President Barack Obama’s new defense strategy is chock full of myths as his soon-to-arrive 2013 budget promises to detail national security changes at this critical “moment of transition.”
Last week Obama spoke from the Pentagon briefing room saying this “moment of transition” is the confluence of ebbing security challenges and the necessity to put our fiscal house in order. He promised his new strategy will “guide our defense priorities” and satisfy Congress’ mandated cuts, while maintaining the “greatest force … ever known,” without repeating past mistakes.
That is a tall order, but for now all we have to judge are statements and the Pentagon’s strategy, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” Those sources espouse at least six myths that should alarm Congress and the American people about the President’s stewardship.
Myth #1: Obama contends “the tide of war is receding.” That is not true.
Obama claims credit for ending our role in Iraq, but that war continues. After the President ordered our withdrawal, Iraq exploded in sectarian violence and political turmoil that threatens to avalanche across the Middle East.
The tide of war isn’t receding in Afghanistan, but Obama intends to abandon that fight too. He is rushing for the exits by negotiating with the Taliban enemy. No wonder neighbor Pakistan is proving uncooperative.
The war on terror is expanding across much of Northern Africa—Nigeria to Somalia. And the year-long Arab Spring keeps the Mideast on edge from Tunisia to Bahrain to Yemen.
But Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta boasts about NATO’s operation against the Libyan dictator. Is the secretary not aware of the raging tribal and militia disputes tearing that country apart? And our longtime ally Egypt will soon be ruled by anti-West Islamists who hate Israel, and Syria is hosting a bloody civil war. Then there is Iran, which is on the precipice of atomic weapons status and threatens to close the oil-strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Myth #2: Obama said, “We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past.” But that is what he is about to do.
The President intends to cut our ground forces by 100,000, and he pretends ships and aircraft can replace those troops in the future high-tech world. That ignores bloody lessons from the times leading up to World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the wars that followed the 9/11 attacks.
We seldom pick our enemies, and those we fight seldom go after our strengths—air and sea power. Inevitably our enemies attack our vulnerabilities, and fielding an undersized ground force means we face more long and bloody ground wars.
Myth #3: The U.S. no longer needs a two-war doctrine. That doctrine dates back to the Cold War, when we were prepared to simultaneously fight North Korea and Soviet forces. Obama’s strategy calls for enough forces to fight a single large-scale war while conducting a holding action in a second region.
What prompted this change? Obama’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) states, “U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations that occur in multiple theaters in overlapping time frames. This includes maintaining the ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors …”
Perhaps part of the change rationale is the administration’s view that we will no longer conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the potential for such operations in a volatile world remains high, and it is naïve to deny otherwise.
Abandoning a two-war doctrine is also dangerous not only because we lack flexibility and a right-sized force for global missions, but also because it sends a bad message that weakens deterrence. The thinking is that once we are decisively engaged, other adversaries will feel relatively free to do mischief.
Myth #4: The strategy is not budget-driven. Panetta argues that we don’t have to “choose between our national security and fiscal responsibility.” But Obama’s strategy insists it is a “national security imperative” to reduce the deficit “through a lower level of defense spending.”
Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) is suspicious. He said the U.S. can’t afford a “budget-driven defense strategy” even though he accepts some defense cuts. But what makes this strategy appear to be budget-driven is the fact that it is so radically different from Obama’s 2010 QDR, which laid out a much more robust force.
McCain should also be suspicious that Obama intends to cut defense in order to protect entitlement programs. Put the issue in historic context. In 1960, defense spending was 47% of all federal spending compared with only 19% today. In 2021, after the planned defense cuts, Pentagon spending will account for 2.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) compared with 11% for Obama’s entitlement package, and that is before his $2.6 trillion health plan is included.
Myth #5: A smaller nuclear force will provide all the deterrence needed. The President’s strategy calls for further reductions in our nuclear weapons inventory and “their role in the U.S. national security strategy.”
Defense officials decline to elaborate on how the administration will maintain our nuclear deterrence with fewer weapons and a downsized atomic triad of ballistic missiles, bombers and submarines. The key is making certain our force is optimal in size and capability, but that is the catch.
The U.S. has about 5,000 nuclear warheads, and agreed with the Russians via the 2010 New START treaty to reduce the number of deployed weapons to 1,550. Does Obama intend to cut beyond the START numbers, and does he plan to invest in modernization as are the Russians and Chinese? Getting more deterrence from a smaller force in a growing nuclear-threat environment demands a lot more explaining than a sentence in the new strategy.
Myth #6: The U.S. is not at war with China. That’s the administration’s mantra, but its actions say something very different. We are “rebalancing” forces to the Asia-Pacific region, investing in new technologies and platforms to address China’s military threat, and pouring funds into developing stronger Asia-Pacific alliances.
Recently Obama labeled Asia a “critical region,” and insisted any cuts to the military will not come at the expense of an expanding U.S. presence in Asia. His strategy states that the U.S. “must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.”
Only China challenges U.S. operations in Asia, which explains the strategy’s promise to implement the new Joint Operation Access Concept, “sustaining our undersea capabilities, developing a new stealth bomber, improving missile defenses, and continuing efforts to enhance the resiliency and effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities.”
The China-focused concept is driving decisions to keep the Navy’s current fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, and develop new bombers and more submarines. Also, expect more troops in Asia like those Obama promised for Darwin, Australia.
The inescapable conclusion is that Obama’s speech at the Pentagon last week was an announcement of his reelection strategy rather than a national defense strategy. The strategy guts our forces and increases risk while maintaining popular entitlement programs at taxpayer expense. Obama is acting more like a corporate CFO rather than the commander-in-chief, his primary duty as the President.