By Bonnie Kristian
“We are at war,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls after the horrific attack in neighboring Belgium this past March. “We have been subjected for the last few months in Europe to acts of war.”
Valls is far from the only leader to respond to incidents of terrorism with declarations of war.
His German counterpart, Angela Merkel, uses the same language to talk about handling the Islamic State, and so do both major party presidential candidates here in the U.S. None of this is surprising: After all, our term for the broader fight against the radical violence of Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other groups like them is the “war” on terror.
But what if approaching every such security threat as war—and, by extension, making it all the responsibility of our military—wasn’t our best option?
What if we’ve lost sight of the essential nature of defense, asking soldiers to handle everything from law enforcement to disaster relief, from nation-building to bombs?
U.S. Southern Command Commander Gen. John F. Kelly speaks to reporters during his last briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
What if, to borrow the words of retired Gen. David Barno, head of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan from 2003–2005, we’ve made the Pentagon “like a Super Wal-Mart with everything under one roof,” losing the vital distinction between the proper roles of the military and civilian agencies?
That’s the argument of Rosa Brooks, who formerly served as counsel to the Defense and State Departments and currently a law professor at Georgetown.
“When we heedlessly expand what we label ‘war,’ we also lose our ability to make sound decisions about which tasks we should assign to the military and which should be left to civilians,” she writes at Foreign Policy.
Where once war was understood as a large-scale, armed conflict against state-actor enemies who posed an existential threat to American security, today we use the term far more loosely, applying it to any terrorist attack in which the perpetrator claims allegiance to some larger network—regardless of whether there is any meaningful connection between the two.
And where once such galling attacks would have been handled primarily as a law enforcement issue, now they are treated as acts of war. This is an understandable but troubling development on multiple counts. First, in labeling as war the rampages of lone wolves, we lend them a power they do not have on their own. A mass murder is horrible and frightening and should be condemned and its duplication prevented—but an act of war is terrifying on a different scale. If the goal of terrorism is to manipulate by terror, then our Wal-Mart war mentality makes the terrorist’s job that much easier.
But second, and more important, by kicking everything we want fixed onto the Pentagon’s to-do list, we confuse the military’s mission of defense and pave the way for unnecessary—and unnoticed—expansions of government power, not to mention dramatic increases in federal spending here and abroad (see, for example, the budget gimmicks of the 2017 NDAA). It’s easy to miss such growths of government because the Pentagon’s list is so very long indeed, as Brooks explains:
Today, American military personnel operate in nearly every country on Earth—and do nearly every job on the planet. They launch raids and agricultural reform projects, plan airstrikes and small-business development initiatives, train parliamentarians and produce TV soap operas. They patrol for pirates, vaccinate cows, monitor global email communications, and design programs to prevent human trafficking.
What most of that has to do with defense is beyond me, but somehow I doubt whatever lawmaker or bureaucrat assigned these various program was much concerned with such an irritating detail as what a military is constituted to do. Rather, by simply giving this non-defense work to the military, Washington is able to insert its tentacles into yet another aspect of life while nimbly sidestepping public debate on whether such a project is necessary, practical, or even constitutional.
Still, as Brooks suggests, it doesn’t have to be this way: “We don’t have to accept a world full of boundary-less wars that can never end, in which the military has lost any coherent sense of purpose or limits.”
We don’t have to accept a reckless, haphazard foreign policy unconstrained by the Constitution or basic common sense. We don’t have to allow self-serving politicians to throw every problem the Pentagon’s way and then announce themselves as vote-worthy problem-solvers. We don’t have to blur the boundaries of war and peace, subjecting Americans to unconstitutional invasions of liberty and privacy at every turn.
Yet until such change is demanded and accomplished, the Pentagon as a catch-all agency is both impractical and dangerous (as many generals, like Barno, agree). When anything and everything can be dishonestly gerrymandered into the territory of national security, we end up with a military stretched thin, rife with waste, and distracted from what should be its true mission of judicious defense to protect America's national interests, narrowly defined. If anyone doubts the deleterious effects of this dysfunction, look around you: The last decade and a half of misbegotten foreign policy is evidence writ large, and writ with U.S. blood and treasure that should never have been spilled.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing writer at The Week, and a columnist at Rare.
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