The NDP Review is Worse than You Thought


Frank Hoffman recently wrote an excellent takedown of the National Defense Panel’s (NDP) Review of DoD’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).  He also offered some solid recommendations for how the NDP’s work could be made more useful to Congress.  But Hoffman’s critique doesn’t go nearly far enough.  Here are the top five reasons why the NDP’s review is even worse than you thought.

1. Lack of (Intellectual) Diversity:  As Hoffman correctly observes, this panel is well-represented by former senior Department of Defense civilians, retired general officers, and even former Congressional representatives.  However, all of these members reflect the elite intellectual consensus that American interests can only be served by the preservation of U.S. global military hegemony.  Hence, their recommendation for additional investments in American military might was not a result of serious deliberation and analysis, but rather a preordained conclusion.  The next iteration of any similar effort to forge a genuine critique of the QDR must include representatives from a broader intellectual spectrum to include respected academics.  Top on my list would be Barry Posen from MIT who recently offered a stinging critique of the current U.S. strategy of liberal hegemony and constructs an alternative approach grounded instead on “Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy”; Andrew Bacevich from Boston University who is skeptical about America’s overreliance on military might; and  John Mueller from The Ohio State University who has written about the tendency of politicians and others to exaggerate national security threats.

2. The notion of the U.S. as the “exceptional and indispensable nation”:  This has become quite literally an article of faith among the political class.  Even intellectually rigorous Professor President Obama has been forced to publicly voice his adherence to these beliefs.  But the notion that the United States is inherently a force for good blinds policymakers to the prospect that others might see U.S. military invasions, occupations, and bombings as injurious to their own pride, welfare, and interests.  President Reagan did not foresee that U.S. Marines deployed to Lebanon in the 1980’s would be seen as serving the narrow partisan interests of the Maronite Christian minority.  Neither President H.W. Bush nor President Clinton anticipated that U.S. military support to humanitarian operations in Somalia in the 1990’s would be viewed as antithetical to the interests of certain local stakeholders (namely, the warlords exploiting these aid supplies for their own personal and political purposes).  President G.W. Bush did not foresee that the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003 ousting Saddam Hussein—a despot but also, significantly, a Sunni—and installing a Shi’a-led government in Baghdad would be violently opposed by the suddenly dispossessed Sunni minority helping to spark the broader regional sectarian conflict we are witnessing today.  Furthermore, U.S. willingness to frequently deploy its military forces in response to virtually any global crisis when others (to include allies) patently refuse to engage their own resources encourages others to “free ride,” leaving America alone to bear the costs of maintaining the “global order” demanded by the NDP report.  Having the world’s most capable and deployable military certainly has its advantages, but there are also associated costs that any future NDP-like effort should take into account.

3. Every problem a nail:  The NDP report admits to a diffusion of power and technologies that will “enable small groups and individuals to perpetuate large-scale violence and disruption.”  However, the report never explains how a significantly larger American military serves to address this or other, related emerging security challenges.  Long-term military occupations involving hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have failed to eliminate the terrorist threat emanating from these regions.  In fact, one lesson that should be learned from these failed efforts is that foreign military engagements and occupations often serve to create, foster, and strengthen more radical and more violent terrorist organizations.  See U.S. military support to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Al-Qaida; Israeli occupation of Lebanon and Hizbollah; and U.S. occupation of Iraq and AQI/ISIS/ISIL/IS.

4. Ignoring the non-military instruments of power:  Closely related to the above point, the NDP report mistakenly portrays “America’s other tools for global influence, such as diplomacy and economic engagement” as being solely dependent on our military capabilities. In reality, the relationship is one of mutual dependence and any serious review of defense policy must do a better job of contextualizing the application of military power within the broader framework of national power to include the wide range of diplomatic, economic, and informational tools available to policymakers. There are certainly cases when the threat of military force can reinforce diplomacy, for instance, as was recently the case when Syria agreed to destroy or surrender its stockpile of chemical weapons.  However, there are occasions when diplomacy, economics, and other instruments of soft power can more effectively accomplish U.S. interests and objectives than can military action or threats.  This might particularly be the case in the sectarian identity wars being played out in the Middle East and Ukraine.  This tendency to ignore the contributions of non-military instruments is particularly glaring in the NDP’s discussion of Iran.  The report doesn’t even mention the ongoing and potentially game changing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program—a genuine opportunity to achieve verifiable limits on the extent of Iran’s heretofore civilian nuclear capabilities without resorting to the use of military force.  Instead the report can only recirculate tired advice about reinforcing and (of course) expanding U.S. military presence and capabilities in the region.  Let’s ensure that any future assessments of U.S. defense strategy include experts on these other instruments of power.

5. Failure to address the current ends-means imbalance:  Good strategy seeks to ensure sufficient resources dedicated to achieving identified national objectives.  The NDP recommends achieving this strategic balance by providing additional defense resources.  But this is not a feasible or remotely realistic solution in this fiscally constrained environment.  The report ignores the other sensible approach for restoring strategic balance: namely, narrowing the scope and range of U.S. strategy to achieving only the most essential goals consistent with resources likely to be available.  This, however, implies a strategy that both prioritizes U.S. objectives and admits the limits of military power.  Failing to even consider this alternative approach is yet further evidence that the NDP will do little to help Congress or the American public critically examine the dilemmas, trade-offs, and options confronting American policymakers in today’s evolving security environment.


Dr. Christopher Bolan is a Professor of National Security Studies at The U.S. Army War College.  The views expressed are his own.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery