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Trump’s National Defense Strategy Has the Pentagon Popping Champagne

Here’s what we can say about the Trump administration’s just-released National Defense Strategy [1]: it’s not a strategy and its subject is not defense.  

Bearing the imprimatur of Pentagon chief James Mattis, the NDSat least the unclassified summary that we citizens are permitted to see—is in essence a brief for increasing the size of the U.S. military budget. Implicit in the document is this proposition: more spending will make the armed forces of the United States “stronger” and the United States “safer.” Simply put, the NDS is all about funneling more bucks to the Pentagon.

Remarkably, the NDS advances this argument while resolutely avoiding any discussion of what Americans have gotten in return for the $11 trillion [2] (give or take) expended pursuant to the past 16-plus years of continuous war—as if past performance should have no bearing on the future allocation of resources.

Try this thought experiment. The hapless Cleveland Browns went winless this year. How might Browns fans react if the team’s management were to propose hiking ticket prices next season? Think they might raise a ruckus?


The Pentagon has not recorded many more wins than the Browns of late. Yet a trust-us-we-know-what-we’re-doing attitude permeates the NDS. And amazingly, it’s almost certain that Mattis will get whatever additional money he wants.

The NDS contains several extraordinary statements. Yet none top this one: “Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy.”  

What exactly is this supposed to mean? To atrophy is to waste away. Muscles atrophy from non-use, from too much sitting around and too little exercise.  

Whatever else one can say about the United States military, it has not suffered from too much sitting around and too little exercise. If anything, the reverse is true. Under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, U.S. forces have been constantly on the go. I’m prepared to argue that no nation in recorded history has ever deployed its troops to more places than has the United States since 2001. American bombs and missiles have rained down on a remarkable array of countries. We’ve killed an astonishing number of people.  


To what effect? In Washington, the question goes not only unanswered but unasked.

Despite all this extraordinary activism, the NDS tells us we’re in big trouble. The global “security environment” has become “more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” What the NDS refers to as a “long-standing rules-based international order” is coming undone. In short, things are bad and they’re getting worse by the minute.  

Given America’s dominant position in that global order, could it be that actions by the United States have contributed to this worrisome volatility? Could recent U.S. policies—for example, a penchant for waging preventive war—have undermined the rules whose passing the NDS laments?  

Rather than reflecting on such possibilities, the NDS moves quickly to solutions, the most important of which is to enhance American military might. “A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force,” we learn, will “sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order” from predators like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

Hence the need to exploit new technologies to include “advanced computing, ‘big data’ analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology.” Tapping the military potential of technology, according to the NDS, will “ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future”—a theme of Pentagon propaganda extending at least as far back as Vietnam. Evidence to support that claim has been mixed at best. But open up your wallet, America!

When it comes to specifics, the NDS offers virtually none. Instead, under the heading of “Strategic Approach,” we get these less-than-reassuring nuggets:

Somewhat more concrete is this statement: “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.” That claim is not without merit. Yet preparedness to fight is not the only way to prevent war, is certainly not the cheapest, and may not be the most effective.  

One alternative worth exploring is to use non-violent approaches to reducing threats to America’s security and well-being: instead of more expensive weapons, try more creative diplomacy. Yet that approach would entail actually formulating a strategy. This is what Nixon did in the 1970s with his opening to China, and Reagan did the following decade when he found common ground with Gorbachev. Both initiatives were not without risk, but the risks paid off.

To judge by the text of this document, the leaders of our present-day cramped and unaccountable national security apparatus possess neither the imagination nor the gumption to undertake anything comparable.  

Who will celebrate the National Defense Strategy? Only weapons manufacturers, defense contractors, lobbyists, and other fat cat beneficiaries of the military-industrial complex.

Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Trump’s National Defense Strategy Has the Pentagon Popping Champagne"

#1 Comment By next up On January 23, 2018 @ 10:55 pm

You ask the right question.

No, they haven’t kept us safe. They’ve provoked more attacks on us than they’ve prevented. They not only haven’t won any of the wars they started, they haven’t managed to end any of them – after seventeen years. And of course with their mass surveillance programs and “do as we say or we’ll kill you” approach to terrorism, they have undermined and in some cases destroyed the very American freedoms that they claim to be defending.

In sum, I’m inclined to use this document to wipe my ass. As a “national defense strategy” it’s worthless. Those who wrote it either think we’re all stupid or they’re clueless incompetents.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 24, 2018 @ 12:31 am

This may be inappropriate. But the article was painfully funny.

#3 Comment By Clyde Schechter On January 24, 2018 @ 12:50 am

“Those who wrote it either think we’re all stupid or they’re clueless incompetents.”

Actually, it’s both.

