The 1998 Elections: A Symposium: U.S. National Security and the 1998 Elecions

Mackubin T. Owens

October 1, 1998

On January 20, 1993, Bill Clinton inherited a military establishment without peer in the world. During the Gulf War of 1991, it had conducted a campaign of such overwhelming power that it left the world’s other militaries breathless. No wonder the outgoing president, George Bush could talk about a "new world order."

Six years later, the U.S. military is still the best in the world, but the warning flags are up. Readiness indicators are flashing red. The recruitment of quality personnel is falling off. Mid-grade officers, especially pilots, are exiting the service at an astonishing rate. What has happened, and what can we do about it?

The military’s problems can be attributed primarily to a foreign policy-military strategy mismatch that results from today’s pervasive lack of seriousness about national security. The foreign policy of the Clinton administration is very ambitious indeed. Its goal is nothing less than to expand peace and prosperity throughout the globe. To this end, both President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeline Albright have spoken of the United States as the "indispensable nation."

Although the military is only one element of national power, it is an extremely important one, and one strategic impact of this foreign policy has been to increase the "operational tempo" of the military by 300 percent when compared to the Cold War.

Meanwhile, of course, defense spending has been reduced by a third since 1985. One result of this mismatch has been to wear out both personnel and equipment. This was the situation that led to the emergence of the "hollow force" of the late 1970s.

To make matters worse, the Clinton administration has become the agent of America’s elites in their war against U.S. military culture. This war has manifested itself, for example, in the feminization of military training; the single-minded expansion of opportunities for women no matter what the cost in terms of performance, capability, and morale; and a pervasive climate of "political correctness."

The Republican Congress has not been much better. For too many Republicans, discussions about national security can be reduced to a call for ballistic missile defenses, as if national security has a single dimension. Others take pride in calling themselves "cheap hawks," but the fact is that one gets the defense one pays for.

The 1998 elections are critical because the next Congress must decide on the general outline of a U.S. security policy for the next two decades. To do so, it must address four questions in the context of an overarching strategic context. First, what is the strategic purpose of the U.S. military? To what extent should it be a warfighting force or a constabulary force? Second, what level of funding will best ensure the security of the United States?

Third, to what extent should the military differ from the civilian society that it defends? Is its culture a reason for the military’s success? If so, what needs to be done to protect it? And finally, what about technology? Should we scrap current organizations and capabilities to take advantage of what some call a "revolution in military affairs" (RMA)?

The United States can ill afford the complacency that has characterized its approach to national security over the last six years. U.S. prosperity ultimately depends on U.S. security. If we fail to take the necessary steps, we will find that we have frittered away the advantages acquired at such cost during the 1980s and 90s, to the detriment of our safety and security.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.