10/15/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Strong on Defense

As the presidential election approaches, we are likely to hear both candidates claim to be "strong on defense." Sounds good. Given today's hyper-partisanship it's worth noting that there is broad-based public support for a strong defense establishment. The economy will almost certainly dominate the 2012 election, but national security will demand some attention, even if only because defense is expensive. Given the high cost of having a strong defense, and the high cost of not having a strong defense, it's worth pressing the candidates on what they mean.

"Strong on defense" could mean investing in a military instrument, situated in the U.S., standing at the ready, organized, trained, and equipped to deter, and if necessary defeat, those who threaten the country's vital interests. Or "strong on defense" could mean a military engaged in police actions around the globe where connection to vital interests is less clear. It could mean both. It could mean neither. There are two different issues to discuss -- the production of force and the use of force -- and both are expensive.

The production of force deals with issues of military capability present and future. Should the force be organized, trained, and equipped for conventional combat or for nation building? Should our next generation investments be in advanced versions of the lethal capabilities we have or offensive and defensive cyber capabilities? The answer is almost always in finding the right mix, and if the right mix is found the question remains of how much is enough. The production of force is part of the annual base defense budget.

The use of force is a separate matter dealing with questions of when and where to use force and to what ends. Should it be used primarily to defend the homeland? Should it be used for economic benefit? Should it be used to resolve others' civil wars? Should it be used to guarantee the security of friends, allies, and neutrals? The use of force, including civilian contractors, is funded off-budget through emergency supplemental appropriations.

Some politicians can be relied on to agitate for a strong military response to crises around the world. Some can be relied on to consistently argue for restraint and against military intervention. Politicians who are consistent in their positions are responding out of a strategy. They may or may not be able or willing to articulate their strategy, but consistent behavior is the product of an internalized strategy or view of the U.S. role in the world. Other politicians respond to one crisis at a time in the absence of strategy. Erratic, ad hoc behavior leaves the public, allies, and enemies confused increasing the likelihood for misunderstanding and conflict. And it means that the producers of force will almost certainly be unprepared. As Secretary Rumsfeld said, "you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

National security strategy, or grand strategy, governs both the use of force and the production of force. The president, as commander in chief of the armed forces, governs the use of force, Congress having apparently ceded its constitutional authorities to declare war and authorize the use of force. Rooted in the explicit constitutional authorities to raise armies and maintain navies, Congress governs the production of force through authorization and appropriation legislation. When you vote for an elected official, you are choosing a strategy. It only makes sense that you know the candidates' positions.

In the early days of the country, the public and the political parties shared the desire to isolate the U.S. from the seemingly permanent condition of war in Europe. Non-interventionism was an American, not a partisan, value.

The world wars created a rift between the two parties. Wilson and Roosevelt both intervened and both left the wars wanting the U.S. to remain engaged internationally through the collective security arrangements of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Republicans preferred to reestablish non-interventionism and to withdraw into "Fortress America."

Truman continued the collective security strategy and took the U.S. into the Korean War under U.N. resolution but without U.S. congressional authority. Defense spending more than tripled. By the end of Truman's administration, the strategy was abandoned as too expensive and unsustainable.

Eisenhower campaigned to end the war in Korea and did, but not without difficulty. He significantly reduced military force structure and resolved the Suez Crisis with economic diplomacy. At the end of his administration there were no U.S. forces committed to combat anywhere. Eisenhower's strategy would be global engagement but very selective and restrictive in the use of military force.

From Eisenhower forward, both parties remained engaged internationally, but Democratic administrations tended toward military interventionism, while Republican administrations exercised greater restraint in the use of force.

Kennedy promised an anywhere, anytime, at any cost strategy that led to a major military force buildup and to engagement in Vietnam under Johnson.

Nixon campaigned to end the war in Vietnam and did, albeit slowly and painfully. Starting wars is easier than ending them. JFK's promise of "anytime, anywhere, at any cost" assistance was withdrawn. The Nixon Doctrine put friends on notice to behave more like allies than protectorates.

By end of the Vietnam War, the claim that Republicans were "strong on defense" had no basis in fact. Democratic administrations were strong on the production of force and strong on the use of force. Republican administrations reduced force structure and were reluctant to use force. Words like "cautious" and "prudent" might be more appropriate, but strong interventionists from both parties would call it "weak." No politician is going to campaign on being "weak on defense."

Carter vacillated. Human rights, rather than the Cold War competition, would be the rationale for intervention. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter initiated what later would be called the Reagan buildup.

Nixon advised President-elect Reagan that the country could afford a reduction in military force. Instead, Reagan engaged in a massive military buildup, previously the Democratic Party's bailiwick, and he did it through massive deficit spending. He reduced taxes once (1981) and subsequently raised them a dozen times, including the largest tax increase in peacetime history (1982). But even including these tax increases, military expenditures turned the country from leading creditor nation to leading debtor nation. The size of the force remained stable, expenditures were for equipment.

But on the use of force, Reagan held to the postwar Republican tradition of avoiding direct military intervention. He deployed Marines to Lebanon, as had Eisenhower, but with no clear mission. And he bombed Libya in retaliation for terrorist attacks. But his only use of offensive ground forces was the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada. His more aggressive action was through elevated levels of covert support for proinsurgency (e.g., Angola and Nicaragua) and counterinsurgency (e.g., El Salvador).

A subsequent reduction in force levels naturally followed the end of the Cold War. While the size of the force was contracting under both parties, the tendency to military intervention expanded rapidly also under both parties. Bush 41 reduced the force by almost 20 percent in four years. Clinton reduced the force almost 19 percent in eight. Force levels have remained relatively stable since. The cost of Clinton's and Bush 43's wars was off-budget. Base defense expenditures have been creeping up under the Obama administration, and Romney has promised a massive increase in defense spending at levels reminiscent of the Cold War. The All Volunteer Force is unlikely to grow. Increased expenditures will be to the defense industry for equipment.

The great disconnect is that the production and use of force is discussed without reference to a grand strategy. Many strategists believe we have been adrift since the end of the Cold War. Mike Mazarr, professor of national security strategy at the National War College, presents this concern well in "The Risks of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency." What role should the U.S. play on the world stage? What will the public support? What is sustainable? By overextension, will we destroy what we are trying to defend?