Politics & Policy

Obama Chooses National Decline

But the Pentagon has chosen a path that may buy some time.

Far-called our navies melt away —

On dune and headland sinks the fire —

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget — lest we forget!

 — Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional” (1897)

Kipling lamented the decline of British power, a decline that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. But the decline of British power was not intended. In contrast to the British case, the Obama administration appears to be intentionally pursuing a policy of American decline. Unlike his predecessors from both parties since World War II, President Obama has embarked on a grand strategy that seems to relegate the United States to the status of just “one among many.” The president has firmly rejected the idea of American exceptionalism and the status of the United States as the “indispensable nation” that must provide the “public good” of security. His actions with regard to the domestic economy have also made it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to increase defense spending in the future if such a response becomes necessary. This is a radical shift and a dangerous one.

The foreign-policy failures of the Obama administration are legion: the risible Russian “reset” that has enabled Vladimir Putin to strut about as a latter-day czar; the betrayal of allies, especially in Central Europe, not to mention Israel; snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq by failing to achieve a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) that would help to keep Iraq out of the Iranian orbit; the muddled approach to Afghanistan; our feckless policy — or lack of policy — regarding Iranian nuclear weapons, not to mention Libya and Benghazi as well as Syria.

President Obama has said that he was elected to end wars, not to start them, as if wars were ends in themselves, not means. But ending wars is no virtue if the chance for success has been thrown away, as it was in Iraq.

Now comes the latest defense budget to validate the view that President Obama seeks nothing less than American decline. The Department of Defense has absorbed substantial reductions in recent years. In an attempt to preempt defense-spending cuts that did not reflect strategic considerations, former secretary of defense Robert Gates initiated some $900 billion in reductions.

The president’s defense-budget request for fiscal year 2015 is $496 billion, which includes cuts that follow an earlier cut of $487 billion in defense spending over ten years and automatic spending cuts imposed on the Pentagon by the Budget Control Act (BCA) — sequestration — to include $37 billion for last year and an additional $75 billion in cuts in 2014 and 2015. But the recent budget agreement in Congress merely put sequestration on hold until 2016, when, if not resolved by another agreement, it will impose additional cuts amounting to $600 billion over ten years.

Critics of U.S. defense spending shrug their shoulders, arguing that the United States spends more on defense than the next ten countries in the world. But this is misleading. U.S. defense spending reflects the role that America has played in the world since the end of World War II: U.S. military forces essentially have provided an international “public good” by underwriting the security on which global stability, interdependence, and ultimately prosperity depend.

It has been the United States that ensured access to the “global commons” — especially freedom of navigation, which is essential to the prosperity arising from free trade and commerce — and airspace. It has been the United States that has deterred the behavior of potential aggressors in the international system. If the U.S. forces that provide this public good are stretched too thin because they are underfunded, the result will be a decline in global stability and prosperity, something already evident over the past few years. World War I illustrates how rapidly an interdependent world order can collapse if the rise of aggressive powers is not checked.

The United States has underwritten international security with a defense budget that, while high in absolute terms, nonetheless represents only about 4 percent of gross domestic product and about 15 percent of the federal budget. But under the present administration, the defense budget has been asked to bear the burden of any proposed cuts. For example, the sequester imposed 50 percent of spending reductions on defense. And the Obama administration has chosen to cut defense spending while doing nothing about the continuing expansion of entitlement programs, which make up 80 percent of the federal budget.

Back in the 1980s, much was made of Paul Kennedy’s thesis of “imperial overstretch” and the suggestion that the burden of U.S. defense spending was dragging the U.S. down relative to the other industrial powers. The stagnation of the economies of other industrial powers, especially Europe and Japan, took much of the wind out of this argument. Indeed, a better argument can be made for the decline of a great power as a result of “entitlements overstretch,” something that has afflicted many formerly powerful European states. But the thesis has another flaw that we should remember when considering the burden of defense on the United States.

