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More on Progressive Security Policy


A variety of people have contributed thoughts on progressive security policy.  Without getting too much into the weeds on each one, they all provide a certain amount of grist, from Yglesias’ proposal for a new service to Finel’s consideration of terms to Anderson’s detailed look at force requirements.  A taste:


The beginning of the framework is that we should reduce the scale of our economic commitment to the military, which over time means not just fiddling with procurement but actually doing less and having a smaller force structure. Less what? In particular, I think we should actually move away from the COIN/MOOTW paradigm and focus on the idea of deterring and defeating military attacks on the United States and sundry allies. It should be possible to do that without representing 50 percent of global defense expenditures, especially when the allies in question are generally the richest countries on earth….

What we need, I think, is some form of American gendarmerie—a quasi-military federal organization specialized in police/security functions rather than finding and killing bad guys per se. Such a force would, unlike today’s military, have a valuable peacetime domestic role to play as a flexible auxiliary police force that could assist high-crime jurisdictions with the kind of temporary infusion of extra personnel that can help push crime rates down to a lower equilibrium.** A “surge” if you will. But it would also be prepared to deploy abroad in the case of contingencies. The regular military would be big enough to beat an adversary (i.e., a lot smaller than the regular one) but it would need to call on the gendarmes (who naturally would need a less French name) to conduct an occupation. This means we wouldn’t be caught lacking capacity in a real emergency, but since the gendarmes would be performing a useful peacetime domestic service politicians would (appropriately) feel that initiating situations that require their mobilization is high cost situation that ought to be avoided if possible.


Now, I think progressives can there for different reasons.  Skepticism of the military can be rooted in political opposition to militarism, which, traditionally was often allied to reactionary political forces.  Indeed, much of late-19th century and early-20th century European debates on defense policy were drive by these sorts of cleavages, notably in France and Germany, less so in Britain or Italy. In Germany, the “liberal” classes embraced imperialism precisely because it was linked to the industrial-bourgeois-dominated Navy which was politically opposed to the conservative-Junker-Prussian-dominated army. Using Farley’s definition, the progressive defense analyst in Wilhelmine Germany would be an avid imperialist. So, not sure that makes sense. But skepticism about the utility of military force can also, I think come from a realist appraisal of the empirical record.  Personally, I’m am more firmly in the latter school, even if the military’s reflexive support for conservative politicians riles me sometimes. But my point is that how people becomes “progressives” at any give time may vary, but a progressive foreign/defense policy ought to remain a consistent concept.


The short answer is the Army gets significantly smaller and lighter, the Marines probably expand by several infantry regiments as well as embark on more amphibious assault ships in dispersed operations, the Air Force shrinks, and the Navy dramatically increases the number of non-carrier/non-submarine hulls. The National Guard would also expand dramatically…

The active duty army would see its combat arms forces shrink from forty five ground combat maneuver brigades to twenty-seven brigades (6 heavy, 6 intermediate, 5 airborne, 4 air assault, 6 infantry) along with concurrent reductions in aviation and artillery units. Special Forces (Green Berets) would be maintained at current strength or expanded as they are a comparatively cheap and highly effective force multiplier to support US secondary interests by being able to train and mentor foreign forces for their own foreign internal defense…

The Air Force would continue to become more of an expeditionary force. The Air Force is not a war winner, and it can not be. The point of an air force is to support naval and ground forces in achieving national political objectives. It can do so by strike, recon, surveillance, command and control capabilities while denying an enemy the ability to do the same against US forces in a selected region.  Air superiority is sufficient, not air dominance as this is a reasonable risk to run…

The Navy would be the large winner in this re-organization. They are the off-shore balancer and the heavy enforcer in core American interest areas. Naval forces have the luxury of operating with low foreign footprints outside of those footprints already in significant allied ports. They are also with-drawable so they do not create sunk-cost escalation incentives to the American political system. The Navy’s job is to keep the sea lanes open (in conjunction with the Marines), and then support operations ashore.

One point bears emphasis; there is not a single progressive security policy.  Rather, there is security policy thought that takes seriously progressive political goals and affiliations.  This means that there is wide space for disagreement between progressives on security policy, just as there is wide space for disagreements between conservatives (and yes, these disagreements do exist).  A lot of people have mentioned Rachel Kleinfeld when talking about the dangers of self-consciously progressive security policy thinking, and while it’s fair to say that I don’t fully agree with her lionization of population-centric COIN, it’s nevertheless true that she argues from an identifiably progressive starting point.  This doesn’t make her right, but it does mean that she’s approaching the question in the right way.
I should also note that I continue to disagree pretty strongly with Gulliver’s characterization of this discussion:

This is where you get into human security, the “three Ds” (with emphasis on diplomacy and development), an intelligence- and policing-based paradigm for counterterrorism, and the many other elements that could make up whatever it is we want to call a “progressive approach to national security.” But for God’s sake, don’t use that term! Call it a modern approach. Call it a nontraditional approach. Call it an updated approach! But whatever you do, don’t use the language of domestic politics – it cedes the moral high ground, turns off the audience, and implies all the very worst things conservatives want people to believe about the way progressives/liberals/Democrats/non-neocons look at defense.

This is an attempt to redefine the discussion as being about branding, and as such misses the basic point of what I’m calling for. First off, I’m not even convinced that Gulliver is correct on the merits of the brand; people already dismiss anything that smells of a progressive approach to security (witness the reaction that John Noonan and the Abe Vigoda of Right Blogistan gave Yglesias’ post), and it’s reasonably clear to me that “nontraditional” ain’t gonna cut it. Moreover, a genuine progressive imprint on security policy might actually interest and motivate progressives to think productively about security affairs. More importantly, the argument I made was not that we should attempt to rebrand specific ideas as “progressive” but rather that we should think forward from a progressive starting point about what security policy should deliver. In these terms, questions about branding don’t amount to very much.  I think that Steve Waldman’s recent post on the complementarity of ideology and technocratic policymaking is more useful for thinking about this:

Rather than treating ideology as fixed and given, we should treat it as dynamic, as a consequence rather than a constraint of policy choices. Choosing the apparent best available policy in 2008, given prevailing views of mainstream technocrats, helped generate an ideological environment much more challenging to those who support activist government than might otherwise have ensued, because the “least-bad” policies involved deploying taxpayer resources in a manner widely viewed as corrupt and illegitimate. At the margin, people (like me) who had previously accepted that the beneficial actions of government more than justify the costs and coercion of taxation shifted towards viewing taxation as theft on behalf of well-connected insiders. (Ironically, that shift may be helpful to many of those same insiders, who, having already “got theirs”, now have more to lose than to gain from government activism.) Going forward, we oughtn’t confine ourselves to making the best of a terrible ideological environment. We should be considering how we might alter that environment to be more conducive of good policy.

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