Is the U.S. Planning for the Right War?

Analysis: The Pentagon may not be prepared for the next war, but it wants to be ready for the more important one

US soldiers take part in a massive amphibious landing
U.S. soldiers take part in a massive amphibious landing / Getty Images
May 20, 2019

On Sept. 10, 2001, the George W. Bush administration had a view of American national security that, in 24 hours, was buried under the rubble of the World Trade Center. The day before 9/11, the administration viewed China as America's next great adversary. For months, Bush had lambasted his predecessor's efforts to form a strategic partnership with China, calling Beijing a "strategic competitor." Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, wrote a year earlier that, because China wanted to "alter Asia's balance of power in its own favor," it was not the "strategic partner" the Clinton administration once called it. Recall how Washington's worst international crisis of 2001—pre-9/11—involved an American reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet accidentally colliding, the American crew making an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island, and the Chinese detaining them for 11 days. Then, just days later, Bush approved a major arms sale to Taiwan and said the United States would do "whatever it took" to help the island defend itself. "China's leaders are increasingly concerned that Washington and Beijing are headed for a confrontation as China emerges as an economic and military power in Asia," the Washington Post reported two months later. "Officials and analysts described growing unease in Beijing that shifts in attitudes in both nations seem to be pointing toward a showdown." Bush seemed to believe the military should be geared toward such a showdown and less involved in other, less conventional situations of war, as part of a "humble" foreign policy. "Maybe I'm missing something here," Bush said during a presidential debate in 2000. "I mean, are we going to have some kind of nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not." But then Islamist radicals murdered nearly 3,000 people on American soil, and everything changed.

America's geopolitical situation and strategic thinking during the pre-9/11 Bush years resemble those of today in many ways. Bush and Rice's language and the Post's story could easily be mistaken for current rhetoric and reporting on the Sino-American relationship. Now, as then, China is rising and trying to supplant the United States as the dominant power in east Asia, and officials and analysts are warning about potential escalation between Beijing and Washington leading to a "showdown" of some kind—whether over trade, the South China Sea and freedom of navigation, or other areas of contention. The Bush administration prioritized great-power competition with China in its strategic outlook, even if it did not use such terminology.

Fast-forward to the Trump administration, whose national security and national defense strategies proclaim the return of competition between great powers, states with the ability to wield influence on a global scale. Specifically, the administration focuses on China and Russia, both of which "want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests" that is "consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic, and security decisions." Countless experts and commentators have also warned about the reemergence of long-term, strategic rivalry, arguing that American defense policy needs to shift from combatting terrorism and fighting irregular warfare in the Middle East to countering Beijing and Moscow's imperial expansionism and preparing to wage conventional war against them. The military has also endorsed this strategic shift, responding to an ever-changing geopolitical environment. In April, for example, Army leaders said they want to move away from vehicles and aircraft more suited for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which they called "different conflicts" of the past, to weapons built for "high-intensity conflict" with China and Russia.

The Trump administration's efforts to prioritize great-power competition with China and Russia are welcome and necessary. As Andrew Krepinevich, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told me, both countries present the only "existential threats" to American security. And the severity of these threats grew significantly over the last 18 years, to the point of challenging American military supremacy, as Washington largely ignored them, embroiled in the broader Middle East.

And yet, there are at least two problems with the military shifting its focus toward great-power war against Eurasia's two giants at the expense of its capabilities to conduct irregular warfare in the Middle East. First, it seems that, realistically, the next war in which the United States is engaged is much more likely to be irregular and involve terrorists and insurgents in Africa or the Middle East, rather than, say, a war with China over Taiwan. Second, regardless of what objective analysis shows to be the most sound, effective defense strategy for the United States, the political reality in Washington is that the Middle East always seems to dominate the headlines, and lawmakers can never seem to make the strategic shift away from the region.

Regarding the first point, the prospect of war with China or Russia is no fantasy, but in the next 10 years or so, a Middle Eastern insurgency seems more likely. Just look at the University of Michigan's Correlates of War Project, which includes a chronological list of all wars from 1816 to 2007. There have been no wars between great powers since 1945, and most of the recent conflicts are intra-state, having more in common with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than with a conventional war against China or Russia. To be sure, predicting what the next war will—or will not—look like is, at the very least, a highly uncertain exercise. Indeed, defense planners, no matter how smart they are, do not have crystal balls. But still, which type of conflict involving American troops seems more likely in the next decade: one in the Middle East, or one against China or Russia? Pushing great-power competition may very well leave the military poorly prepared for its next fight.

