In outlining his new defense strategy, President Obama became the first commander-in-chief to speak from the Pentagon’s pressroom. Unfortunately, he used the occasion to introduce at least $487 billion in cuts that are likely to weaken national security.
The remarks by the president and his defense team contained much vague talk of a “smarter,” more “agile” military that would “evolve” to meet its existing commitments across the globe. These are euphemisms for retreat. The problem with the country’s warriors is not that they lack technological sophistication, but that they are too few. Yet the president’s plan would cut some 27,000 soldiers and 20,000 Marines from active duty, taking force levels to roughly where they were at the end of the Clinton administration. When the president calls this retrenchment “turning the page on a decade of war,” he says more than he knows. The decision is proof that the administration 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 are likely to create more national-security threats than they dispatch. The Arab world remains a giant powder keg, and a destabilized North Korea, a radicalized Pakistan, a nuclear Iran, and even a suddenly unpredictable Russia could also pose serious threats.
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 counterterrorism ops in Yemen to air support in Libya, that stretched our forces thin even as we increased them.
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 can only be interpreted as an aggregate disengagement of U.S. power, and it will cause global actors to think and act differently. It will change the way we think and act as well, since a nation with decreased capability tends to change its behavior to match that capability.
And all this in the name of what, exactly? Fiscal rectitude? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was right to note that debt is a national-security issue. And there is room for cuts in any bureaucracy as large as the Pentagon. But a bank looking to reduce overhead does not often start by firing guards and cutting corners on vaults.
Neither the president’s strategy nor his expected budget for next year takes into account the additional $500 billion in defense sequestrations and spending caps wired into the infamous “trigger” in last year’s debt deal. If Congress fails to avoid or disarm the trigger, Obama’s cuts will become gashes.
After the president announced the cuts, it fell to Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to field press questions from the tiny corner into which the White House plan had just backed them. Unable to explain how the United States would carry on as the world’s great power with a military incommensurate to that role, General Dempsey was at one point reduced to merely asserting that it would be so. “This is not the strategy of a military in decline,” he said.
He could have fooled us.