Kennedy argued that Great Britain was a clear victim of imperial overstretch. But one can make the argument that what led to the decline of Britain was not imperial overstretch but the onset of a war Britain could not prevent: It was World War I that doomed the British Empire, not the expenditures to maintain the empire. In light of this observation, the burden on the United States of its defense posture is significant, but the benefits of the resulting world order far outweigh the costs. Those who argue that the United States spends too much on defense ignore the fact that the cost of preventing war is far less than the cost of fighting one. Unfortunately, the weakness inherent in Obama’s “grand strategy,” such as it is, is tailor-made to invite aggression and therefore is likely to result in war.

Having said all of this, I would note that the Pentagon appears to have played a bad fiscal hand the best it can. For one thing, it has avoided some of the mistakes that have characterized past Department of Defense responses to budget cuts. The first of these mistakes has been the propensity to cut the three military departments equally, regardless of the security environment. Cuts after Vietnam as well as after the collapse of the Soviet Union have reflected this approach as the Departments of the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy (Navy and Marine Corps) each absorbed one-third of budget reductions.

Clearly the Army takes the biggest hits under the current defense budget. Not only does the service decline from an end strength of 520,000 to between 450,000 and 440,000 (420,000 if sequestration is reimposed in fiscal year 2016), but also the budget request kills the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program, designed to replace the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, and retires the Air Force’s A-10, a platform dedicated exclusively to close air support of Army formation.

Despite the handwringing observation that the Army will be reduced to its smallest end strength since 1940, this reduction makes sense given the security environment and a domestic opposition to “boots on the ground” resulting from the fatigue of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also the case that, to a certain extent, the Army has been hoist on its own petard by its own internal resistance to the idea that the service should be shaped by the sort of missions it has executed over the past decade — i.e., counterinsurgency and stability operations. In the absence of such missions, and given that the prospect of a large force-on-force land war seems remote, the rationale for a large Army is diminished.

Nonetheless, the maintenance of a robust Army National Guard and reserve component seems to indicate that the Pentagon is not going to repeat a mistake it has often committed: concluding that land forces are no longer necessary. It did so in the case of the New Look (airpower makes land forces obsolete), after the Vietnam War (ground forces will never be asked to do counterinsurgency operations again), and after Desert Storm in 1991 (airpower and information technology — leading to a “revolution in military affairs” — trump land forces).

The Naval Services (Navy and Marines) and the Air Force also will be cut but not as much as the Army. This reflects the reality of the observation by the British strategy writer Colin Gray that if the United States is to be a land power anywhere other than in North America, it must also be a sea and air power. Naval and air-force strengths are necessary not only to maintain access to the global commons but also to fight and defeat an adversary in the disputed littoral areas of the world for the purpose of sustaining land operations against an enemy. Those forces must be able to counter the growing anti-access/area-denial capabilities of our potential adversaries and operate in a non-permissive environment.

Thus the Navy will maintain eleven aircraft carrier battle groups until 2016, when the USS George Washington will be retired. In addition, the Navy’s cruiser force will be reduced, the littoral-combat-ship buy capped at 32, and other shipbuilding programs slowed. Marine Corps end strength will be reduced from 190,000 to 182,000 (175,000 if sequestration is reimposed in 2016). The Air Force will reduce its fighter wings, including all of the aforementioned A-10s, in order to help fund the new F-35. The Air Force continues to shift from manned to unmanned airframes. Of course, sequestration would lead to far deeper cuts if it is reimposed after 2016.

To its credit, the Pentagon has avoided the error of investing in one military capability at the expense of all others, the error of the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” of the 1950s, which funded long-range strategic (nuclear) bombing to the detriment of naval and land power. Finally, the Pentagon has avoided the attempt to maintain a large force structure while modernizing the military. When the United States did this in the 1970s, the resulting low readiness and sustainability created a “hollow force,” one incapable of carrying out its missions.

The Pentagon now seems to have adopted an approach to budget cuts that instead mitigates the worst possibilities. Of course, the risks associated with these budget cuts are substantial. As the old saying goes, any plan of war that depends on the cooperation of the enemy is bound to fail. And our enemies are not likely to cooperate.

The Obama administration has chosen to orchestrate American decline. The Pentagon has chosen a path that, although not without risks, may buy some time in case the U.S. electorate wishes to reverse this choice for decline. Otherwise American power may indeed be “one with Nineveh and Tyre.”

— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia. The views expressed here are his alone.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national-security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


The Latest