Remodeling defense: Think prevention

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The Pentagon is getting a facelift. The building famous for its fives - five sides, five floors, five concentric rings - now has five wedges. As staff vacate their offices in the 60-year-old structure, construction crews strip the monster down to its skeleton and rebuild it, one giant pie-slice at a time.

A second reconstruction crew is also at work in the Pentagon, this one remodeling America's huge defense establishment. In modern times, every new president has ordered a government-wide review of policies and organization. The Bush team gathered extra headlines for the high ambitions of its Defense Strategy Review. But where the overdue building renovation is delivering new office spaces, the latest rethink of strategy seems mostly to be creating requirements for the taxpayer to spend more money on high-tech versions of the same old military establishment.

During last year's electioneering, both presidential candidates proposed more money for defense. As the Bush team sorts through the Pentagon's programs, some observers complain that the new president, who thus far has asked for an extra $18 billion, is still not protecting America's security. Gripes are said also to be coming from the military brass who heard the campaign slogan "Help is on the way" as a promise of lots more cash. Always alert to the flow of defense monies into their constituents' pockets, members of Congress on the left and right are jumping in to advocate for their local bases and defense contracts. What started out as an overdue overhaul is degenerating into just another budget battle.

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Is this the debate we were supposed to be having - how much to spend on the Pentagon? Is our national security measured only by how many ships, airplanes, and tanks we can muster? Certainly that was true in the cold war. Across those decades, our strategy of deterrence hinged on the balance of our combat strength versus the Soviets'. But now? We spend more on our huge military than the next dozen largest militaries combined. Most of those are our allies, none are declared enemies. If we could still calculate security in dollars, we ought to be feeling very, very safe.

But are we secure? The experts say there is an urgent need to overhaul our strategy, to adapt to a revolution in military affairs. But like the project that is stripping the Pentagon's offices down to bare girders, we need to dig down to the essentials, not just use dollars as a crude sign language to signal renewed toughness.

The first essential is to recognize that security is not what it used to be. Changing times have altered almost everything in the calculus of national defense. Globalization has redrawn the map of US interests. Along with bringing us dazzling new tools for everyday life, technology is furnishing new instruments of destruction.

Most important, war itself has mutated, jumping from the battlefield to the streets. To catch soldiers on a traditional battlefield, go to the History Channel. On view daily is a new form of combat, in which neighbor kills neighbor, incited by a malevolent and often criminal leader. Once ignited, these ferociously destructive "community wars" may burn on for generations, almost impervious to the Pentagon's kind of firepower.

Two of today's examples: Russia-Chechnya and Israel-Palestine. Huge advantages in traditional military strength have not enabled the Russians or the Israelis to subdue armed citizens. Our own experience in Somalia underscores the lesson. We withdrew after our most elite fighting units were shot to bits by residents who used drums and cellphones to outmaneuver our exotic command-and-control systems.

Ought not our general strategy be one of prevention? These new forms of armed conflict are so destructive, so hard to stop, and so perilous to outsiders that we might best work to get upstream and help head them off - at much less expense - before they get started.

Prevention was our watchword during the cold war. We knew then that World War III would probably be so destructive that our paramount mission was to prevent it. Is not the first purpose of the US military to prevent war - and to fight and win if prevention fails? That is the kind of primary question we need to discuss if this is to be a thorough, strip-down-to-bare-metal review of security.

If our focus were security-through-prevention, we might hear the secretary of Defense pointing out that the Pentagon can't do the job alone. A prevention strategy would require economic and diplomatic as well as military tools; it would likely point also to an increased emphasis on acting through the UN in harness with the other great powers and regional leaders. The prevention mission would draw military professionals back into thinking more about how to translate their firepower into peace-building leverage than about the tactics of budget building in Washington. Those would be fresh winds, indeed.

Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, is chairman of the Strategy Group, a global action network of professional peacebuilders.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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