Thursday, June 18, 2009


By Christopher A. Preble

Cornell University Press, $25, 212 pages

Reviewed by W. James Antle III

Members of the political class think about government the way people who attend Monster Truck rallies think about automobiles. Bigger is always better. A little shock and awe always entertains. And power is never a problem.

This is especially true when thinking about the military. For all their dovish rhetoric and willingness to slash funding for guns to make room for butter, liberal politicians like military interventions (launched by Democratic presidents) because they like to wield government power on behalf of whatever currently strikes liberal fancy.

Conservative pols are even more gung-ho because they understand that defending the nation is, unlike running General Motors Corp., a proper function of the federal government. The fact that our brave fighting men and women are so much more heroic than pencil-pushing Washington bureaucrats almost makes them forget that the military is part of the government.

Both therefore would be very perplexed by the title of Christopher A. Preble’s new book: “The Power Problem.” How can being the most powerful nation in the world possibly create any problems? They would be alarmed by the libertarian Cato Institute scholar and former naval officer’s main argument: “We should reduce our military power in order to be more secure.”

What? Everyone knows the opposite is true. One of the things Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama agreed on during the presidential campaign was the need for a bigger Army. Sen. John Kerry also took that position in 2004. Suggesting that our national security spending is not making us more secure in the midst of the war on terror is like pointing out that Great Society spending programs didn’t win the war on poverty.

Mr. Preble points out that after the Soviet Union collapsed following the Free World’s victory in the Cold War, the United States gained great freedom of action throughout the world. No longer did policymakers need to worry that military interventions in small countries, only tangentially related to vital American interests, would create an unacceptable risk of nuclear war with a rival superpower. The United States was the only remaining superpower.

So, despite military budget cuts and the vaunted “peace dividend” of the 1990s, President Clinton actually subjected the use of military force to far less stringent criteria than did President Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The United States had awesome power, as President George H.W. Bush demonstrated with our smashing success in the Persian Gulf War. In a world of poverty, tyranny and strife, however, such power also imposed awesome responsibilities.

With the Soviets defeated, our European allies did not need to resume the inconvenience of providing for their own national defense. The United States could continue to do the job. Neither did the Europeans take the lead in the Balkans. That also looked like a job for Uncle Sam, and Mr. Clinton happily agreed.

Every crisis in the world, from Kosovo to Somalia to Liberia, cried out for an American solution. Where no such solution was forthcoming, such as in Rwanda or Sudan, the United States was held responsible for its inaction. But if the first war in Iraq illustrated the efficacy of American power, the second one has revealed its limits. The U.S. military is, as Mr. Preble contends, very powerful but not omnipotent. The American people are assuming great costs, increasingly borne by our troops, without giving rise to allies and institutions that can share the burden.

Perhaps, then, the problem Mr. Preble diagnoses isn’t American military power per se, but the eagerness with which itchy-trigger-fingered politicians deploy it. What’s wrong with the old-fashioned conservative idea of a strong military, used sparingly? In response, the author quotes then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s question to Gen. Colin L. Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Mrs. Albright’s observation is so difficult to avoid that Mr. Preble argues the only way to shrink our overseas commitments and adopt a less force-friendly approach to international problems is to have a smaller military.

But it is not clear that the size of our defense capability is to blame. Stepped-up humanitarian interventions coincided with defense budget cuts in the 1990s. The Navy has been cut in half since the end of the Cold War without a noticeably less interventionist foreign policy. George W. Bush invaded Iraq with Bill Clinton’s Army, not Bill Kristol’s.

The problem is that when American decision-makers see problems and dangers in the world, they lack the capacity to say no. Realists, like advocates of limited government at home, are regarded as denying the dangers or proposing no viable alternative. Also, 20th-century American military power has a vastly better track record than the welfare state, to put it mildly, leaving Mr. Preble’s case that much tougher to make.

Yet “The Power Problem” doesn’t flinch from offering specifics as to what commitments the United States should keep and which it should shed. In addition to criteria for using military force that are stricter than the old Weinberger-Powell doctrine - allied interests would no longer be treated as synonymous with American national interests - Mr. Preble suggests “right-sizing” our military forces for the defense of American territory and the Western Hemisphere.

“This does not mean that intervention is never a wise choice,” Mr. Preble writes. “It does mean that the burden of proof lies with those making the case for war; not those advising against.” His calls for a smaller nuclear deterrent will raise objections from those who broadly share his preference for military restraint but believe in peace through strength - or speaking softly and carrying a big stick. But in “The Power Problem,” Mr. Preble has started a debate where too often there has been a monologue.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.

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