Why the QDR Matters

>> Saturday, January 30, 2010

By and large, progressives don’t care so much about the QDR. This shouldn’t be taken as an absolute statement; every progressive think tank has specialists on defense, there are many progressive journalists who take an interest in defense and security issues, and there are plenty of ordinary progressives who do think regularly about things like the QDR. I'm nevertheless confident, however, in the contention that defense wonkish types are found more often in conservative circles than progressive, that conservative organizations spend more time on defense issues than progressive organizations, and that typical, everyday Joe/Jill Conservative is more knowledgeable on defense and military issues than typical, everyday Joe/Jill Progressive. The central reason for this is not difficult to articulate; conservatives (at least in the current American construction of the term) are more likely to favor the use of force, are more likely to favor high defense budgets, are more likely to focus on military capability as a central component of American identity, and (statistically) are more likely to have served or know someone who has served in the military than are progressives.

Moreover, I suspect that there's broad agreement among people who self-identify as progressive that the current defense budget of the United States is wildly oversized relative to the threats that the United States faces. In this context, arcane discussions about preference for this weapon over that, or this capability rather than the other, or the elimination of this platform in favor of that platform, seem like debates either over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, or the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. For the former, the QDR and the precise makeup of the defense budget are part of an unfortunate reality of American politics, the details of which aren't particularly relevant. For the latter, the imperial proclivities of the outsized defense establishment and the negative effects of the military-industrial complex on American life make micro-discussion of defense issues essentially beside the point. In both cases, valuable time required for digestion of detail is better spent on other, more important and perhaps more contingent issues.

Both of these perspectives get much more right than they do wrong. Nevertheless, let me suggest two reasons why progressives should pay much closer attention to statements of strategy such as the QDR than they do. The first reason is that debates about the makeup of the defense budget and the construction of the QDR happen whether progressives are involved in them or not. There is something to the idea of granting too much legitimacy to the abjectly idiotic idea that the United States needs to militarily outspend the rest of the world, but check it out; the US outspends (or very nearly outspends) the rest of the world anyway. Progressive engagement with the finer aspects of the defense debate can hardly make things worse. The second reason is that the details really do matter. The 2010 QDR is quite a bit different than the 2006, which was quite a bit different than the 2000. The precepts set forth in the QDR are often honored in the breach, but they nevertheless help structure what the military will look like, and consequently what the military will be good and bad at for decades to come. You could argue that the 2010 QDR pays only lip service to climate change and to the humanitarian potential of military capability, but this lip service will be replicated in policy in ways that will affect how the US military is structured, behaves, and interacts with the real world. The US military is a huge organization of organizations, and by virtue of its size even small course corrections affect the lives of millions of people.

Again, there is a touch of caricature to the picture I'm drawing here. Ideally, however, I'd like to have a community of people who could speak intelligently and passionately about a) whether militarized-humanitarian intervention in Haiti raised the spectre of US imperialism in Latin America, b) what US military platforms and capabilities were best suited to having a positive effect on the situation in Haiti, and most importantly c) how a and b matter to each other.

In any case, over the next few days I'll be going over the QDR in detail, on this blog and elsewhere. I heartily recommend that people give the document a read, keep up with the commentary, and perhaps even read the 2006 version.


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