Military Appearances Can Be Deceiving

As part of tomorrow’s inauguration ceremony for Gazprom’s new president Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian military will parade its big ticket hardware through Red Square for the first time since, well, the square was truly Red. It’s the culmination of a year’s worth of Russian flexing of its military muscle, which also saw the reintroduction of long range bomber patrols and Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean and off the North Atlantic coast. As an indication of how seriously Moscow takes tomorrow’s display, the cobblestones in Red Square have been reinforced to resist the Topol missile system’s hundred tons of weight. But, as this AP article points out, despite a massive increase in military spending over the past few years, Russia’s military is actually in pretty sad shape.

In a similar vein, last week, photographs of China’s “secret” underground submarine base were made public by a “private” satellite operator. The revelation sparked the predictable alarmist responses, with the Indian military expressing concern over the future integrity of Indian Ocean shipping lanes. But as Jean-Dominique Merchet pointed out over at his must-read French-language blog, Secret Défense, a massive submarine base of this sort is more a sign of weakness than of strength. It signals the inability of the Chinese navy to maintain the kind of continuous submarine patrols upon which naval-based strategic deterrence is based.

Finally, America’s military engagement in Iraq has often been interpreted as reducing the deterrent function of its military. This is true to the extent that the Army has been stretched and will need some time to reset, and to the extent that we don’t have much excess capacity (in terms of boots on the ground) for other contingencies. But inasmuch as Iraq has been a failure, it has been a political and doctrinal failure which resulted in shortsighted, politically expedient planning that handicapped the actual military mission. While it perfectly demonstrates the limits of American power (ie. what we can achieve through armed intervention), it in no way demonstrates a shortcoming in American military capacity.

From its technologically enhanced combat capabilities to its doctrinal response to initial failures, the American military has put on quite a demonstration. And it’s a sure bet that the world’s military strategists have been paying attention. So while it’s become clear that kicking everyone’s butt is not a solution, there’s also no doubt that we can, in fact, kick everyone’s butt.

In other words, the idea that, post-Iraq, the U.S. has lost or devalued its military deterrent is premature. The challenge will be to extricate ourselves from the Iraq quagmire, and subsequently to formulate a foreign policy of restraint in such a way as to return the military back to where it belongs in the quiver of policy tools. The stick seems bigger when it’s carried, not wielded.

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