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When Debt is a National Security Issue

When Debt is a National Security Issue

By David Ignatius - May 23, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Several months ago, a group of logistics officers at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces developed a national security strategy as a class exercise. Their No. 1 recommendation for maintaining U.S. global leadership was "restore fiscal responsibility."

That's a small illustration of what's becoming a consensus among national security experts inside and outside the Obama administration: To play an effective role in the world, the United States must rebuild its economic strength at home. After a decade of war and financial crisis, America has run up debts that pose a national security problem, not just an economic one.

This need to restore domestic prosperity, and share the costs and burdens of global problem-solving with other nations, will be one theme of the new "national security strategy" that the White House will release this week. A premise of the document, according to a senior official who worked with the drafters, is that: "We can't do it alone. Unless we find ways to get other countries to step up, we're in trouble."

The Obama administration wants other nations to participate in a new global architecture that embodies one of the president's favorite phrases -- "mutual rights and responsibilities." But there's a catch: At the very moment when America is eager to share leadership, much of the rest of the world is backing away. That's because our potential partners are enfeebled by the same economic problems that have weakened America.

Europe these days is a halfway house for debtors. NATO members in Europe were mostly failing to meet their defense-spending commitments even before the financial crisis that hit Greece, Spain, Portugal and other nations. They will be even less likely to share burdens now that they have to fund a trillion-dollar financial bailout for eurozone weaklings.

The national security implications of the debt crisis were highlighted a month ago in a briefing prepared for a senior Pentagon official: "Of the world's top 25 debtor nations, the number that are U.S. allies: 19."

The mismatch between America's desire to share burdens and other nations' reluctance to accept them is emerging in research conducted by the National Intelligence Council and the European Union. The aim of their joint study was to forecast what the world will look like in 2025. The U.S.-European team interviewed officials in China, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. They found concern in these rising nations about the problems that lie ahead, but not a will to solve them.

"What's interesting is how little any other nation feels responsibility," said one official who is familiar with the study.

One of the strongest voices arguing for fiscal responsibility as a national security issue has been Defense Secretary Bob Gates. He gave a landmark speech May 8 in Kansas, invoking President Dwight Eisenhower's warnings about the dangers of an imbalanced military-industrial state.

"Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state -- militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent," Gates said. He warned that America was in a "parlous fiscal condition" and that the "gusher" of military spending that followed Sept. 11, 2001 must be capped. "We can't have a strong military if we have a weak economy," Gates told reporters who covered the Kansas speech.

The defense secretary on Thursday reiterated his pitch that Congress must stop shoveling money at the military, telling Pentagon reporters: "The defense budget process should no longer be characterized by 'business as usual' within this building -- or outside of it."

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also argued for a rethinking of the strategic mindset that encouraged two expeditionary wars in the past decade, at immense cost. "U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military," he said in a March 3 speech. He cautioned that the military should use its power "in a precise and principled manner," rather than always insisting on overwhelming force.

Let's return to the class exercise of the military and civilian logisticians who were asked to prepare a national security strategy. They focused on America's domestic challenges, which included "unsustainable budget," "finite foreign energy" and "failing education," and proposed this rubric: "Credibility abroad begins with credibility at home." In a multipolar world, they said, the "U.S. cannot be the sole guarantor of international security."

What's interesting about this focus on domestic economic security is that it probably would be endorsed by Republicans and Democrats, tea party conservatives and anti-war liberals. In a country that doesn't agree on much, it could be a unifying theme.

 

davidignatius@washpost.com

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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