Risk Assessment

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Welcome back!

Spent the downtime trying to figure out what the military slice of national security is supposed to look like. It’s pretty simple, actually: ensuring there are enough troops, transport and tanks to defend the nation, its allies, and the national interest, at an acceptable level of risk.

It’s that final subordinate clause — at an acceptable level of risk – that seems to have gone AWOL over the past decade.

It’s blasphemy to suggest that if the Pentagon doesn’t by this gewgaw or that gimcrack that the nation is putting its troops at risk. Yet you frequently hear that refrain: from lawmakers, from defense contractors, from the military services’ acquisition corps.

Troops are always at risk. That is their job. The question is the proper level of risk the nation should ask of those who don its uniform.

Following the horrors of 9/11, the nation cranked up the volume on its assessment of acceptable risk so high that it has distorted reality.

That’s what makes a soon-to-be-published article by Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen in Foreign Affairs magazine so bracing. Amid all the studies and reports and drafts and memos Battleland reviewed over the holiday, it was the one thing that grabbed him by the lapels and declared: read this.

In Clear and Present Safety, they contend the current spasm of “domestic threat-mongering” is wrong, and dangerous:

The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools…The United States is the world’s most powerful nation, unchallenged and secure. But the country’s political and policy elite seems unwilling to recognize this fact, much less integrate it into foreign policy and national security decision-making.

The concern isn’t that Zenko’s and Cohen’s thesis might be wrong. The concern is that it is so refreshing.