#4 Comment By david On January 24, 2018 @ 5:44 am

Don’t forget they haven’t done the congressionally mandatory financial audits for over 10 years. We know that based on numerous stories waste/fraud/mismanagement is rampant. Supposedly an audit is finally going to be done this year but everything we know about Mattis suggests his heart really isn’t in it. We need to remember that it’s not how much we spend but how well we spend it.

#5 Comment By SteveM On January 24, 2018 @ 9:27 am

Somewhat more concrete is this statement: “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.” That claim is not without merit. Yet preparedness to fight is not the only way to prevent war, is certainly not the cheapest, and may not be the most effective.

Actually what Mattis was actually implying is: “The surest way to address American economic eclipse is to the threaten war because of the related economic activity by “revisionist states.”

What Mattis and the Security State Cronies and Hacks don’t get is that China/Russia are in the process of building out a massive integrated Eurasian economic model that shuts out the United States because dealing with Washington is more trouble than it’s worth.

As the Eurasia becomes more and more self-sufficient related to resourcing and technology development the declining U.S. is becoming more and more irrelevant to the region. And the evolution of the autonomous Eurasian economic model is inexorable.

The pathological United States regime cannot acknowledge the decline of it hegemonic influence in any dimension. The biggest danger of the arrogance, cluelessness and stupidity of the War Party fronted by militarists like Mattis is that it treats foreign economic activity that reveals American irrelevance as a “national security threat” that must be confronted by the War Machine.

That is a nascent conflict contrived by the DC Elites that the United States cannot win. It poses the biggest danger to peace and to the taxpayers who will be stuck with the bills.

There are no benefits to the taxpayers by war-mongering as a response to economic decline. As Professor Bacevich notes, benefits will only accrue the the Security State Cronies and Hacks. The only possible outcome of this warped strategy will be unnecessary wars and bankruptcy.

#6 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On January 24, 2018 @ 11:56 am

I was hoping for a more peaceful foreign policy from Trump. It soon became apparrent that we wouldn’t get one. I felt very deceived, so to soothe myself I bought a defense industries mutual fund, which isn’t doing that bad. But I would rather have more diplomacy from DC and a utilities mutual fund. Just looking for a silver lining in all of that mess.

#7 Comment By Fred Bowman On January 24, 2018 @ 1:57 pm

About what you would expect from the “five sided wind tunnel”.

#8 Comment By peter On January 24, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

Just like many others, I was hoping for a more peaceful foreign policy from president Trump.
Still, I tell myself, it is mostly “jaw-jaw” and not “war-war”. Well, except for Syria.
Trump has few allies in Washington – Ds or Rs.
Since the defense industry provides good American jobs, including the powerful military-industrial-complex (MIC) in his supporter list makes sense.

#9 Comment By Paul Pierce On January 24, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

What is it about “defense” that you don’t get? And is “a more peaceful foreign policy” an obligation of the Pentagon? No. As for cost, what is the cost of losing a war, especially when the victor is not benevolent as we were after WWII? Further on cost, anyone as concerned about the federal debt pile up from 2006-2012 (the Pelosi era) as they are about Pentagon spending? No?

#10 Comment By FedUpWithWelfareStates On January 24, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

So, we have a Warmongering SECDEF focusing on Russia & China in the National Defense Strategy, because Cold Wars are so much neater to fight, bring in bigger budgets because of the False Fear Factor, & will guarantee that our dysfunctional military continues to flounder unabated w/o ever really being challenged for decades…

Forget about those pesky Islamic Global Insurgents, running circles around us, killing us at will right here in America, willing to die for their cause, which means that the ONLY way of winning against them is to actually kill all of them, meaning that we must declare war against Islam First!

It is ‘Happy Days Again’, as a New Cold War is dawning & the Pentagon finally gets their Xmas of new toys…

#11 Comment By One Guy On January 24, 2018 @ 3:18 pm

The military is a jobs program-“Workfare” for the GOP. Gotta keep making bombs and bullets, and then, gotta keep using them so we need more. We don’t want all those defense factories closing, now do we? Somebody might notice, and start questioning why we need so many tanks and bombs.

And the poor, gullible fools continue to think it’s all to “defend our borders”.

#12 Comment By b. On January 24, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

“as if past performance should have no bearing on the future allocation of resources.”

The war profiteering classes here implement the pervasive corporate executive rip-off: heads, we deserve more money, tails, we need more money.

I would add to Bacevich’s observations not only a renewed emphasis on the underused “Follow The Money” approach, I would also like to add that producing more and more advanced weaponry is not simply a waste, it is a clear and present danger. Setting aside opportunity cost and the inevitable starvation of the “host” bled for all that profitable procurement, piling up weaponry will inevitably endanger not just potential targets, but those those weapons “protect”, and even those that profited from the pile-up.

