As the Trump transition team looks to roll back Barack Obama’s second-term tsunami of executive orders and regulations, and Republican leaders in Congress prepare to repeal Obamacare, the outgoing president’s legacy seems to shrink daily. But one effect of eight years of Obama won’t soon vanish: He’s done more damage to American military power than his successor can repair. It’s not simply that Obama tried to end U.S. involvement in the Middle East by unilaterally withdrawing from Iraq, conducting a phony surge in Afghanistan, and failing to respond to the civil war in Syria. It’s not just that Obama did little beyond telling Vladimir Putin to “cut it out” after Russia annexed Crimea and after Putin otherwise exploited whatever opportunity arose to unravel the post–Cold War peace of Europe, or that Obama neglected to back up the promise of a “Pacific pivot” as the Chinese dredged their way (island-making instead of island-hopping) across the South China Sea. Retreats can be reversed, even if the price of victory rises when it has to be won twice (or three or four times, in the case of Iraq).
Obama not only restrained the American habit of involving ourselves in the world’s affairs but also, by reducing our military power, constrained a future president’s ability to do so. The propensity to “resort to force,” in his view, was a disease shared nearly equally by past presidents of both parties. Bill Clinton may have agonized and dithered over the use of American power, but to a progressive mind he was little different from George W. Bush.
The consistency of the Obama disarmament is reflected in defense-spending arithmetic — federal budgets are long-term strategy. There are several ways to reckon this. The simplest is to compare the current five-year defense plan with the five-year defense plan Obama inherited from the Bush administration. By that comparison, the Pentagon has lost more than $250 billion in purchasing power. While that’s a pretty big number, it doesn’t begin to tell the whole tale, because it looks at the problem only in five-year increments. Obama has always had a longer-term outlook.
In 2009, during his first year in office, Obama directed then–defense secretary Robert Gates to cut about $300 billion from Pentagon programs, which had the effect of eliminating several of the major weapons-acquisitions projects that had survived Donald Rumsfeld’s attempt to “transform” the force by “skipping a generation of weapons systems.” The poster child for this round of cuts was the F-22 fighter. It was the first substantial attempt to deploy stealth and other technologies meant to ensure American air superiority for decades to come. Gates terminated the F-22 at just 187 planes instead of the 750 originally planned by the Air Force.
A second, smaller set of reductions came the following year. Gates, seeing which way the wind was blowing, sought to get ahead of the White House by offering $80 billion worth of “reforms” and other changes on the condition that the administration shift the spending to other defense investments. Obama gratefully took the windfall — and more — to pay for the one-time cost of his Afghanistan surge and other, non-defense priorities. Gates got played.
But not as badly as he did in 2011. In April of that year, when a new tea-party coalition was flexing its muscles in the House of Representatives, Obama decided on another $400 billion in defense reductions. He did not inform Gates of the intended cuts before delivering the speech in which he announced them. Gates resigned. But the speech was a brilliant political gambit that gave the White House the initiative by framing the terms for the subsequent negotiations that led to the Budget Control Act (BCA). That law achieved two Democratic priorities: It jettisoned any attempt to limit federal spending in entitlement programs, and it capped defense spending for a decade. It’s hard to fully estimate the effect of these reductions; there have been two one-time exceptions to the defense-spending caps, but they were very small, approximately $30 billion over two budget years. A good guess, though, is that long-term spending on defense programs has been reduced by close to $1 trillion in fiscal years 2009 to 2023.
A subtler but more profound effect of the BCA was to make the Republican congressional leadership a party to the Obama military drawdown. This inspired the small-government, libertarian Freedom Caucus in the House to take former speaker John Boehner hostage repeatedly, such as when it led the charge to shut down the government in 2013, a move that probably contributed to Boehner’s eventual resignation. Boehner was no defense-spending enthusiast (Senator Mitch McConnell hasn’t been, either, since Republicans took back the Senate), but the BCA favored a more extreme course and had assumed a totem-like status for younger Republicans, who became the Obama White House’s unlikely bedfellows on the issue.