When I raised this point to Elbridge Colby, director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, he pushed back, arguing that "the putative likelihood of certain kinds of conflicts taking place" is not the right criterion on which to base defense planning. "Likelihood is as much a function of how effective our deterrent is and how we choose to respond to events in places like the Middle East than it is an independent variable," he said. So what is a better criterion? "Strategic significance is," he said, meaning that Washington should prioritize those challenges that most severely threaten American interests. If the United States lost a war to China or Russia, Colby explained, "that could unravel our entire alliance architecture." He noted that the United States is essentially trying to help its allies in Europe and Asia defend themselves, an essential pillar of American defense strategy, and that the balance of military power in Taiwan and the Baltic states are not good for the United States.

The Middle East, meanwhile, is a "secondary theater," Colby argued, one in which the United States needs to scope down its aims and what it asks the military to do. "We can prevent terrorist attacks against the homeland with a more focused posture and force employment model," he said, adding that many of America's problems in the Middle East regarding Iran and Islamist terrorism are not simply questions for the military, but for specialized parts of it, such as the Special Forces, as well as the intelligence services, law enforcement, diplomats, and allies and partners. Colby, who supports the Trump administration's national defense strategy, compared the Middle East today to the Boer War, a conflict in which the British Empire fought in southern Africa at the turn of the 20th century, and compared great-power competition to World War I. "Are we going to keep focusing on the Boer War when World War I is looming over us?" he asked.

Krepinevich expressed a similar view. He agreed with me that "irregular wars, terrorism, and insurgency are the most likely forms of war we will experience," but quickly added that, given the challenges posed by China and Russia, the United States will have to keep its "effort [in the Middle East] to an absolute minimum."

"That is not to say we shouldn't look for ways to impose disproportionate costs on our enemies. We should," Krepinevich continued. "But we are no longer in a position to do what we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 18 years." He explained that strategy is "about making choices and allocating risk—deciding what we are not going to do as well as what we are going to do." The Middle East, it seems, is what we are not going to do.

Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, framed the issue as a question: Where can the United States not afford to get these questions wrong? "In Iraq or Afghanistan, they don't have big air forces or navies or armed columns, so you can keep feeding your effort over an extending period of time," he said. "It's messy and unsatisfactory, but you can keep at it." In a conventional war with China or Russia, he continued, that is not the case: a loss would be devastating. One way to lose, he argued, is to cede the conventional military advantage to Beijing and Moscow by not prioritizing it. "And it takes a long time to reconstitute that capability," he warned. Like Colby and Krepinevich, Wood made the point that losing to China or Russia is too unbearable of an outcome, and that the Middle East, while important, does not present that level of risk.

So does Washington need to prepare for the more serious great-power fights and get used to living with perpetual dissatisfaction in the Middle East? Rick Berger, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, thinks not. Berger said the Trump administration's national security and national defense strategies have been a "wake-up call" about the United States possibly losing its military edge to China and Russia. But he worries that focusing on great-power competition is not expansive enough. And here we get to the second problem with shifting away from irregular warfare in the Middle East. "You don't need to convince me" about the threats posed by China and Russia, Berger said. Proponents of a shift away from the Middle East need to convince political leaders and the American people, who still very much care about terrorism and the region more generally. And they need to know the risks of withdrawing from the Middle East and putting more resources toward China and Russia. "Articulate to Congress and the American people those tradeoffs," Berger said. He makes an important point: strategy may necessitate setting priorities and making hard choices, but Washington is likely going to continue its basic posture in the Middle East while also emphasizing great-power competition, therefore putting too much burden on the military (save for an unrealistic bump in defense spending).

There is a solution to this problem: build a military force that can both effectively wage irregular warfare in the Middle East and more conventional, great-power war simultaneously. But is it even possible? "Given our military's projected size and budgets, I am skeptical," Krepinevich said. But Wood and Berger think the military can walk and chew gum at the same time. Wood said the key is "tactical competency." In other words, training soldiers to be good at their jobs is the best way to deal with all kinds of conflicts. Berger said more money is needed, but it must be coupled with cultural change to convince people within the Pentagon to make the necessary adjustments.

The military, it seems, has a weird situation on its hands. It is obviously intent on shifting its focus to great-power competition with China and Russia, as it should. Much more is at stake in a war with either country, and while losing to a Middle Eastern insurgency would be bad, losing to China or Russia would be much, much worse. Perhaps even if the military will not be totally prepared for the next insurgency, the United States may, nonetheless, need to accept that reality to prepare for the bigger problem. And yet, the fact is the Middle East will still dominate the day-to-day discussions of American foreign and defense policy. Just look at the past couple weeks, with the Trump administration's critics warning that the president and his advisers are dragging the country into another Middle Eastern war, even if such claims are simply not true. So the United States will avoid making hard choices and very much remain in the Middle East. Maybe that is not such a bad thing. In 10 years, when the United States finds itself once again facing some terrorist insurgency, it will sure be grateful that it did not toss away the old playbook. As the Bush administration found out, all it takes is one attack to change everything.