Big Stick or Warped Stick? The Consequences of the U.S. Military’s Mission Creep

Ben B. – Agricultural assistance, television and radio programming, creating a court system, cultural engagement–none of these tasks are obvious jobs for the U.S. military.

But in fact, the military engages in all of them, a fascinating tidbit from Rosa Brooks’s How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Brooks documents the expansion of the military’s role in the past couple of decades, from the conventional warfighting my parents witnessed when they tuned into CNN’s coverage of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq back in the early 1990s, to its creep into developmental and humanitarian tasks normally reserved for institutions like USAID and the State Department.

As it takes on more tasks outside of the traditional purview of conventional military operations, its resources have become increasingly stretched and mismanaged. This is disconcerting since strategic and operational capabilities like the ones deployed both in the Cold War and the Iraq War are increasingly needed as Eliot Cohen’s The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force makes clear. Drawing from Teddy Roosevelt’s saying, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick,” Cohen outlines the need for military force (the big stick) to counter proliferating national security threats and challenges. The military’s force structure (the types of weapons and units the military has) obviously will not be the same as they were over twenty-five years ago, especially when factoring in emerging technologies like cyber, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence, but our armed forces will still demand capabilities able to engage in a kinetic conflict (conflict that uses physical force to disrupt and destroy enemy forces) like they did in Iraq. That’s why the military needs to more effectively prioritize its main missions, while recognizing emerging threats that demand new technologies, training, and troops.

When All You Use is a Big Stick

In both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the U.S. military quickly dominated its adversaries in conventional combat. The more challenging mission, the one the military was less prepared for, was the aftermath and subsequent reconstruction of those countries. Instead of the State Department and USAID spearheading the rebuilding efforts of Afghan and Iraqi civilian institutions, the military took the lead, which on some level made sense, given the extremely dangerous environments in which they were operating. Furthermore, it could be argued, the military possessed the logistical expertise and economies of scale to bring large amounts of basic necessities to millions of people; the military can provide needed humanitarian aid quickly in the initial moments of a crisis.

However, the military has neither the expertise nor the mindset to engage in long term civil society reconstruction. As Brooks points out, the military’s personnel system is designed to recruit people for combat or combat support roles, not the development operations they had to implement in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Besides training limitations, military culture and soldiers’ mission mindset is centered on neutralizing enemy combatants and securing civilians from physical harm. It takes time and energy reorienting these cultural mindsets to another mission set focused more on civilian engagement. Consequently, much of the Afghan and Iraqi rebuilding efforts were ad hoc and on the fly as the military built developmental aid knowledge mainly from scratch.

These development operations are not limited to combat zones though. The U.S. has begun to institutionalize these efforts in places like Sub-Saharan Africa where it engages in goodwill operations like well construction and disease prevention. As the military accumulates more of these tasks, U.S. foreign policy increasingly is seen through a military lens. Diplomatic or humanitarian problems are given to the Department of Defense to resolve while institutions with diplomatic and developmental expertise are increasingly sidelined. Consequently, there is a greater willingness to deploy military force to mitigate problems rather than use or properly pair them with diplomatic negotiations or development programs. As the adage goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” For example, the increasing use of special operations and drone strikes–some of these operations are necessary, but their tempo has accelerated supplanting traditional diplomatic tools like developmental assistance, law enforcement partnerships, and intelligence sharing. The result is more lives lost and dollars expended, but with muddled results since these military operations lack a guiding foreign policy grand strategy.

How We Got Here

The military’s accumulation of responsibilities was not by design, but due to how individual actors and institutions responded to certain incentives. The first factor influencing U.S. public actors to centralize more tasks within the military was trust. Since U.S. society has become increasingly polarized, the public has difficulty trusting institutions since many are seen as biased–with one notable exception. One of the few things the public seems to agree on is their faith in the military. In a recent Gallup poll, 73% of the American public stated they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military. Compare that to other major public institutions like the presidency (36%), churches/organized religion (41%), news media (20%), or Congress (9%). With other institutions increasingly distrusted, many seek to piggyback on the military’s credibility. One evident example of this is President Trump’s placement of three generals into prominent Cabinet positions. The cumulative effect: the military is trusted to carry out more and more responsibilities normally reserved for other bureaucratic institutions.

