Politics & Policy

Obama’s Indefensible Cuts

On national security, decline is a choice.

In outlining his new defense strategy yesterday, President Obama became the first commander-in-chief to speak from the Pentagon’s pressroom. Unfortunately, he used the occasion to introduce nearly $500 billion in cuts that are likely to weaken the national security of the United States. 

The president’s remarks, as well those of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, contained much vague talk of a “smarter,” more “agile” military that would “evolve” to find new ways to meet its existing commitments in Europe and the Middle East, along with a reaffirmation — all but offered as consolation — that we will be enlarging our footprint in Asia. But behind the euphemistic vocabulary and the strategic veneer is a simple truth: This is a retreat.

The problem with America’s warriors is not that they aren’t technologically sophisticated enough, but that there are too few of them. And yet the president’s plan would reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps by a combined 1015 percent, taking force levels back to roughly where they were at the end of the Clinton administration. The president calls this retrenchment “turning the page on a decade of war,” and he says more than he knows. For the move is proof that the administration has learned nothing from the 9/11 decade.

Our combat mission in Iraq may be over, but the peace is fragile and violence continues. In Afghanistan an accelerated withdrawal and negotiated peace with the Taliban is likely to create more national-security threats than it dispatches. The Arab world remains one giant powder keg, and the potential for new threats from a destabilized North Korea, a radicalized Pakistan, a nuclear Iran, and even a suddenly unpredictable Russia are too manifold — and too fearsome — to contemplate. So while our part in the fighting may be drawing down for the moment, the volatile mix of geopolitical conditions that made that fighting necessary remains.

At its Cold War peak, U.S. military strategy called for the peacetime ability to simultaneously fight and win two major theater wars and a “brushfire” conflict. The years after the Soviet collapse saw that capability pared down in the name of the “peace dividend,” just in time for the 9/11 decade to deliver . . . two major theater wars and a series of “brushfire” conflicts, from counterterror ops in Yemen to air support in Libya, that stretched our forces thin even as we increased them.

But the president draws precisely the wrong conclusion from the challenges of those conflicts. Faced with our struggle to fight up to our own standards, he has elected to lower the bar. The new strategy calls for a military that can defeat one adversary while merely disrupting another, a move from a “win-win” plan to a “win-spoil” plan.

This will have consequences. Reducing our war-fighting capabilities can only be interpreted as an aggregate disengagement of U.S. power, or the potential use of power, that will cause global actors to think and decide differently — starting not next decade or next year, but today. It will change the way we think and decide as well. Since a nation with decreased capability tends to change its behavior to match that capability, the next few years could see a United States acting less muscularly simply because it has less muscle — regardless of what the right policies might be. Imagine a “win-spoil” American military engaged in a land war while the next Saddam invades Kuwait, or while the Chinese make a dash across the Formosa Strait. Strength creates options. Weakness limits them.

And all this in the name of what, exactly? Fiscal rectitude? In his remarks today, Secretary Panetta was absolutely right to note that debt is a national-security issue. And to be sure, in any bureaucracy as large as the Pentagon, there is room for cuts. But a bank looking to reduce overhead does not often start by firing guards and cutting corners on vaults. Nor should national defense be cannibalized in the name of itself.

Worse still, in a move that is cynical if not outright dishonest, neither the president’s strategy nor his expected FY2013 budget takes into account the additional $500 billion in automatic defense sequestrations and spending caps wired into the infamous “trigger” in last year’s debt deal. As is his wont, the president is punting to Congress on the business of avoiding or undoing these cuts, which Panetta himself knows are unconscionable. But sequestration remains the law of the land, and if nothing is done, Obama’s cuts will become gashes.

After the president left the podium and the Pentagon yesterday, it fell to Panetta and General Dempsey to do the yeoman’s work of fielding press questions from the tiny corner into which the White House plan had just backed them. Unable to explain how the United States would be able to carry on as the world’s great power with a military incommensurate with its commitments, General Dempsey was at one point reduced to merely asserting it. “This is not the strategy of a military in decline,” Dempsey said.

He could have fooled us.


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