The BCA’s “sequestration” provision further limited Pentagon accounts. It stipulated that if Congress failed to adhere to the specified annual spending caps, or if it failed to pass appropriations bills before the fiscal year began, automatic cuts to military spending would kick in. Sequestration reinforced the far-left–far-right alliance and meant that extremists could simply withhold their support for any budget deal and follow their own priorities, regardless of their negative impact on the military. With entitlements protected, the Obama administration and out-of-power Democrats on Capitol Hill could sit back and watch Republicans stake out positions that were popular in their districts but that made compromise and governing impossible. Then, at election time, Democrats would simply aim to beat a “do-nothing Congress.”
A final budget whammy has completed the perfect financial storm for the armed forces: the continued reliance on extraordinary “supplemental” appropriations for “overseas contingency operations.” Reasonably enough, the Bush administration argued that these appropriations were necessary to pay for unanticipated war costs. But as the situation in Iraq degenerated, the Bush team found itself boxed in. When it at last reversed course and embraced a counterinsurgency strategy and the idea of a surge of troops to carry it out, it found itself forced to ask not only for extra money for gas, beans, and bullets but also for the funds to increase the size of the military and particularly the active-duty Army, which it had been in the process of shrinking.
The practice of supplemental appropriations has carried over through the Obama years, and though it has masked some of the worst consequences of the defense-budget cuts, it has also used limited resources inefficiently. More money is good, but planned-for money is much better. The military has been fighting the same war over and over. In a reasonable world, funding could be planned in advance and would not need to be justified on an “emergency” basis. Instead, for political reasons, we are financing the war one year — or less — at a time.
Thus, 15 years after 9/11 and after eight years of Obama, the military is something like a racehorse — once sleek, powerful, and fit — put too long to the plow and desperately in need of rest, recovery, and refitting. The size of the force (the Army in particular) has ballooned and shrunk like a fad dieter. On September 11, 2001, we had about 485,000 soldiers in uniform. Donald Rumsfeld approved an additional 30,000 — not to fight the war, but to undertake a “transformational” redesign of the military. In other words, the service grew bigger in preparation for getting smaller. Of course, this too was paid for with supplemental funding. This contraption limped along through 2006 and into 2007, when President Bush agreed to establish a crash program to get to 560,000 troops in a timely way. Obama has reduced the Army total to about 475,000 today, and it’s on a slope to 450,000 or fewer.
The Marines have suffered a similar personnel problem, while the Navy and the Air Force, by nature more-technological services, have shed ships and planes without receiving replacements. For example, the Defense Department built a facility to manufacture 300 F-35 fighters a year, intending to replace the current lightweight fighters in the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. But in recent years, production of the F-35 has rarely exceeded one-tenth of that capacity.
The smaller force is also a much less ready force. During the Cold War, the units of the Army and Air Force were always about 90 percent ready in terms of personnel, equipment, and training. The sea services, reflecting the predictable maintenance cycle of ships, could anticipate deployment schedules years in advance. Since 9/11, the entire military has been subjected to a just-in-time, by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach necessitated by a surfeit of missions and a lack of resources of all kinds. The result is that units, when not deployed, are only about 60 percent ready or less. This also means that the military’s ability to do anything more challenging than routine operations, such as keeping sea lanes open, is severely limited. It is no coincidence that in his 2012 “defense guidance,” Obama lowered the standard by which we determine the optimal size of our forces. Since the years prior to World War II, and as befits a global power, we have maintained the capacity to conduct two large-scale campaigns at once. Obama lowered the bar to just one war at a time.
Finally, the Obama years have seen a degeneration in civil–military relations. It’s not simply that Obama and his White House team have squabbled with their field commanders, though there’s been plenty of that. Far worse is the social distance that’s arisen between soldiers and the rest of us. Recently, YouGov and the Hoover Institution sponsored the first large-scale survey of public attitudes on military affairs since 9/11. The most startling statistic was that nearly 80 percent of Americans, regardless of party, ideology, wealth, or any other demographic attribute, regard military service of any sort — not just combat — as dehumanizing and psychologically damaging. This is partly a reflection of our increasingly narcissistic and therapeutic culture, but Obama has always been in sync with the times: He has turned heroes into victims. His will not be a martial legacy.
– Mr. Donnelly is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and the director of its Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.