Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of several books, the most recent, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, which is set for release January 2013.
Which global threats pose the greatest challenge to U.S. policy makers in an era of limited spending?
We don’t have a conventional great power adversary, like the Soviet Union, at the moment. The closest would be China, and China is certainly a looming threat. While they continue to grow their defense spending by double digits, we are in the process of decreasing our defense spending. So the balance of power in the Western Pacific is certainly shifting against us. But China is a long-term threat. Nobody imagines we’re going to go to war with China tomorrow.
There are more immediate threats we have to worry about, such as stateless terrorist networks like al Qaeda and Hezbollah and others. Then there are also the rouge states with countries like Iran and North Korea. And then there is simply the threat that comes from ungoverned territory in places like Mali, Yemen, and Somalia; as well as Pakistan’s tribal areas. Those are all places where terrorists can get a foothold, and we have to worry about those. So it’s not like the old days. It’s not like during the Cold War, where we could concentrate on one adversary. Right now we have to worry about a whole range of different threats, ranging from a giant state to stateless groups.
Can you walk us through the history of threats to U.S. national security and how that’s shaped our defense structure and spending?
Up until the 20th century, the U.S. army was primarily oriented towards fighting Indians, with occasional wars on our own continent. In the 20th century we became very much an expeditionary force, fighting our wars abroad, not at home; starting with the Spanish-American War at the turn of the century, then World War I. Of course World War II created Vietnam, with the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other lesser wars in between. And there’s been a tension in the U.S. military, which is particularly important today, between preparing for the big wars like World War II or the Gulf War and preparing for counterinsurgencies against lesser threats; guerrilla groups and terrorists as we had to face, whether it was the Vietcong in Vietnam or al Qaeda in Iraq or the Taliban, those kinds of groups. What we’ve been seeing in the last half century is a declining importance of threats from conventional militaries because other countries have seen what we did to Saddam Hussein’s military on two different occasions, and there are not going to be a lot of countries that would be stupid enough to put tank armies out in the desert against us anymore to allow us to annihilate them. What the lessons of history of the last twenty years or so certainly teach is that, if you’re going to fight us, you can have greater success by using terrorist tactics by employing suicide bombers, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices); those kinds of attacks. That’s what we saw in Beirut in 1983 and in Somalia in 1993, and certainly what we’ve seen on a much greater level of magnitude in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. And so, as we’ve already pulled out of Iraq and we think about decreasing our presence in Afghanistan and eventually pulling out, there’s going to be a big debate in the U.S. military about: To what extent do we focus on these unconventional threats, these terrorist groups, and these guerrilla organizations? And to what extent should we be preparing for conventional conflict against a mirror-image adversary? That’s going to be, I think in many ways, the biggest debate within the military, if not in society at large.
As major threats may now be economic and biological threats, rather than large standing armies, is the structure of our military changing in step with the nature of those threats?
We certainly face new-fangled threats. For example, from cyber war, which is a realm that we’re not well-prepared for and we need to really think about because it goes around our traditional advantages in kinetic military technology. We have to worry about what happens if our computer networks are taken down. We have to worry about what happens if our space sensors are taken down because so much of what we do, just militarily, depends on access to those satellites, which could be shot down, which could be jammed; all sorts of eventualities could occur. We also have to worry about Weapons of Mass Destruction, which again threaten to trump our conventional military superiority. I think the worst threat we’re going to face in the conceivable future is going to be from a terrorist-delivered nuclear weapon. That’s the ultimate nightmare, that some terrorist group will get their hands on a nuclear device and set it off in New York or Washington or some other city. But there’s also a threat we have to face from biological weapons, which could also have devastating effects and don’t need a large engineering complex to create; as is the case with nuclear weapons. You know, biological weapons can be basically be created by someone with a graduate degree and tools they bought at the hardware store. So these are all areas that we need to give some deep thinking to, because these are not the kind of traditional battles that our military has prepared for the past 100 years to fight on. Yet, these could very well be the new battlegrounds of the 21st century.
So if you were in charge of our defense spending now, where would you change our priorities to prevent being blindsided by emerging threats?
