertain world? In every case, shouldn't the officials who were caught unaware thereupon said: "Now we know the danger and we'll be better prepared next time"?

The real lesson is simple: "Making us safer" is all about preparing our nation to respond better to... well... surprise! For the unexpected.

The response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, in which about 1,400 people died along the Gulf Coast, raises troubling questions about the nation's ability to react to other threats to domestic security," said a recent report by an all-Republican House of Representatives committee. "If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not." return to where you left off

4 OPPOSING STUPID WAR DOES NOT MEAN SUPPORT FOR SADDAM!: Ironically, the utopian goal of "spreading democracy" runs diametrically opposite to what used to be called "conservatism." So it is by a strange path that this became the excuse now trumpeted for our intervention in Iraq, after the WMD and terror rationalizations collapsed.

Among those who authored this transition are those who signed the 1997 "Project for the New American Century," the founding manifesto of neo-conservatism drawn up by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, the house journal of the neo-conservative movement. Kristol remains unrepentant. But more than half of the signatories to that seminal document have since then either gone silent or recanted, like the historian Francis Fukuyama.

In fact, my opposition to recent blunders and inanities does not prevent me from perceiving complexity or nuance. Like Fukuyama, I see some real support for the notion that America still has a "Wilsonian" or even utopian role to play in transforming the world for the better. An ambition to spread freedom -- or to perform nation-building -- is not impossible to support or defend. (Even though the neocons caustically derided the entire notion before entering office.)

Certainly our interventions in the Balkans and Afghanistan were legitimate moves in a dangerous world. In each case, both the imminent perils and hoped-for outcomes justified judicious application of competent force. Both endeavors had enthusiastic backing from allies. Indeed, the Balkans Operation swiftly established peace on the European Continent for the first time in 4,000 years, while increasing American credibility and leadership everywhere (including especially the Muslim World), at the cost of ZERO American service personnel lost.

Moreover, effects upon readiness were almost nil. Our forces did their jobs efficiently, under a combination of cogent political guidance and professional planning, then swiftly returned to regular training schedules. Readiness, their primary goal, was maintained.

Hence, clearly, I do not oppose "Wilsonian" intervention in principle. Indeed, we can argue the merits of an Iraq intervention on that basis. Topple Saddam? I deemed it worth doing before the neocons started in! More to the point, I have long felt shamed that our leaders chose, cynically, to leave Saddam in power when he lay prostrate in their palms, back in 1991. How appalling that they thereupon dusted him off and set him free to murder and oppress at will, betraying people who rebelled against him at our request.

Oh, I would have preferred a vastly more competent, moral and honorable approach to correcting that betrayal. But I am willing to consider that removing Saddam by elective surgery could be a goal worth open discussion. So would be (in general) helping to "spread freedom" in other places where millions suffer torment under blatant tyrants. It might even be worth some cost, in money and lives.

And yet, having conceded all of this, might I ask how this justifies what actually happened? Spurning all professional advice and abandoning all modern military doctrine in favor of acting in urgent haste? (A haste whose principal beneficiaries would seem to be no-bid crony contractors and the radical rulers of Iran.)

If ever there was a case that could far better have been approached calmly, with scalpel-like care, as "elective surgery...." return to where you left off

5 WHAT WOULD A REAL CRISIS BE LIKE?: Well, for one thing, history shows that the real thing tends to unite a great nation, instead of dividing it!

If half the country does not see "war," or a foreign threat critical enough to scream "emergency," then doesn't a burden of proof fall on those who do? (Especially when the calm half is the portion that has taken all of terror's hits, so far?)

Oh, and during past crises, the rich cared enough to help shoulder the burden. Nothing of the sort has happened, this time around. Far from it! What better sign that the aristocracy is unworried about a state of "war."

Also, weren't those other crises and wars explained to us in clearcut terms that we might plausibly fight clear of, in hope that normality may soon return? Instead of something so vague and amorphous that the condition can be extended forever, so long as anyone out there dislikes us?

(Five years after Pearl Harbor, WWII was over, with Americans striding triumphant through enemy capitals. Five years after 9/11, Osama is still doing mutual-support riffs with President Bush, as they help frighten each other's constituencies.)

Or else, weren't those past crises sudden surprises? The kind of emergency that might suddenly befall us, without warning, out of some semi-random direction, the way those 9/11 planes seemed to crash in upon us out of nowhere? The kind of shock that we were told we would become more ready for, after 2001, instead of much less so?

The kind of emergency that the reserves and National Guard are supposed to be for?

By none of these criteria are we even remotely "at war" or living in an "emergency." A war exists today in only one way. Soldiers are fighting and dying under our flag.

Alas, a real emergency might come tomorrow, and find us woefully unprepared. return to where you left off