Cutting the Pentagon down to size.
Declaring that the U.S. military and the nation it defends are at a “moment of transition,” President Barack Obama has unveiled a dramatic scaling-back of the military’s role, reach and resources—complete with troop reductions, force redeployments and a promise to refocus on economic challenges. Or as he indelicately put it last year, “time to focus on nation-building at home.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls it a “strategic turning point.” Indeed it is. We are left to wonder just what the United States is turning toward—or into.
In his remarks at the Pentagon last week, Obama called America “the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known.” He’s right about that, but what he doesn’t seem to understand—as evidenced by his sweeping strategic review and retrenchment—is that being a global force for freedom and security is not preordained or written in the stars. Rather, it is a role that requires treasure and effort and sacrifice.
The American people may be ready to give up this thankless job, but that seems doubtful. At the very least, the president needs to make sure they understand what these changes will mean. As Robert Gates warned before he left the Pentagon, perhaps aware of what Obama was planning:
If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military…people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country, as well as for the variety of military operations we have around the world, if lower priority missions are scaled back or eliminated…The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people—accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades—want their country to play in the world.
In other words, there’s a price to maintaining a peerless power-projecting military, but there’s also a price to not doing so.
Speaking of price tags, the reason the president unveiled his plan for a “leaner” military, at least ostensibly, is that Congress, concerned about unprecedented debt and deficits, mandated massive reductions in defense spending—some $500 billion in reductions as compared with what had been projected.
“Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow,” Obama explained, “but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow.” In other words, the president is saying defense spending will grow at a slower rate. That’s a fair point: Slower growth should not be considered a cut. But why don’t the president and his political brethren apply the same logic to social programs? If these aren’t really cuts the president is proposing for the Pentagon, then it’s not really a cut when a reform-minded congressman proposes to slow the rate of growth in, say, Medicare or Social Security or the EPA.
Of course, the reality is that the Armed Forces are not to blame for this budget-deficit mess. We could eliminate the entire defense budget—$662 billion this year—and turn the Pentagon into a mega-mall, and we would still face a budget deficit of $700 billion. (The current deficit is in the $1.3-trillion range.)
The heart of the problem is runaway spending on Social Security, Medicare, stimulus boondoggles and the like. Yet Social Security and other entitlements are simply not as important as national security. After all, our founding document calls on the government to “provide for the common defense” in the very first sentence; then grants Congress the power to declare war, “raise and support armies…provide and maintain a navy…make rules for calling forth the militia…provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia”; authorizes the president to serve as “commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states”; discusses war, treason and America’s enemies in Article III; and emphasizes the importance of a “well-regulated militia” to the “security of a free state” in the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, the Constitution says nothing about retirement pensions, stimulus programs or health care. The Founders understood that if their new government didn’t provide for the common defense, it wouldn’t be able to provide anything else—and the American people wouldn’t be able to live free, let alone pursue happiness.
But back to the president’s plan for a smaller military. Today’s U.S. military, as the president explained, has “decimated al Qaeda’s leadership…delivered justice to Osama bin Laden…put that terrorist network on the path to defeat…made important progress in Afghanistan…joined allies and partners to protect the Libyan people as they ended the regime of Muammar Qaddafi”—all while defending Europe and the Pacific and the homeland.
If the president’s plans go forward, tomorrow’s U.S. military won’t be nearly as ambidextrous. In 2010, Obama directed the military to be capable of “maintaining the ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors.” That was Obama’s way of restating the so-called two-war strategy that helped shape the post-Cold War force. In contrast, as The New York Times reports, the president’s new strategy calls on the Pentagon only to be capable of “denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.”
That’s not an insignificant difference. What Obama fails to understand is that the two-war strategy gave the military resources to carry out other important missions—missions that are less intensive than full-blown conflicts against nation-state rivals: counterterrorism ops in the Philippines and Abbottabad and Somalia, air wars in Libya and Kosovo, counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, freedom-of-navigation maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz and South China Sea, humanitarian rescues in Japan and Haiti.
In other words, the two-war strategy gave the Pentagon and the commander-in-chief a tool box full of resources that could be used in several ways. As the number of tools in the toolbox diminishes, it stands to reason that the number of missions the Pentagon can perform will as well.
While the president is understandably proud of recent successes against al Qaeda and bin Laden and Qaddafi—all of them occurring on his watch—we cannot overlook how much this president has constrained the Pentagon’s strategic reach:
- The president cut the nation’s strategic nuclear forces by 30 percent.
- The president carried out a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) pledging that the United States “will not conduct nuclear testing…will not develop new nuclear warheads…[and] will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” As Gates explained, the president’s changes ended what was known as “calculated ambiguity,” a posture that kept America’s enemies on notice and off balance for decades—and, not coincidentally, kept America and American forces safe from nuclear, biological and chemical attack.
- And now, the president has dramatically shrunk the global footprint and reach of the U.S. military.
One wonders if this is the sort of change all of those independents and erstwhile conservatives who supported Obama in 2008 hand in mind.
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