Many of the key points in President Obama’s new blueprint for the next decade of U.S. defense strategy are straightforward. More spy gear; more special forces; fewer land wars; Asia, Asia, Asia. Whatever you think of the merits of those points, at least they’re internally consistent. Others… not so much. Sometimes the analysis in the strategy suggests a policy choice that the strategy actually disavows. Sometimes it walks back controversial points. Sometimes it makes pledges that sound sensible at first blush — but don’t actually make sense the more you think about them.
One particular line from the document is getting a lot of attention: U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations. COIN is dead, or something like that. (Spencer writes "kiss big counterinsurgencies goodbye.") Bollocks…What this document is saying is not that such operations will no longer be considered, but rather that the steady-state, "peacetime" U.S. military will not be manned as if we expect to engage in them next month. Manned. Sized. Structured. You know, like the U.S. military in 1938 wasn't sized to simultaneously conduct major combat operations against the world's two most capable military powers in geographically distant theaters. That doesn't mean we couldn't do it; it just means we weren't allocating our national resources as if that was a preferred or expected course of action in the near term.
I fear that I’ll be lumped in with the libertarian set, or worse, Ron Paul, but this so-called strategy and the idea of significantly reducing the growth of the Department of Defense is meaningless unless we’re prepared to revisit our assumptions on the utility of military force. Moreover, we have to rethink what constitutes “vital American interests” when considering military action.
The strategy does not call for less everywhere. In fact, it explicitly calls for a “pivot” that would increase resources in Asia while still retaining a large presence in the Middle East. That shift would highlight naval and airpower over ground forces. Given the scarcity of resources, changes will likely include a redeployment of about a third of U.S. forces currently stationed in Europe. Broadly, the shift toward Asia shows an understanding that the center of gravity in global politics has shifted towards the Western Pacific.
It’s a declinist strategy for a declinist president. And a key question is whether, when the administration submits its defense budget in a month, the Congress will step up to the plate and reverse course.
I spent the months before Christmas meeting with some U.S. allies in the Gulf, who expressed their concern that a U.S. shift to East Asia would mean the United States was abandoning its security commitments to the Gulf. The president, the secretary and the guidance explicitly pushed back against that worry. So our Gulf allies should rest easier tonight. (One rare specific offered by Sec. Panetta during the press conference was the scenario whereby the United States fights a land war in Korea and also keeps the Straits of Hormuz open.) But I wonder how this will change if the behavior of U.S. allies make continued cooperation more difficult. If Bahrain continues its brutal crackdown on democracy activists into 2012, the United States will have a huge political problem on its hands — as well as a potentially huge engineering problem as it considers other basing options for the Fifth Fleet.
While the President believes we can “assume more risk” in Europe by cutting back our commitments there, he ignores potential tinder boxes all along Europe’s southern and eastern flanks. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria—much of the Mediterranean littoral is governed (or under-governed) by questionable and hostile regimes. Additionally, our steadfast ally in the region—Israel—is increasingly surrounded by regimes newly dedicated to its instability, even as we cut back both our military and our naval presence in the region.
China is not going to attack Pearl Harbor anytime soon, and it does lack some basic capacities to dominate the Pacific. War is not likely soon or in the medium term. However, being prepared is one of the better ways to avoid war. Further, it is a matter of priorities and threats. Is the Pacific a more uncertain, less institutionalized environment than the Atlantic and the Mediterranean? Yes. No doubt. Europe has its problems, including an increasingly authoritarian Hungary (oh my!), but we have a much more stable status quo there. The fears are about whether Germany will exert enough leadership, not whether various actors within Europe will drop out of NATO and start attacking others (well, except for the constant Greece-Turkey thing). In Asia, there is China, making threats to its neighbors, North Korean being North Korea, lots of other hotspots, and, oh by the way, India is in PACOM's area of responsibility. Plus Europe is closer and has much more infrastructure so the US could surge there more quickly and more effectively. Again, less resources (less than previously planned/dreamed) means prioritizing, and the Pacific is simply of greater concern
This new defense guidance was driven by the fiscal crisis above all. The budget agreement struck last year requires the Pentagon to cut its plans by $487 billion over the next 10 years—and $263 billion of that over the next five years. (This does not include the hundreds of billions saved by the fact that the Iraq war is over and the Afghanistan war is winding down.)
There is also a crucial guns versus butter issue Panetta fails to take up, at least so far. As Arnold Punaro from the Defense Business Board puts it, unless major changes are made to DOD medical and retirement programs, "If we allow the current trend to continue, we're going to turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist." The same growth of medical and retirement programs that is the principal driver of our federal debt is also crowding out other spending within the DOD budget. I expect that is where Panetta will focus the second tranche of cuts.
The Obama administration's new strategic guidance assumes that the Department of Defense (DOD) will absorb $487 billion in cuts to its budget over the next decade. Yet that assumption does not match the current law of the land, sequestration, which will roughly double the amount of cuts. If sequestration occurs, DOD will not be able to execute this new guidance. In that scenario, DOD will likely further reduce capabilities that provide insurance against uncertainty while preserving capabilities that provide protection against the most pressing threats facing the nation. The new guidance seems to identify ground forces and nuclear weapons as two 'insurance' capabilities that DOD might cut further if Congress doesn't undo sequestration.
If we look back on those days we will see that the President(s) insisted on limited actions of influence. George H.W. Bush did not seek victory (in the sense that his son did) against Iraq. Ditto Clinton in Somalia or Iraq again (Operation DESERT FOX). The U.S. had limited objectives to influence and bend our adversaries to our will, not defeat them in the way we've sought against our enemies past and (delusionally) present. There will be no more "win" or "victory". There will be no more mission statements to defeat our enemies. Barring some existential threat to the U.S., I don't see how any military objectives after Afghanistan can have any end states other than very specific policy or political goal that doesn't include the eradication of our adversary. The next 10 years of austerity should be the death knell for victory as we've known it.