Yesterday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen released a new version of the National Military Strategy. The 21-page document attempts to describe "the ways and means by which our military will advance our enduring national interests." Like its cousins, the 2010 National Security Strategy and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the National Military Strategy assembles a long list of aspirations and describes in the most general terms some approaches for achieving those aspirations. As with the other two documents, the National Military Strategy avoids difficult discussions about priorities, constraints, resource limits, trade-offs, or consequences. Readers of the document, whether they be allies or adversaries, are likely to be hard-pressed to discern what about America's military strategy is actually changing as result of this document and the preparation that went into it.
The headline of Thom Shanker's piece on the new strategy read, "Joint Chiefs Chairman Says Military Must Focus Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan." This may be true; the new strategy declares that, "The Nation's strategic priorities and interests will increasingly emanate from the Asia-Pacific region." Perhaps this means that Mullen believes that now is the time for the U.S. military to prepare for the future beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a letter to all hands he put out on October 1, 2007 -- his first day as Joint Chiefs Chairman -- Mullen made the same declaration, on that occasion even more explicitly:
I intend to properly balance global strategic risk. We must stay mindful of our many global security commitments and of the core warfighting capabilities, resources, and partnerships required to conduct operations across the full spectrum of peace and conflict. The demands of current operations, however great, should not dominate our training exercises, education curricula, and readiness programs.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will one day end. We must be ready for who and what comes after.
Mullen must receive a mixed score on achieving these goals he set out for himself at the beginning of his term. The U.S. campaign in Iraq is winding down. But the campaign in Afghanistan accelerated sharply during Mullen's tenure. According to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, Mullen strongly defended every reinforcement request for Afghanistan - U.S. troop levels more than tripled there during his time as Chairman. And one must question whether "[t]he demands of current operations, however great, should not dominate our training exercises, education curricula, and readiness programs" has been achieved.
Mullen's advocacy for the larger ground campaign in Afghanistan committed the Pentagon to hundreds of billions of additional expenditures for that effort, a sum that very roughly approximates the funding shortfall over the next decade in shipbuilding, airpower, space, and command and control modernization. Naturally the debate will go on as to whether Mullen's advocacy for the larger war in Afghanistan was the best way "to properly balance global strategic risk."
If the new National Military Strategy is Mullen's attempt to chart a course past Iraq and Afghanistan, we can see that he tried to do the same thing over three years ago. It will now seem to require a much bigger turn of the wheel to get on that course.