Don’t Let the Department of Defense Become the Department of Distraction

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One of the fundamental roles of a leader is organizing people—knowing how to direct people’s efforts and where to allocate resources. Failing to establish clear priorities leads to wasted effort or, worse, mission failure. A famous maxim warns leaders: “if everything is important, nothing is.”

No one should envy the job of Lloyd Austin, President Joe Biden’s newly installed secretary of defense. With the threat from China now on the lips of every member of Congress, he will have his hands full crafting a strategy to counter their aggressive moves in the Pacific. Risks from North Korea, Iran, and Russia abound and also demand immediate attention.

To guide the Biden administration’s initial efforts, the White House recently published a 24-page guidance document on the interim national security strategy. Unfortunately, if you were the secretary of defense hoping to glean insights on how the administration wants you to shape the nation’s defenses, you would come away unfulfilled after reading this document.

While many believe a strong Navy will be important to contain China, there is curiously no mention of the service in the new guidance.

Maybe some thoughts about the new Space Force and the significant challenges America faces in space? Nope.

The role of the Air Force? Nada.

What about climate change? Jackpot! Mentioned 14 times.

COVID-19 gets a shout-out nine times, and racial justice or equity—three times. Keep in mind, this is national security guidance.

Ten days into his presidency, Biden signed an executive order calling for the need to put “the climate crisis at the center of United States foreign policy and national security.”

Climate change is a global issue that, as many are quick to point out, can lead to global instability and could be the spark that ignites conflict between nations. But so too can rapid population growth, disputes concerning sovereign fishing rights, or conflicting claims regarding off-shore oil fields.

Other national problems which threaten our well-being and similarly warrant attention include the rise in obesity, youth hunger, and the opioid epidemic.

But, national security threats are different. Not more important, but distinct from other national problems. When prior administrations sought to characterize the fight on illegal drugs as a “war” and involve the Pentagon, there is a reason that never felt quite right. It was a conflation of a national problem with a national security threat.

By their nature, national security threats represent proximate dangers to America’s safety or security. Left unaddressed they can lead to a profoundly injurious change in the American way of life.

The Department of Defense, with its origins in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, is charged to protect the nation from national security threats. When multiple other priority missions are levied upon it—not directly tied to our national security—it will, naturally, be less effective overall.

That does not mean that the Pentagon should not be good stewards of the environment and seek to employ clean-energy sources whenever possible and practical. There are indeed some good military reasons why fuel efficiency is useful in military missions. But there is a difference between treating climate change as a “consideration” versus a distinct mission.

In the same fashion, it is perfectly appropriate for the U.S. military to temporarily support COVID-19 vaccination sites with servicemembers or to help establish hospitals. But it would be an entirely different matter for the military to be assigned that mission on an enduring basis.

When the Biden administration elevates combating climate change to a primary mission for the Pentagon, it adds yet another task on top of a military already struggling to perform its traditional tasks.

In that vein, it might be useful to wonder where fighting climate change falls on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s to-do lists.

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