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Quick reactions to the Obama strategy roll-out

A few quick-take reactions to the new strategy roll-out at the Pentagon today: Reporters may emphasize the "scaled back" aspect in their headlines, but President Obama and his team went to some lengths to provide the opposite frame. Indeed, Obama’s opening comments in his prepared remarks could have been taken from any Romney stump speech ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A few quick-take reactions to the new strategy roll-out at the Pentagon today:

Reporters may emphasize the "scaled back" aspect in their headlines, but President Obama and his team went to some lengths to provide the opposite frame. Indeed, Obama's opening comments in his prepared remarks could have been taken from any Romney stump speech about America's exceptional role in the world and the importance of never surrendering American military superiority. At least in tonal terms, this was not a "lead from behind" message the administration was selling today.

The president emphasized that this was a strategy-driven rather than a budget-driven exercise. The team tried to dramatize that by refusing to provide budgetary specifics. However, even if the budget is rolled out later, there was an important resource decision that logically and chronologically preceded this strategy: the decision to cut future defense spending by at least $450 billion, more if the sequester hits. Even some of the major strategic shifts the president mentioned -- ending major troop presence in Iraq and cutting short the Afghanistan surge -- were dictated as much by a decision about resources (do we want to spend as much on Afghanistan as it would cost to provide medical coverage to the uninsured?) as they were about geopolitical developments in the region. The president established a topline resource figure, and then the staff tried to devise the optimal strategy underneath it. Put another way, this is not necessarily the strategic posture one would choose if more resources could be made available. That is not a critique of the strategy, just of the way it is being described.

A few quick-take reactions to the new strategy roll-out at the Pentagon today:

Reporters may emphasize the "scaled back" aspect in their headlines, but President Obama and his team went to some lengths to provide the opposite frame. Indeed, Obama’s opening comments in his prepared remarks could have been taken from any Romney stump speech about America’s exceptional role in the world and the importance of never surrendering American military superiority. At least in tonal terms, this was not a "lead from behind" message the administration was selling today.

The president emphasized that this was a strategy-driven rather than a budget-driven exercise. The team tried to dramatize that by refusing to provide budgetary specifics. However, even if the budget is rolled out later, there was an important resource decision that logically and chronologically preceded this strategy: the decision to cut future defense spending by at least $450 billion, more if the sequester hits. Even some of the major strategic shifts the president mentioned — ending major troop presence in Iraq and cutting short the Afghanistan surge — were dictated as much by a decision about resources (do we want to spend as much on Afghanistan as it would cost to provide medical coverage to the uninsured?) as they were about geopolitical developments in the region. The president established a topline resource figure, and then the staff tried to devise the optimal strategy underneath it. Put another way, this is not necessarily the strategic posture one would choose if more resources could be made available. That is not a critique of the strategy, just of the way it is being described.

This strategy is something of a vindication of Donald Rumsfeld’s arguments about defense transformation. Virtually everything Secretary of Defense Panetta said could have been said (and probably was said) by Secretary Rumsfeld. The search for a smaller, less-manpower intensive, more agile, yet more capable military is the essence of the reforms Rumsfeld pursued.

It is a bit misleading to claim that since defense spending will still be higher in the future than it was five years ago (not counting the direct costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) therefore the military will be at least as capable and, more to the point, the risks at least as manageable as they were then. There are three big cost drivers that continue to grow and together they undermine this claim, at least somewhat: (1) personnel costs, especially pay and benefits (what President Obama means by the code words "keeping faith with our troops"); (2) per-unit procurement costs of weapon systems; and (3) the Chinese military build-up. In theory, we have more leverage over the first two than we have over the third. In practice, all three seem stubbornly resistant to reform and collectively they mean that a dollar of defense spending five years from now may not buy as much national security as the same dollar five years ago.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey had it exactly right when he said this strategy is all about managing risk. If you cut defense, you can either reduce your goals or accept greater risk in pursuit of those goals. Despite all of the hoopla, I did not read or hear any clear delineation of how the goals have been reduced, beyond the veiled reference to downscale in Europe. (In fairness, I suspect an Obama briefer would say that the Administration has accepted scaled-back goals in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq.  That is true, but I think it belongs on the risk side of the ledger, see below). By cold logic, then, this strategy is a strategy to embrace increased risk.

The briefing paper does not spell out where that increased risk is but one can deduce it:

  • Risk that our European allies will not adequately carry the burdens we are shifting to their shoulders.
  • Risk that adversaries will exploit a crisis because they believe that a less-capable United States is tied down in one theater.
  • Risk that conflicts will not be short and will not require large stabilization forces.
  • Risk that Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan will unravel in ways that profoundly affect U.S. national security.

There is a fundamental tension in the strategy that does not seem resolved: it is cheaper to fight "dumb" because to fight "smart" requires using expensive high technology to minimize the human costs of war, ours and theirs. Ever since Vietnam, we have tended to increase the financial costs we were willing to bear in order to reduce the human costs of our national security. It will be very hard to reverse that. We are inching toward a point where we cannot afford to fight the wars in the manner we like to fight them. One solution, of course, is not to fight the wars. But if you choose to fight them, you may be doing so at higher human cost.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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