Drones deployed across the globe, then against US military units. Stinger missiles going to Syria, then into civilian airliners. Stuxnet to target Iranian SCADA, soon to be found in a powergrid near you. We sell arms to Saudi Arabia, and if there should be terrorists from Yemen, both arms and motivation will root in those trades and sales.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the context of nuclear warheads on ICBMs, deployed with launch on warning, and massive overkill, and what proliferates in the shadows cast by the “arsenal of freedom”.

Which nation has the most to lose from a large-scale nuclear exchange?

If we are looking for strategic moves, endorsing the restraint of China’s minimum means of reprisal and challenging ourselves and Russia to match it as the beginning of a global discussion about not just non-proliferation but disarmament would go a long way. The fewer warheads we have ready to go, the more survivable the inevitable mistake will become – and the more survivable those warheads and their platforms, the less likely the mistakes.

#13 Comment By briefly On January 24, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

As I understand it, Trump’s “National Defense Strategy” is to defend Israel and Saudi Arabia instead of defending America’s own borders or America’s actual treaty allies.

That’s what I voted against in 2016, and it’s what I’ll be voting against again in 2020.

#14 Comment By General Chaos On January 24, 2018 @ 6:36 pm

Wow, so much illogic and silly history.

1. The Browns analogy. If ticket prices were raised and the money used to sign better players and coaches, well, that kinda makes sense. The author left out the critical part.

2. Nixon and China. Only reason it worked is both had a large common threat. Exactly who is the large common threat that China, Russia, Iran, N Korea and the US all share that would allow “creative diplomacy” to work? It was not so much creative diplomacy, but a confluence of interest been week the US and China. Absent that the diplomacy is irrelevant.

3. Reagan and Gorbachev….really? Only be reigniting Cold War II deploying controversial Pershing and cruise missiles, and a massive increase in defense spending was the stage set for the 1987-89 breakthroughs. Again, the USSR and US only had enough in common one power shaped the arena.

Bottom line, the actual logics underlying the authors examples support the opposite argument he makes.

Wishful thinking the great power politics need not function the way it always has is no solution to the situation the US is in. If we play nicer will the Russians leave E. Ukraine or Crimea? Will Chi e negotiate it’s exit from the S. China Sea?

I won’t hold my breath

#15 Comment By Jenna On January 24, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

Why is no one in Congress or the US objecting to the ubiquitous nature of our military expansion?
And why was Congress so eager to give military oversight yo Trump?

#16 Comment By Patriot On January 25, 2018 @ 12:57 am

For a country that prides itself on Capitalism and the free market, we sure look a lot like a socialist state given our huge government funded defense programs!

#17 Comment By Alexis TK27 On January 25, 2018 @ 2:47 am

Regarding “predators like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea”:

Grouping all these countries within the same list of adversaries is strategically stupid, because the net effect is to induce them to support each other, making them synergistically stronger.

And that’s indeed what has been happening.

I would extract both Russia and North Korea from the list, because there is no fundamental contradiction between their strategic interests and America’s. China and Iran are different, the former because it’s obviously the rival superpower, the latter because it aims at upheaval of the status quo in the Gulf region which is very favorable to America.

Neutralizing Russia relatively to US-China rivalry, through a friendly policy, and settling NK-US relations, by acceptance of their nuclear status and détente policy, would go much further securing US interests than any hike in the military budget.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 25, 2018 @ 3:11 am

I do support the development of laser weapons tech. It’s the only real response/defense to a missile response.

And I hope service members see more money to their service and or in hand.

#19 Comment By Zhu Bajie On January 25, 2018 @ 3:17 am

The US government has attacked some country or other every year or two for the whole of my life, 60+ years. Is it surprising that we’ve made a lot of enemies? Is it surprising that some attempt revenge? (What our fearless leaders call “terrorism”). Of course, those wars are enormously expensive, and have played a big role in the downfall of the US economy, too. Constant killing, torture, etc., is both a cause and effect of bad morals, too.

#20 Comment By Mark Thomason On January 25, 2018 @ 7:49 am

Reinforcing failure.

It is a fundamental temptation.

It is a serious mistake, warned against as a fundamental principle taught in in all the basic military manuals.

One reinforces success. Failure is dealt with by shifting away, or at most by a conservation of forces holding action.

Where is the US failure? Manifest everywhere. What is hard is finding any success to reinforce.

#21 Comment By SMIA On January 25, 2018 @ 9:26 am

America has enemies. The ones that cannot be deterred must be destroyed (their choice). Our warriors must know that they have the entire might of our civilization behind them. This means that they must have the best of everything that we can provide. The more money we spend, the fewer of our people will be killed fighting the enemy.

#22 Comment By Minnesota Mary On January 25, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

SMIA, a correction:

“America makes enemies.”

War is the health of the nation.

