Special Guest: Gen. Richard Myers on NATO and the Defense Budget
One of the most striking aspects of the military is how its retired members find ways to remain active and abreast of contemporary developments. Veterans from past wars are brought in to serve in organizations like the Defense Policy Board; others find work as commentators at various media outlets, writing op-eds and wading into the fray on television in an effort to influence public opinion. And so when I had the pleasure earlier this summer of interviewing General Richard Myers, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2005, my very first question to him was: How do you see your role as a retired Air Force general?
“You never stop thinking about our security challenges,” he answered. “National security is still very important to me.” Having led a “blessed life,” Gen. Myers explained that he feels it is his duty to give back, serving with a variety of charitable institutions, teaching at Kansas State and the National Defense University, advising the Defense Health Board and serving on the Army War College Board of Visitors. His civic participation also enables him to stay in-tune with the latest developments in the defense policy community.
Gen. Myers retired from the military just before Robert Gates was sworn in as secretary of defense. Since then the Pentagon has undertaken significant budget cuts and program cancellations in an effort to focus on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in an age of fiscal constraint. Eager for his take on Gates’ tenure, I inquired for his views. “As a former chairman,” Gen. Myers said, “one of the things I appreciated of former chairmen when I was in office was they were not second-guessing what I was doing.” The current team has “a very tough job trying to balance resources and capabilities,” he explained. Gen. Myers cautioned, though, that the wars of today may not be the wars of tomorrow. “One of the things we know from history is that we’re very poor at predicting what’s around the corner.”
The United States, of course, isn’t the only nation facing defense cuts in the context of an overall tight fiscal environment. I pointed to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, which stated: “European governments’ budget-slashing efforts are expected to cut deep into the Continent’s defense spending, widening the gulf between U.S. and European military capabilities.” Gen. Myers replied that a situation in which the US can’t rely on help from our allies is unhealthy for both the NATO alliance and for countries in general. “I’d think they would want more of a vote,” he said, “which means they’ve got to spend more money.”
But the Europeans don’t seem terribly interested in spending more money, which raises the question of the durability of the trans-Atlantic alliance. “NATO’s been around a long time but like any relationship it needs to be tended to,” Gen. Myers warned. “We do share a lot of values,” he noted, “it’s been a very successful security alliance,” but the European nations have to “carry their own weight” and the Americans “can’t carry more than their own weight,” fighting and dying in disproportionate numbers on the battlefield. “If we’re in it together, we’ve got to be in it together all the way — blood and treasure,” he argued.
With four decades of military service, there is no doubt that Richard Myers has been in it all the way. He oversaw the formative years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — two conflicts that scarcely could have been predicted before the September 11th attacks — and warns us we don’t know what the future holds. For those following in his footsteps, the question is how best to prepare for the unknown.