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A Defense Plan for the 21st Century

CAS prof endorses Obama’s scrapping of two-war strategy

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“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” John Kennedy famously declared in his 1961 inaugural address.

Uh, no.

Kennedy gave this speech during the height of the Cold War. For the past two decades, even with the American-Soviet struggle over, part of bearing any burden for liberty has been an official defense strategy of U.S. forces being able to fight and win two simultaneous ground wars. Now, President Obama is abandoning that premise. Instead, the president has proposed a budget that he says will allow us to prevail in one war while maintaining enough resources to deter a second foe elsewhere. Obama also calls for shifting attention to China and to Iran, whose nuclear program he and European leaders are trying to contain with sanctions and diplomacy, without ruling out force.

Far from being a retreat, says Michael Corgan, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of international relations, the changes and accompanying budget cuts ($487 billion over 10 years) mark a sane policy of sharing burdens with amply armed allies while embracing Dwight Eisenhower’s view that economic prudence is part of defense. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Navy officer with two combat tours, Corgan (GRS’91) thinks Obama could safely cut even more from the military. He spoke with BU Today about the issue.

BU Today: Retired Air Force Lt. General Dave Deptula recently told NPR that “abandoning a two-regional-conflict strategy is a recipe for disaster.” Do you agree?

Corgan: Not at all. The two-conflict strategy is really a holdover from World War II, where we conducted a war in the Atlantic, a war in the Pacific, and half a war in the China-India-Burma theater. But we had a lot of resources then; at one point, we had 16 million people in uniform. Well, the rest of the world has grown wealthier, there are significant armed forces elsewhere in the world, and the idea that we can have that military advantage that we once had is a fantasy.

We’ve seen what happens when we try to conduct two wars at once—that is, Afghanistan and Iraq. One war draws attention away from the other. In fact, we had a problem in World War II. There was a competition of who got a certain kind of fuel pump, because you could either use it for runways or for navy ships. The airfields won, and the navy ships weren’t ready for the invasion of Normandy for two years.

Deptula’s argument is that scaling back will “encourage adventurism on the part of potential adversaries.”

I don’t see many instances of it. It’s sometimes argued that because the United States was in this slough of despond after Vietnam, the Soviet Union took advantage of it to invade Afghanistan in 1979. But Afghanistan is on their border, and the government of Afghanistan seemed to be going backwards from a communist government to a feudal government. They weren’t about to let that happen.

Is the president’s proposed defense budget sufficient for winning one war while stymieing a second foe elsewhere?

I think it is. This plan of winning one war and stymieing a foe elsewhere is exactly the plan the United States came up with before World War II, which said if we have a two-front war, we will hold the line in the Pacific and fight to win in Europe. We never planned for a two-front war; it was just lucky we were able to do it.

Obama’s budget is calling for combat vehicles whose use has not been established. We want to build this F-35 strike fighter. A U.S. fighter plane hasn’t been shot down in over 40 years. The Navy had proposed a Seawolf class submarine. Against whom? If the Soviet Union is reconstituted with new technology, maybe. But that hasn’t happened.

China has announced an 11 percent increase in defense spending, part going to build up its navy. Should the United States be concerned?

They have made the point that “we haven’t had a navy, and we have a vulnerable supply of oil from the Persian Gulf and we want to protect it.” And one Chinese admiral said, “We are the only permanent member of the Security Council without an aircraft carrier.” It’s a matter of prestige. We’d have to pay attention to a stronger Chinese navy, but we’re making alliances with people like the Philippines, Australia, Japan, and Korea. The actual force has to be provided by local people. There’s no reason why we should provide the forward edge of a military component for countries that could easily provide it themselves.

Do you believe the president’s proposed cuts don’t go far enough?

I would cut in other places. They want to cut some personnel; I think they have to be very careful on that. We are trying to maintain the highest technology military in the world, competing in the labor market for highly skilled people, and that costs a lot of money. When you can work for Microsoft and be home every night with the kids or deploy to the Persian Gulf, who’s going to win that one? In my Navy days, it was pointed out to me that in 1,000 successive days, I was home 150.

Snipers aren’t usually employed by business, but push-button skills are marketable, and those are the people you need. Some military hardware systems, though, I’m not as convinced we need.

President Obama wants to pivot resources to contain Iran and China. Is that a good idea?

I think it is absolutely right. There’s a nice article in Foreign Affairs on the case against invading Iran. It’s a powerful case. The European Union has ratcheted up sanctions against Iran. President Obama’s attempt is to say, let’s let some of those parties go to work. We don’t have to do everything ourselves.

8 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

8 Comments on A Defense Plan for the 21st Century

  • Undergrad on 03.28.2012 at 6:55 am

    Great interview! As someone who has taken classes with Prof. Corgan, he is a wonderful addition to BU’s strong International Relations department. I appreciate the no-nonsense, no-hype approach to analyzing the security issues that face us today. Eisenhower had it right when he tied economic strength with national security; more politicians these days should heed that advice.

  • Sam Stone on 03.28.2012 at 7:48 am

    George Bush the Junior’s two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), all while fighting the Global War on Terror, took this country from one with a balanced budget to nearly bankrupt, and cost the lives of thousands, and the maiming of thousands more…. To what end?

    The liberation of Iraq from Saddam’s rule will soon result in a Kurdish state in the north that threatens both Turkey and Iran; an Iranian puppet Shia state in the rural south; and a Sunni state in Central Iraq, unable to sustain its economy.

    Upon our departure, Afghanistan will return to the lawless state it has always been… where the despot with the biggest army and the fewest ethics rules. It will once again be a haven for terrorists, fundamental Islamists, and the opium trade.

    Obama is right to extricate us from this morass, where, like Vietnam in the 60s/70s, nothing but “arms development” has been accomplished.

    Kennedy was naive to think that the U.S. could function as the world’s police force without a terrible price to pay in American lives and fiscal ruin. Someday our political leaders will realize that we cannot project our Judeo-Christian beliefs on the rest of the world and accept the fact that “they are not like us”.

  • Not fooled by the media on 03.28.2012 at 8:56 am

    Nice pick of British soldiers! Does this have to do with America or not??

    • Michael Corgan on 03.28.2012 at 12:02 pm

      The US using other forces, formal allies or otherwise, is precisely the point.

  • Class of 2013 Student on 03.28.2012 at 9:46 am

    This article really wasn’t up to par that I’m used to on BU today. The interview read as scripted and leading with a subject that had strong bias views from an ex navy officer who was relatively junior.

    • Nathan on 03.28.2012 at 12:22 pm

      The ex-navy officer professor and BU today linked to a website that gives pro and con arguments on Iran. This is how a fair person handles bias “I believe this, but you can go here for more discussion.”

      http://www.foreignaffairs.com/discussions/audio-video/foreign-affairs-live-time-to-attack-iran-a-debate

      • Class of 2013 Student on 03.29.2012 at 8:35 am

        I read that article long ago, I wouldn’t call it unbias. I would call it a proposal with support arguments. Any reader of that article would find themselves compelled to one side because that is the logical culmination of the facts presented.

  • Taylor Wray on 03.29.2012 at 10:49 am

    Nice interview, Rich. Good to see some interesting IR and FP-related journalism coming out of BU – haven’t seen too much in the year I’ve been here.

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