Well, the problem is that if we stop spending in any one area and if we stop preparing for war in any one realm; paradoxically that’s exactly what we’re most likely to face as a future threat, because our adversaries will read what we’re doing and hit us where we’re weak. So the challenge that we face in the 21st century is we have to be a superpower that does Windows. We have to be a full spectrum power that’s able to fight in every conceivable domain; from cyber-war to conventional war, all sorts of stabilization, peacekeeping, and counter-insurgency type scenarios in the middle. We really can’t afford to neglect any particular area because of the multiplicity of potential threats that we face. And if we do neglect that area, we will not be able to deter adversaries from attacking us in precisely that way. So that’s why, as much as we may not like it, if we’re going to maintain our military edge we’re going to have to keep spending an awful lot of money in the future, because the nature of the threats we face is so unpredictable and we just have to prepare for a whole range of scenarios.
And moving on to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), is NATO a useful foreign policy tool for the United States?
I think NATO is a useful political tool for the United States because it gives us an imprimatur, especially if we don’t have a United Nation’s backing permission. We can go to NATO, which is what we did in Libya in 2011 for example, and that’s very useful to do. In that case we had the U.N. as well, but NATO was certainly a useful instrument of American and Western policy.
I think some of the weaknesses of NATO have been exposed in Afghanistan over the past decade, where we’ve seen that NATO does not fight a long war very well. There are a lot of different nations with different levels of military capacities, different caveats on the use of their military force, and they’re just not as effective as American forces or the forces of a handful of our other allies. So, I think we have to temper our expectations for what NATO can achieve as a military alliance. But certainly as a political instrument, expressing the will of the West, expressing this multilateral opinion that the United States stands with; in that respect, I think it’s very useful and will continue to be useful in the future.
And specifically in Afghanistan, going forward in the next year or two; will they serve a useful purpose as far as taking some of the burden of policing Afghanistan off of the United States?
Well again, I think Afghanistan has really shown some of the limitations of NATO, and I don’t think we can really count on NATO to do too much in Afghanistan. In fact, I would argue in some ways NATO has been a net drain in Afghanistan because it has sucked up so much American support in terms of logistics, intelligence, Medevac (Medical Evacuation), and other enablers that we need for our own forces and for Afghan forces. In many ways, it cost us more to keep NATO in the fight than NATO actually delivered. So I would not have unrealistic expectations for what NATO will do. I think we have to understand that if we’re serious about preserving some of the security gains in Afghanistan, the United States is going to have to take the lead in cooperation with our Afghan partners.
So when should the U.S. intervene militarily around the world, is there a litmus test for that?
I don’t think it’s possible to sit here and draw up a hard and fast rule of American intervention. I think if you look at American interventions over the past couple of centuries they take all sorts of forms, and all sorts of different places. Some people argue that we should only intervene when our vital national interests are threatened, but it’s very hard to define our vital national interests. Frankly, many presidents have found it useful to use military force even when there was not a vital national interest; arguably there was some interest. How vital it was is certainly subject to debate. I think that, as a general rule, the threshold for using military force goes down, the easier it appears to be. The harder the operation, the more compelling a reason we have to have to intervene. It would take something close to Armageddon for us to wind up fighting China, for example. It’s a much lower threshold for fighting Iran because it’s simply a less capable adversary. And that’s a realpolitck consideration that I think all presidents make, and we have to keep in mind. It’s just very hard to draw up rules because we constantly get surprised. I mean, who would’ve expected on September 10th of 2001 that we’d be fighting in Afghanistan? Or who would’ve expected in 2010 that we’d be fighting in Libya? History keeps dealing us cards that we don’t expect, and instead of trying to come up with a rule that covers every contingency, we simply have to have a military force that is ready for a wide spectrum of scenarios and can effectively intervene when called upon.
And how much of a threat does a nuclear armed Iran pose to both the U.S. and our allies?
I think a nuclear armed Iran is one of the biggest short-term threats that we face. It’s hard to imagine anything that could destabilize the Middle East more than Iran getting its hands on nuclear weapons. Not only would you have nuclear weapons in the hands of the leading state-sponsor of terrorism, a country that has vowed to wipe Israel off the map and that wants to dominate the entire region. Not only would they have nuclear weapons but, in all likelihood, so would other countries such as Saudi Arabia that have basically flat out said, “If Iran goes nuclear, we are too.” And again, it’s hard to imagine a more threatening, destabilizing, and dangerous scenario than a nuclear arms race in the middle of the Middle East between fundamentalist Shia and fundamentalist Sunni states. If you worry about terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons, that’s how it’s going to happen. So I think we have to do everything possible in our power to prevent Iran from getting nuclear because I don’t think that it’s going to be possible or easy, as some people imagine, to deter Iran. Once they have nuclear weapons, once they have those nukes, the damage is done. And as we’ve seen with North Korea, it’s very hard to deal with a nuclear, armed rogue state.