U.S. Military Might. Then Again, It Might Not.

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Air Force photo / Senior Airman Jeffrey Allen

Figuring out the proper mix of forces and weapons for the 21st Century remains a challenge for the nation.

The American calibration of threats-vs.-the-forces-to-deal-with-those-threats has been a Battleland focus since the Cold War’s end two decades ago.

We remain somewhat dumbfounded by the seeming inability of the nation to adjust to what the original President Bush called the “New World Order.” Our national-security infrastructure remains pegged to a post-World War II world of massed forces, nuclear might and hyper-weapons.

Top U.S. national-security officials say things like “the world hasn’t gotten any safer” when its demonstrably untrue.

That tension was clearly on display in two of the nation’s leading newspapers Sunday.

Former Washington Post Pentagon reporter Greg Jaffe had a piece in the paper’s opinion section headlined

The World Is Safer, But No One Will Say So

…which began:

There’s one foreign policy fact that President Obama and Mitt Romney dare not mention this election season. No American general will speak of it. Nor will it displace the usual hot topics at Washington’s myriad foreign policy think tanks. Measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.

…he then goes on to explain why he believes this is so (there are many powerful interests for whom the status quo is near-perfect), and what can be done about it. Not much, he concludes:

What’s missing is any serious effort to study whether the decline in state-on-state war, violence and terrorism around the world means that the United States can scale back its spending on defense.

The flip side of the argument appeared in Sunday’s New York Times, under the headline:

Libya Attack Shows Pentagon’s Limits in Region

Reporters Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt autopsied the Defense Department’s inability to respond to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month. The raid, linked to al-Qaeda elements in North Africa, led to the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials. The event, the pair wrote,

points to a limitation in the capabilities of the American military command responsible for a large swath of countries swept up in the Arab Spring…At the heart of the issue is the Africa Command, established in 2007, well before the Arab Spring uprisings and before an affiliate of Al Qaeda became a major regional threat. It did not have on hand what every other regional combatant command has: its own force able to respond rapidly to emergencies — a Commanders’ In-Extremis Force, or C.I.F.

Of course, the ability to protect a diplomatic outpost doesn’t require a standing army so much as a robust, but limited, Marine presence. Such units have ably defended U.S. embassies, and protected their secrets, around the globe for decades. That it was MIA in Libya remains the key scandal in the Benghazi disaster.

It’s too bad that many decision-makers don’t realize that the two newspaper stories reflect flip sides of the same coin.