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Mattis walks strategic tightrope with new strategy

Defense Secretary James Mattis in front of flags in the White House
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at the White House in December 2017. Photo: Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ National Defense Strategy declares great power competition, not terrorism, the U.S.'s primary national security concern. The strategy succinctly — and rightly — prioritizes Chinese and Russian threats and proposes a battery of changes to accelerate competitive countermeasures at the Pentagon.

Counterterrorism remains an obstacle in balancing present concerns and long-term interests. As Secretary of State Tillerson made clear a few days before the strategy’s release, America’s war in Syria isn’t going away anytime soon. And that’s just one of many simmering conflicts U.S. forces are engaged in.

Secretary Mattis’ guidance is well intentioned, but his predecessors offered similar visions of the world they wanted to build (President Obama's “pivot” to Asia; President Bush's revolution in military affairs and an end to 82nd Airborne troops walking kids to kindergarten), only to find themselves mired in successive crises in the Middle East. Mattis, a former CENTCOM commander, must resist the urge to micromanage those wars and strive to break out of the “tyranny of the now."

The bottom line: Putin and Xi are playing a long game with strategically significant consequences for the U.S. if not adequately countered. The new defense strategy lays a solid foundation, yet sustaining its precepts will require adequately resourcing military efforts in Asia, Europe and the Middle East while still maintaining strategic discipline by concentrating on near-peer threats.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.