#23 Comment By Steve_I_Am On January 25, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

We could cut the military in half, tomorrow, and be no less safe than we are today.

The Military/Industrial/Security complex is a malignant, malicious, force in the world today. It is time for WE THE PEOPLE to rein them in.

#24 Comment By Gary Jackson On January 25, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

List of defense contractors
Rank Company name Defense Revenue (US$ billions)
1 Lockheed Martin 40.596
2 Boeing 30.388
3 BAE Systems 25.278
4 Raytheon 21.619

Do you think these guys want to hear about diplomacy? Never! Trillions of dollars spent and they are telling us we are not “safe”? Since 9/11 I have not heard once what it actually means to “win” this so called war on terror. This “war” is never ending. Worst part is the majority of politicians, our supposed representatives are so compliant.

#25 Comment By who should pay On January 25, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

@SMIA “The more money we spend, the fewer of our people will be killed fighting the enemy.”

Sounds good but isn’t true.

Most of our enemies are somebody else’s enemies too. We’ve been suckered into doing all the fighting and paying for too long. Look at how the Israelis and Saudis have played us the last seventeen years. They sat there and watched, doing nothing, while we bled and paid.

Well, we’ve done more than enough. Let these parasites start doing their own fighting, dying, and paying. I’ll give American warriors the best equipment and total support for defending America’s own borders. I won’t give a single penny for using America’s warriors half way around the world to fight for corrupt Middle Eastern countries that lack the guts and self-respect to do their own fighting.

#26 Comment By straight shot On January 26, 2018 @ 4:02 am

@SMIA “The more money we spend, the fewer of our people will be killed fighting the enemy.”

Funny how no matter how much we spend – more than the next 8 or 9 biggest spending countries combined – we never seem able to defeat “the enemy”. It’s always morphing into something else … a sort of global phantasm or amoeba whose numbers, location, and motivation we never quite really get a grip on. And of course we can’t fight or defeat “the enemy” out in the open, but only by resort to secret prisons, secret courts, assassination and torture squads, drone murders, mass surveillance of the entire world …

Funny, isn’t it?

Almost makes you wonder what the f*** is really going on.

#27 Comment By Bill Johnson On January 26, 2018 @ 6:07 am

Buried in Bacevich’s essay is a fundamental misuse (misunderstanding?) Of the term”strategy”. Yes, DoD has been busy, but in reaction to external drivers and snap judgement response, instead of in consonance with an overarching link (strategy) between ends and means. What has passed for strategy over the last 20-25 years have been goal statements and wish lists, not paths. We’ve had no shared national ends…still somewhat lacking, but this document is a major step in an accountable direction.

#28 Comment By Professor Nerd On January 26, 2018 @ 11:41 am

@ Paul Pierce. The “Pelosi Era”? She is responsible for the debt? Fascinating. As a historian, I look forward to more of your insight blaming Nancy Pelosi.
What else can we pin on her? This could be fun.

#29 Comment By WliteCommInc. On January 28, 2018 @ 7:36 am

“I look forward to more of your insight blaming Nancy Pelosi.
What else can we pin on her?”

— supporting needless interventions
— increasing the deficit to increase the debt
— invading the privacy of citizens
— supporting the torture of citizens
— supporting the murder of US citizens abroad
— supporting the immigration of illegals
— undermining the economic opportunities of
— supporting the murder of unborn children

No point straining a gnat. And of course she was not the sole actor — she had plenty of

#30 Comment By No Damn Good On January 28, 2018 @ 9:22 pm

@EliteCommInc … good points all. No sense letting politicians off the hook for laws that damage or embarrass America just because were passed by politicians of both parties. The Congress as a whole and Pelosi in particular (as a leader of both the majority and minority at various times) has presided over a horrific loss of traditional American freedoms and privacy, let multiple presidents start catastrophic wars without Congressional authorization and then voted to fund those wars more or less ad infinitum, hemorrhagic immigration, record government debt, letting the banksters skate back in 2008/2009. Pelosi’s a disgrace to democratic government, a wrecker of the foundations of the country. She bears more responsibility because of her leadership role, but she has plenty of corrupt, incompetent company in both parties.

#31 Comment By Sara D On November 20, 2018 @ 6:28 pm

Agree wholeheartedly with the overall sentiment of the article. Curious where Bacevich gets the $11 trillion estimate for costs of the past 16 years of war.

Didn’t see anything in the CSBA link-through backing it up. And seems out of step with the more comprehensive estimates I’ve seen, e.g. Costs of War’s recent estimate of $5.9 Trillion spent in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond since 2001.

Bacevich quote fwiw: “Remarkably, the NDS advances this argument while resolutely avoiding any discussion of what Americans have gotten in return for the $11 trillion (give or take) expended pursuant to the past 16-plus years of continuous war”