Tuesday, September 1, 2009

George Will, Offshore Balancer

George Will has come out with a full-throated call for us to change course in Afghanistan, and redeploy to a largely offshore-based force that would concentrate its counter-terror efforts on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border with airstrikes, TLAM shots and special forces raids. This view is very consistent with what the international relations theorists known as "Offshore Balancers" have been saying ought to be our abiding strategic approach (and most everywhere else, for that matter). Chief among them is Professor John J. Mearsheimer, whose realist advocacy of balance of power politics is quite well-known in the field.

I haven't developed an opinion on the way forward in Afghanistan; to the extent that I have one, it would be to give the new commander some time to implement his plan. Sorry, but I'm just not much of a land war guy.

That said, I remain incredibly interested in Offshore Balancing as a strategic posture. Back in the heady days of the development of the Maritime Strategy, we at one time had a number of "grand strategy options" on the table--proto-strategies that could serve as the nucleus of the nation's maritime strategy. One of these was an Offshore Balancing strategy, advocated early on by Professor Robert Art, a respected scholar advising us as part of our "Blue Executive Panel" (also on the panel was Michele Flournoy, USD (P)) . We looked closely at Offshore Balancing as a grand strategy and what the ramifications for an OB derived maritime strategy would be.

It was a fascinating exercise from start to finish. The Fleet players in multiple strategy games at the Naval War College were interested in Offshore Balancing, but more like one is interested in zoo animals. You don't mind looking at them and talking about them, but you don't necessarily want to join them. Offshore balancing represented two things to our players--the first was that some saw it as the strategy of a power in decline, something many did not want to ascribe to us. The second was that it was a strategy appropriate to a nation in severe economic straits with considerably fewer resources to devote to its military (and military adventurism). Remember--this debate was going on in Newport between January and April of 2007.

There were some voices in the mix who called for us to dispense with an Offshore Balancing option--because it siphoned off intellectual energy necessary to develop the other "legitimate and likely" options, and because there seemed so little chance that it would ever be adopted. I (and Professor Barney Rubel of the War College) disagreed strongly and went to VADM John Morgan (my boss at the time) to review the bidding and get his topcover to more fully develop an Offshore Balancing option--which he enthusiastically provided. Rubel and I believed that while we had the intellectual mass assembled, we might as well flesh out the basic underpinnings of an Offshore Balancing inspired Maritime Strategy---just in case.

Here we are, two plus years later--a power in decline (relative to others, though I believe not necessarily so in absolute terms), facing a massive fiscal crisis in which pressures on defense budgets are high and support for the ongoing land-wars is waning. The Japanese just elected a government that seems at least at first blush to be a bit less enthusiastic about our presence there. The Brits just let a terrorist go in order to secure oil rights. Governments we helped elect in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly hostile to the strategic ends we espouse in those countries. The stage is being set for a re-appraisal of Offshore Balancing as an appropriate strategy for this country going forward.

If there is any good news in this development, it means lots of work for the Navy and Marine Corps....

Bryan McGrath

blog comments powered by Disqus

site stats