The second factor is the DoD’s larger budget. Defense spending makes up half of all discretionary spending. (Discretionary spending is about 1/3 of all government spending. The other two-thirds of government spending is classified as mandatory spending and includes programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.) Since about half of the money Congress has discretion over is spent on defense, it’s much easier to slip a program into the defense budget than it is to push it into another agency with a smaller budget. Defense bureaucrats are also motivated to keep their programs from being cut, making it difficult to remove such programs once they are inserted into the defense budget. This, of course, cannot work for every program because it has to be seen as having some military relevance, but this is increasingly happening to foreign policy related spending normally under the purview of the State Department or USAID.

The third factor: jobs. People are familiar with the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned of back in the 1950’s, where business interests might form a dangerous symbiotic relationship with the Pentagon. It might be more accurate to call it the military -industrial-congressional complex today; an overlapping set of Congressional, business and military interests preserving unnecessary defense spending. Brooks notes in her book how military spending brings money to districts either through basing or military industrial production. Congressional representatives have an incentive to keep the jobs created in their district—including jobs in mission fields the military does not even want.

The Need for a Big Stick

Entrenched, wasteful spending comes at a time of growing threats to the United States. Eliot Cohen systematically lays them out in The Big Stick. Major threats include regional powers like China, Russia and Iran who have begun acting as potential spoilers to U.S. global hegemony by investing in their military forces including into anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) technology. A2/AD is meant to undercut the U.S.’ comparative advantage in precision-strike technology and impede global force projections. The U.S. also still faces the low level but persistent threat from Islamist terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The U.S. still has the most powerful military by far, but one relatively weakened, a problem exacerbated by the disparate tasks it is required to do. Couple that with recent budget cuts and the U.S. military is in a tight spot rebalancing its force structure to confront threats from regional disrupters and non-state actors.

To deal with these increasing demands, the U.S. will need to invest in emerging technologies, principally advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, cyber, space technologies, and biotechnology. Suffice it to say every one of these is complicated and requires quite a deal of expertise to master. Unfortunately, the U.S. military personnel system is not structured to develop these deep levels of technological expertise. Brooks describes how the military personnel system has basically retained the same recruiting model since the 1970s: recruit 18-22 year olds, build them up and train them to fight large-scale combat formations.

Furthermore, to remain in the military and be promoted, soldiers feel pressured to follow a certain retinue of requirements, which inhibits them from exploring areas of interest. This in-or-out model undermines retaining talented military personnel in these technologically difficult areas of expertise. Reforms like allowing for soldiers to move in and out of active duty and the reserves or the military more easily so they can acquire skills in advanced technologies, and scaling up direct commissioning for high-level skill areas could bolster the Total Force and resolve the deficit in technological expertise.

Let a Stick Be a Stick

Military force is needed in today’s contested security environment both as a deterrent against revisionist powers like China, Russia, and Iran and to actively combat terrorist organizations. However, these security challenges cannot be resolved solely with a “big stick” but must be paired with sound diplomatic initiatives. Both tools, strong military forces and deft diplomacy, are becoming less effective through the increasing militarization of diplomatic and developmental tasks. If the U.S. military is going to efficiently focus on changing its force structure to deploy new technologies to confront emerging security threats, it cannot continue to carry out diplomatic initiatives normally assigned to the State Department. Properly designating these jobs and missions will ensure a better coordinated and effective foreign policy for the U.S. as it addresses an increasingly contested geopolitical environment.


Ben Booker is a public policy analyst who specializes in defense and national security issues. He graduated from UC Berkeley with high distinction and now resides in Washington, D.C.



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