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Is Hagel tying America’s hands (and is that a bad thing)?

- February 24, 2014

David M. Edelstein is associate professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His book, Occupational Hazards, examines the determinants of failure and success of foreign military occupations.

The news that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will propose to cut the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels is sure to generate much controversy and consternation. Despite the fact that the United States spends nearly five times as much on its defense as the next country on the list, China, the idea of cutting the U.S. defense budget is always met with opposition, much of it from the representatives of those states and districts most likely to be affected by the cuts.

Aside from the question of how this proposal will play politically, there is also the strategic question of how these force reductions might affect the ability of the U.S. military to protect American interests. The New York Times quotes American officials as saying that the resulting military “will be a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted military occupations” and that it “could invite adventurism by adversaries.”

This adventurism would be driven by the way in which Hagel’s plan would reduce the options available to American political leaders for confronting adversaries. Other states would be encouraged to take actions that they would not have previously taken as they no longer are deterred by the threat of occupation. This raises a fundamental question: can the United States still deter adversaries absent the capability to occupy them for protracted periods of time?

Hagel’s plan is potentially an example of a “tying hands” signal through which states signal their intentions and interests by making it impossible for them to act in certain ways. As scholars have argued for a long time, such signals can create strategic advantages as they allow adversaries clearly to see the implications of their behavior and may deter them from pursuing particular strategies. For example, states can tie their hands by creating tripwire forces that respond automatically to provocative actions by an adversary. The prospect of an automatic response by military forces is intended to deter the action in the first place.

There are at least two major reasons, however, why an American decision to “tie its hands” from invasion and occupation should not be a concern.

First, as I concluded in my book on the subject, the track record of protracted military occupations is not an encouraging one. Nationalist populations do not like to be occupied, and impatient great powers do not like to expend valuable human and financial resources on protracted occupations. The two most cited cases of successful military occupation, West Germany and Japan after World War II, benefited from the presence of a Soviet threat that rendered occupation preferable to the communist alternative.

Unfortunately, the recent difficult experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to more questions about how to do occupation better than questions about the conditions under which occupying a foreign country is in America’s interests and likely to succeed at a reasonable cost. To the extent that the U.S. limits its own ability to invade and occupy, such limitations might serve to prevent ill-advised occupations and interventions overseas. Tying hands can be both bad and good.

Second, for the signaling logic to be a concern, one needs to envision the adversary that would not have acted previously that becomes undeterred if Hagel’s plan is implemented. Such an adversary is hard to imagine. Even if conflict were to erupt with China over the various ongoing maritime disputes, it is difficult to see invasion and occupation as a likely response. Moreover, even in scenarios where an invasion and occupation might be marginally more likely, the credibility of such a threat is already low given the evident lack of appetite within the United States for another such mission.

In an ideal world, the United States can guarantee the security of its interests without being tempted to undertake occupations and interventions that have little chance of succeeding and promise high costs. The U.S. military will retain substantial air, sea, and ground capabilities even after the proposed cuts. These capabilities ought to be sufficient to deter the most likely adversaries from taking aggressive actions and to reassure allies about the sincerity of America’s commitment to their security. This latter point is important: if U.S. allies begin to question the ability of the American military to respond to certain threats, this could lead them to develop their own militaries in potentially destabilizing ways.

One final point about the Pentagon’s reported plan: such a reduction in U.S. ground forces should prompt a concomitant review of America’s national interests. In fact, the review of America’s national interests—and those interests that might necessitate the use of military force—ought to have preceded the announcement of any plans for development of the American military. The Obama administration is due to release a new national security strategy this spring. Presumably, the interests expressed in that document should drive the shape and size of the U.S. military.

So, while these cuts might appear to be warranted and wise, they would be even more convincing with a strong statement of what exactly America’s national interests are at the moment and what the threats to those interests are, both now and in the future. The Pentagon’s proposal may or may not tie the hands of America’s political leaders, but if it does, then it would be reassuring to know that those hands have been tied in a manner consistent with U.S. interests. Interests need to drive the mission and the capabilities to carry out that mission, not the other way around.