An End to the "Long War"

On Monday, the Obama administration released a pair of critical documents indicating the path it intends to take on military and defense issues. One of these documents was the budget for fiscal year 2011, which calls for an increase in defense spending as well as the restructuring of a couple of major weapons programs. The other document was the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR. Every four years, the Department of Defense reports to Congress on its long-term strategic and procurement plans. The QDR gives the White House the opportunity to both lay the tracks of future equipment procurement and to make a statement about its strategic orientation.

Developed under the supervision of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the 2010 QDR eschews grand strategic theory in favor of a concrete approach to fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of developing a vision for the application of U.S. military power and weaving a narrative around it, the 2010 QDR concentrates on the lessons learned in recent conflicts and on the maintenance of the standing force. Gates' QDR would prefer to finish our current wars before thinking about the next.

The 2006 QDR was very much the product of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon -- the document provided him with the first opportunity to set forth his long-term strategic plan for the U.S. military. Rumsfeld became secretary of defense in the immediate wake of the 2000 QDR release, which was written during the Clinton administration. Because of the Bush administration's unhappiness with the draft, the QDR was substantially revised and re-released by the Department of Defense in late September 2001, although most of the work was done prior to the September 11 attacks that reshaped the strategic landscape.

By 2005, the Bush administration had invaded two countries and embarked upon a profoundly new strategic path. The objective of the 2006 QDR was to make sense of the previous five years. The motivating concept behind the 2006 QDR was the "Long War," a unifying thread that tied together all U.S. military actions and preparation across the world. The QDR defined the Long War as an irregular conflict against "dispersed, global terrorist networks that exploit Islam to advance radical political aims." The concept seamlessly integrated the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan into the same ideational framework, sidestepping arguments that the former was neither necessary for nor to the benefit of the latter. But problematically, the Long War concept subsumed U.S. military intervention in East Asia, Latin America, and Africa under the same rubric as the "hot wars" in the Middle East. This perspective implies that no potential intervention can be judged on its own merits, as each use of military force is weighed in terms of its contribution to the Long War. But because the Long War is sufficiently amorphous and vaguely defined to include almost anything, it provides a poor guide to the wisdom of specific interventions.

As a rhetorical concept, the Long War idea is deeply evocative of the United States' Cold War strategy, in which military operations around the world contributed to the containment of Soviet communism. A failure to resist Communist subversion in Latin America, for example, could demonstrate to the Soviets our lack of resolve, giving them an incentive to push harder in Asia or in Germany. In the Long War, money spent on marijuana grown in Colombia could theoretically end up in the hands of terrorists dedicated to bringing down American jetliners. The idea that we are waging a Long War against what amounts to a barbarian horde had a certain narrative appeal to the Bush administration and helped tie the otherwise dry bureaucratic document together. Shortly after the release of the 2006 QDR, Gates, a veteran of the national-security establishment with a reputation for competence, was brought in by President George W. Bush to clean up the real and conceptual messes that Rumsfeld had left.

The words "Long War" appear 31 times in the 2006 QDR. The phrase does not appear once in the Gates-Obama QDR. This year's QDR treats the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the variety of other military operations around the world, as discrete instances of the pursuit of U.S. national objectives. To return to the Colombia example, the U.S. supports the current government in order to reduce drug trafficking and balance Venezuela's influence in the region, rather than as part of an overarching plan to combat global terrorism. Although the 2010 QDR doesn't say so directly, it implies that intervention in Haiti is worthwhile for humanitarian reasons and refugee concerns, rather than as part of the fight against al-Qaeda. The document rejects the Long War rhetoric of a dramatically coherent struggle against a shadowy enemy in favor of concrete analysis of specific conflicts. Among other things, this allows the Obama administration to frame the Iraq War as a mistake and as incidental to the battle against al-Qaeda and associated terrorist groups.

Some critics of the 2010 QDR have argued that the document fails to serve its purpose in that it does not sufficiently lay out a long-term force structure and strategy for the United States military. For example, the current QDR does not offer a sweeping vision for future U.S. competition with China, and critics suggest that the document is bogged down with practical solutions to immediate military problems. Gates essentially concedes this point, writing:

This is truly a wartime QDR. For the first time, it places the current conflicts at the top of our budgeting, policy, and program priorities, thus ensuring that those fighting America's wars and their families -- on the battlefield, in the hospital, or on the home front -- receive the support they need and deserve.

In other words, this QDR is about fighting, winning, and recovering from the conflicts in which the United States currently finds itself embroiled. The implication is that long-term strategic planning can be put off until at least 2014, when the United States will presumably be out of Iraq and nearly out of Afghanistan.

Understood within the context of his tenure, the 2010 QDR is evocative of the pragmatic approach that Gates has taken to virtually every defense issue since he took the helm of the Department of Defense in late 2006. The document is indicative of why Obama retained Gates as secretary of defense and of how easily Gates has fit into the administration. The pragmatism and modesty of this QDR stands in contrast to the grandeur of Rumsfeld's 2006 document. Instead of waging a long-term, identity-defining civilizational struggle against the forces of barbarism, the United States is fighting -- quite plainly and unromantically -- wars. Wars against people, not heathens. This rhetorical approach fits very comfortably into a White House that prides itself on pragmatic, competent, non-ideological policy-making and execution.