New House majority needs to prioritize security over snipe hunts

As Democrats prepare to take the majority in the House, national security should be high on the to-do list. And while it would be easy to get in a snipe hunt over the misuse of active duty troops to string barbed wire at the border, Congress needs to aim higher. The United States is on a slippery slope toward World War III, and it may well be up to the new majority to stop the slide.

In the last year, the Trump Administration made a significant shift in U.S. grand strategy, declaring a new era of “great power competition.” That competition, according to the Pentagon’s January 2018 National Defense Strategy, involves a “four-plus-one” construct, which adds up to an enemy’s list of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism.

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To be fair, the strategy reflects a long-held defense community consensus that China’s ambitions are not win-win. In removing Obama era strategic ambiguity, however (“rebalance to Asia” was always a bit cryptic), the new approach shrinks the maneuver space, and then shrinks it again by identifying “lethality” as the primary way to deal with China and the other countries.

Underscoring that aggressive posture, the Administration has already used coercive economic weapons and hostile rhetoric against China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Both President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification MORE and National Security Advisor Bolton appear to be positioning for military operations against Iran, as well.

The plus-one caboose on the end of the strategy – terrorism -- is made up of the seven countries in the Middle East and Africa where the United States is actually engaged in combat operations already, although that may not include covert operations in other places. Together with the big four foes, that adds up to an 11-front war, or 12 if you include the President’s comments about a military option for VenezuelaYou could just add Ukraine and call it a baker's dozen, or subtract a couple if you discount the submissive Helsinki press conference with President Putin and weirdly over-the-top flattery of Kim Jong Un.

One way for the new Congress to take aim at the Administration’s increasingly militant posture is to focus on the Pentagon’s concept of “competitive space.” The National Defense Strategy first launched the concept, without really explaining it – at least not in the public portions of the report. Presumably, however, the competitive space refers to all the ways countries exercise power and promote their interests in the international sphere, short of war. The strategy specifically mentions the importance of allies and partners, economic strength, trade, intelligence, and diplomacy. But the Trump Administration is falling short, alienating even our closest allies, undermining the intelligence community, blowing up the national debt, and proposing record cuts to foreign aid and diplomacy.

Right now, China is outflanking the United States on the world stage, and not by challenging our air dominance with fifth generation fighters. In addition to next-war technologies such as artificial intelligence, they are investing in global infrastructure and strategic natural resourcescreating new international institutions and courting friends and partners — including important U.S. allies, such as Australia, Japan, and Canada. This is a time of strategic distraction for America, mired in regional fights abroad and political turbulence at home, and China is not wasting the opportunity.

The new majority in the House should do the right thing for the country and tackle this failure head on. They should hold the Administration accountable, asking, for example, how the Pentagon plans to fund the four-plus-one strategy, promote next-war technologies over legacy weapons, or achieve victory (and define victory, while they’re at it) in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen. But they should also do more than that.

Congress should push for an integrated national security strategy.

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A strong and modernized military is an important deterrent and counter to discrete aggression, but the United States should have a strategy that can achieve an end state other than World War III. If it turns out that World War III really is inevitable, then the United States will also need more than military means to prevail.

Investments in a strong economy and polity are crucial.

The industrial base, from natural resources to civilian science and technology to good jobs in an automated future, is a core strategic strength, which China clearly recognizes. While economic weapons, such as sanctions, have their place, they are a means to an end, and that end – security, stability, and prosperity, otherwise known as "peace" – requires mutually productive engagement, as well. That requires investing in development, trade, culture, diplomacy, and all of the other tools that bring allies and partners together to pursue shared interests and defeat common challenges.

Congress should call every witness, hold any hearing, and draft bill after bill to help the nation chart a path forward, one that leads away from the slippery slope. 

Sharon E. Burke is a Senior Advisor at New America; previously she served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy from 2010-2014.