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The U.S. Department of Defense has released its vision of the world, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The four-year review of U.S. military strategy provides the Pentagon’s assessment of global trends and its responses to them. The QDR receives a lot of attention, but it is important to remember that this is a defense planning document. Its logic and conclusions reflect the institution that created it, and that institution is only one part of the U.S. foreign-policy-making mechanism.

As expected, the new QDR highlights the war on terror. This “long war” will require the acquisition and development of special forces to wage unconventional warfare against “dispersed global terrorist networks that exploit Islam to advance radical political aims.” These groups aim to acquire weapons of mass destruction to unleash against the United States and its friends and allies around the world.

Combating this menace will require concerted action around the world, even “in countries with which the U.S. is not at war.” Significantly, the QDR notes that “this struggle cannot be won by military force alone or even principally.”

In this effort, as in others, the U.S. cannot succeed on its own. The QDR highlights — and repeatedly affirms — the need to work with allies, partners and other concerned nations, from antiterrorist operations to humanitarian interventions. Indeed, the first “operational lesson learned” that the QDR identifies is “the critical importance of being organized to work with and through others.” Broad cooperation is essential to victory in the war against terror. This belated recognition of U.S. status and power is long overdue.

Equally important is flexibility. The nature of this new threat diminishes the utility of many traditional war-fighting components. Now, resources have to be agile and mobile, capable of being deployed anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. In addition to requiring a different type of military hardware, this type of combat demands a different kind of software — the soldiers — that can function in diverse environments.

Thus, the QDR highlights the need for language skills and cultural awareness among its officers and soldiers. Accurate and rapidly obtained intelligence is put at a premium.

A second focus of the QDR is “countries at strategic crossroads.” There are several major and emerging countries that have the ability to impact the security and national interests of the U.S. and its allies. Much depends on how their policies and outlooks evolve. The QDR argues that the U.S. should help shape those countries’ options in ways that foster cooperation and mutual security interests.

While the QDR explains that there are countries at such crossroads throughout the world, it notes that “India, Russia and China will be key factors in determining the international security environment of the 21st century.” India is emerging as “a great power and a key strategic partner,” and shared values lay the foundation for increasing cooperation.

Russia is a “country in transition,” which despite some concerns, does not pose the threat that existed during the Cold War. The U.S. welcomes the opportunity to work with Moscow, but sales of disruptive weapons technologies and its policies toward neighboring countries are worrisome.

China is identified as the country with the greatest potential to challenge the U.S. militarily. Echoing other U.S. officials, and the security establishments of other countries such as Japan, the QDR spotlights China’s military buildup, noting the accelerating military modernization effort and the uncertainty about Chinese intentions.

Those concerns are natural — especially for security planners — but they must be put into context. Discussion of China takes up less than one page in a 92-page document. Equally important, the QDR explains that U.S. policy “remains focused on encouraging China to play a constructive, peaceful role in the Asia-Pacific region and to serve as a partner in addressing common security challenges. U.S. policy seeks to encourage China to choose a path of peaceful economic growth and political liberalization.” This is by no means a policy of containment.

Even though the QDR makes good sense, its impact will be limited by a factor beyond the reach of security planners: budget politics in Congress. Several critics have noted that the document’s call for a new mind-set to match the evolving strategic environment remains unheeded: The Pentagon’s budget priorities are unchanged. There have been no big cuts in conventional weapons programs, nor personnel increases for an army that is stretched thin. The failure to transform spending will undermine the vision of the QDR. Budget politics may prove to be as formidable an opponent as al-Qaida.

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