The Place for Military Strength

Allow me to summarize the ISIL discussion we will hear from all of the remaining debates in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination: troops here, troops there, ships here, ships there, bomb this, bomb that, military funding big, bigger, biggest,…. The candidates will position this discussion as a strategic one, as one about American strength, and debate moderators will let them get away with it. Hours will be wasted on muscle-flexing, on stern looks, and on one-liners about that weakling at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We voters should not fall into that trap.

What is strength? Even if you agree with the content of the discussion, to debate military funding, targets, and troop and equipment placements is to discuss tactics and operational details. It’s not a strategic discussion, not the kind of discussion that presidential candidates should really be engaged in, not the kind of leadership that we select presidents to deliver, and not the kind of leadership that really makes America “strong”.

Presidents should decide what priorities to pursue and where to allocate resources across ALL of the functions that make America respected and exceptional in the world: diplomacy, justice, treasure, commerce, natural resources, infrastructure, science, health care, social programs, the arts, and YES THE MILITARY. The combination of those functions makes America great, the envy of the world, and a magnet for immigration. To flex one’s military muscles, and no others, is to scavenge for the largest club and then declare dominance. The world is more complex than that, and America’s exceptionalism flows from more than that one source.

The GOP candidates will say that President Obama lacks a strategy on ISIL. They will say that Americans should fear a Democratic president because Democrats are “weak on defense”, or “soft on ISIL”. Not true, if we’re talking strategy. President Obama and ALL of the presidential candidates from both parties have declared that ISIL is a strategic threat that needs to be addressed. The only difference across the candidates is how they choose to respond to that threat, the operational details, and I would argue that the vast majority of voters are not in a position to decide which of those approaches will be effective.

Seriously, try to imagine a twenty-something voter in Omaha or Grand Rapids or Salt Lake City making an informed choice across questions like whether Bashar al-Assad is a necessary evil, or how we should engage with Russia, or the number of troops that should be on the ground in Syria. Candidates who frame the election predominantly in these terms are looking for opportunities to talk tough and sound presidential with all the usual phraseology: boots on the ground, red lines, no-fly-zones, threats to the homeland. One of my favorite tweeters David Roberts put one such phrase in its place this week:

The next president, from either party, will take action against ISIL. You could make the details of his or her approach the basis of your vote for the Presidency. Or you could ask yourself what America really stands for, what makes us multi-dimensionally strong, and whether pursuit of ISIL as a number one priority really delivers the durable day-to-day world leadership that America is so fortunate to enjoy.

I argue that ISIL is a threat but not an existential one and not one that deserves a dominant place in our discourse or our allocation of resources. I argue that defeat of ISIL is (1) important but not the most important priority for the country; and (2) going to come from more than just a display of military might.

To be clear: I believe in a strong military. I’m proud of America’s fighting force and I’m humbled by the sacrifices that troops and their families make on my behalf. In fact if my daughter (now nearly 4 years old) grew up and wanted to join the military I would not only support her I would encourage her act of selflessness.

I just don’t think a military-first discussion is very helpful in choosing our next president. In fact I think that one-dimensional, sub-strategic focus fools some of us into thinking “strength” when really it should signal “weakness”.


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