The Limits of Military Power By ANDREW ROSENTHAL

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel  gave his first major policy address as secretary of defense and devoted a good amount of space to a fundamental issue: the parameters of conventional military power. Mr. Hagel laid out that although the United States “is emerging from more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the “threat of violent extremism persists and continues to emanate from weak states and ungoverned spaces in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Other dangers include “the increased availability of advanced military technologies in the hands of state and non-state actors, the risk of regional conflicts that could draw in the United States, the debilitating and dangerous curse of human despair and poverty, as well as the uncertain implications of environmental degradation.” And let’s not forget cyber warfare, which has “grown into a defining security challenge, with potential adversaries seeking the ability to strike at America’s security, energy, economic and critical infrastructure with the benefit of anonymity and distance.” In other words a catalog of horrors. Or more precisely an extremely diverse catalog of horrors, which calls for a diverse problem-solving approach.

“The United States military remains an essential tool of American power,” Mr. Hagel said, “but one that must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits. Most of the pressing security challenges today have important political, economic, and cultural components, and do not necessarily lend themselves to being resolved by conventional military strength. Indeed, the most destructive and horrific attack ever on the United States came not from fleets of ships, bombers, and armored divisions, but from 19 fanatical men wielding box cutters and one-way plane tickets.”

What the secretary seems to understand is that—basically—we can’t bomb or “shock and awe” our way out of every conflict, and that our whole military structure is out of date. What he didn’t mention—but which I hope is also on his mind—is that in addition to structural and strategic issues, we need to reconsider our legal approach to national security. A thorough “re-thinking” of American defense will have to include a push to clear away the post-9/11 detritus: the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the Patriot Act, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals…the list goes on.