Tough Decisions on Future Military Roles and Missions

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A new commander in chief next year will decide if and when U.S. troops will leave Iraq.

And that will be just the start of a much-needed debate about the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. military after Iraq.

The stress on the military caused by Iraq rotations is one of the most immediate concerns. The Bush administration's attempt to remedy the situation was to allow the Army and Marine Corps to expand the force during the next four years. Although that sounds like a reasonable solution to alleviate the strain, it clouds a more fundamental problem, which is a chronic imbalance between commitments and resources.

In other words, somebody has to decide if the military should just be fighting wars in defense of the nation, or whether it should be a global police force. If the latter is the case, the current military does not have nearly enough resources or the proper organization to carry out that task.

The disconnect between lofty dreams and the actual capabilities of the armed services is a troubling issue that the nation's leaders should tackle, says national security expert Richard K. Betts, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

The last two U.S. presidents, Betts contends, "embraced ambitious goals of reshaping the world according to American values but without considering the full costs and consequences of their grandiose visions. The result has been a defense budget caught between two stools: higher than needed for basic national security but far lower than required to eliminate all villainous governments and groups everywhere."

Defense spending is now the highest it's been since the end of World War II, and yet we often hear complaints from military officials that they don't have enough money. What gives?

This predicament will not be solved until the nation sets a coherent path to guide military strategy and spending, Betts says. "One would have to concede that Washington spends so much and yet feels so insecure because U.S. policymakers have lost the ability to think clearly about defense policy."

Top military officials for the past several years have publicly advocated that the defense budget should equate to 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. Currently, the military spends that much if one includes the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But supporters of higher spending argue that the regular defense budget should be at the level it is now, even after the wars end.

Pegging military strategy to a percentage of GDP is an "extremely lazy way to do defense planning," says Robert Work, senior military analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. …