To avoid failure, you must recognize success

Joshua Rovner, the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at SMU, talks about the upcoming budget crunch for defense and the importance of recognizing success.

By Joshua Rovner

The Department of Defense is in for some serious belt-tightening.

It already lost $37 billion as a result of sequestration, and much deeper cuts are coming. The Budget Control Act of 2011, along with the end of war-related spending, may end up costing the Pentagon about a third of its budget. It will surely affect the thousands of Texans associated with the defense industry in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Defense officials hope for a political compromise that would help them avoid this fate, but the outlook is not promising, and both parties have shown that defense spending is no longer sacrosanct. Moreover, few lawmakers will take the political risk of cutting military pay and benefits, which account for most of the rise in defense spending, so shrinking budgets will mostly affect decisions about what to buy and how to use it.

For policymakers and military planners, strategy under budget austerity is the new normal.

How can leaders make strategic decisions under these conditions? Last week’s Tower Center Conference on National Security at Southern Methodist University put the question to a range of military officers and national security scholars.

One answer reflected traditional thinking about threat assessment. When faced with uncertainty, the best solution is to survey the world for new threats and focus on meeting them. This is a common-sense approach to dealing with a range of uncertain challenges. Done well, it can alert officials to new issues for which they are insufficiently prepared. But it can be taken too far: The constant search for new threats may cause officials to exaggerate the real danger to national security, turning small problems into large ones and making it difficult to set priorities.

To avoid these pitfalls, a different approach would look not to the uncertain future but to the known past. Instead of warily scanning for new threats, it would focus on evaluating the results of recent U.S. strategy. This would include a frank discussion of mistakes and missed opportunities, but also a recognition of U.S. victories. The ability to see success is not just a feel-good excuse for patriotic backslapping. If we are interested in making prudent decisions about future strategy and defense spending, it is essential to see what worked and why.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is not always able to see victory, even when evidence of success is clear and abundant. In the 1990s, for example, observers increasingly came to believe that while the U.S. had won the first Gulf War, it had lost the peace. They worried that Saddam Hussein would remain a threat as long as he was in power and that he would eventually crack the international coalition arrayed against him. This view was widely held in Washington, and by the end of the decade, regime change became stated U.S. policy.

But the U.S. was not losing the peace. In fact, it had already won it. It had demolished Iraq’s conventional forces in the war, and it was doing so much damage to Iraq’s economy that it would take decades to rebuild. U.S. forces and international inspectors eliminated Iraq’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and forced Saddam to mothball his nuclear program.

Most of all, they altered Saddam’s basic worldview. Before the war, he sought to be a regional hegemon and rejected any international criticism as an insult to Iraqi honor. After the war, he focused his attention inward, doing whatever he could to keep his domestic enemies at bay, while simultaneously allowing international weapons inspectors to run around the country. Saddam was still in charge, but Iraq was no longer a meaningful threat to the United States or anyone else.

The failure to realize the extent of its success was one major reason the U.S. invaded again in 2003. That war, and all the pain and frustration that followed, would not have been necessary had leaders recognized their earlier victory.

There have been other underappreciated success stories. Counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda, though controversial, have been extremely effective. After 9/11, the U.S. methodically dismantled the al-Qaeda that existed in the 1990s. That version of al-Qaeda was wealthy, well-organized and able to operate from a durable sanctuary in Afghanistan. Today, its leaders are mostly dead or in prison, its organization is shattered and its sanctuary is gone. While many terrorists still claim some association with al-Qaeda, none possess the capacity for spectacular violence that made the original version different. As a result, the U.S. can safely reduce its presence in Afghanistan and avoid another costly nation-building campaign.

No one wants to underestimate threats, and no politician wants to be blamed for letting his or her guard down if something terrible happens later. But leaders must be willing to recognize victory. The alternative — ignoring past triumphs and assuming persistent insecurity — will be a recipe for failure in an age of austerity.