What impact will the combination of the death of Osama bin Laden and the nomination of Leon Panetta with a mandate to cut defense budgets have on U.S. national security policy? This is a question I tackled today at World Politics Review.
If we were in an era of budgetary plenty, then perhaps the "balanced" strategy adopted by outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates might still hold sway--ensuring that the U.S. retains capabilities to engage in sustained commitment (e.g. nation-building) operations as well as limited engagements (using primarily air and naval assets) and preparing for the next USSR (the great power competitor with global reach). But we aren't.
it is in the context of setting priorities in an era of shrinking resources that the nature of a post-bin-Laden world will become most critical. If terrorism is reclassified as a law enforcement issue, who will be responsible for addressing it: the FBI, which has traditionally spearheaded efforts against other transnational criminal enterprises, or a defense and foreign policy establishment that has been developing expeditionary capabilities to fight global terror?
The stage is being set for a struggle for resources and programs with the decisive question being, Is the United States threatened more by the rise of great powers or by the proliferation of weak and failing states? If the latter, should the military and civilian agencies be preparing for more Afghanistan-style missions -- in Somalia, for instance -- involving sustained involvement in counterinsurgency operations combined with efforts to build effective governance? These missions require "boots on the ground" trained in a whole host of nonconventional missions. But as Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations recently argued, "While failed states may be worthy of America's attention on humanitarian and development grounds, most of them are irrelevant to U.S. national security." Indeed, he sees more developed states, not failed ones, as a bigger threat.
Or perhaps the template is Libya, with the goal of interventions being to "tip" the course of events using what I have termed the "Just Enough" doctrine. Here, the emphasis would be on having expeditionary forces capable of being rapidly deployed, but with the U.S. unlikely to leave much of a footprint on the ground, thus favoring air and naval assets.
On the other hand, we might be returning to a world where the United States must be prepared to deter and contain a major great power rival with global reach. If so, then having large numbers of conventional platforms trumps having small, mobile teams capable of digging wells one day in the Horn of Africa, fighting drug traffickers the next day in the jungles of the Andes, and securing villages in the Hindu Kush the day after [doesn't make as much sense].