In the new COMMENTARY, I write that the coming election will determine the future of America’s defense spending–and hence of our standing as a great power able to shape events around the world in ways conducive to our security interests. Today’s press conference at the Pentagon only makes the choice even more stark. President Obama unveiled a strategy documents whose title I can only assume is ironic: “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” In fact, the $450 billion worth of cuts that will be spelled out in the coming weeks pose a serious threat to America’s ability to sustain our global leadership; if an extra $600 billion or so of cuts is added, as a result of the failure of the sequestration process, then America’s days as a superpower truly will be numbered.
Today’s event was heavy on questionable rhetoric. Obama, for instance, claimed the “tide of war is receding,” something that will be news to soldiers and Marines risking their necks every day in Afghanistan or to Iraqis whose countrymen are being blown up as an indirect result of America’s reckless withdrawal from their country.
The details of what this strategy document will mean for the armed services will emerge slowly, but already one piece of news has suffered–the army, currently at 569,000 active-duty personnel, will fall to 490,000. This was entirely predictable–the ground forces are being sacrificed to maintain air and naval forces to operate in the Pacific even though the major aircraft that will sustain American deterrence in the 21st century, the F-35, is also slated for cutbacks.
No doubt the president will argue–and the army leadership will faithfully repeat–the line that the army will still be a bit bigger than it was pre-9/11 when the active-duty strength was 480,000. That is hardly reassuring, however, because after 9/11 we quickly discovered the army was much too small to fight the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. The lack of force size made it almost impossible to stabilize those countries after the deposal of their dictators and practically guaranteed that soldiers and Marines would pay a heavy price to regain lost momentum. Is this really the model we want to follow in the future?
Apparently so, because of the fantastical belief current in Washington today that somehow we will not have to fight another major ground war ever again. The same illusion was popular before almost every one of our major wars–and each time we paid heavily in the early battles for our unreadiness. Today, looking around the world at hotspots from North Korea to Pakistan, Iran to Somalia and Yemen, who can confidently predict we will not face a situation that will necessitate the dispatch of substantial ground forces? Indeed, by not having sufficient forces at the ready we make another ground war more, not less, likely.
It is hardly reassuring to learn that in giving up our ability to fight two wars we will still retain the capability to win one war while acting as a “spoiler” in another. The new administration strategy states: “Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” “Denying objectives”? “Imposing unacceptable costs”? Whatever happened to Douglas MacArthur’s famous dictum that in war there is “no substitute for victory”? The Obama Pentagon seems to be substituting like mad–and in ways that are unlikely to be convincing or deterring to potential adversaries.
Beyond the long-term consequences for American power, today’s announcement will have concrete consequences for the men and women who have served on the front lines for the past decade. We are going to reward years of sacrifice by throwing 80,000 soldiers out of work at a time when the unemployment rate is 8.6 percent. Some thanks for these distinguished veterans.
It bears repeating, however, that there is nothing foreordained about these deep, debilitating cuts. They are certainly not mandated by the debt crisis which was caused, and can only be resolved by, cuts in entitlement spending.
Mitt Romney, for one, is offering a different path. He pledges (full disclosure: I serve as a defense policy adviser to his campaign) to reverse the $450 billion in cuts along with another $70 billion that already came out of the budget almost a year ago. His commitment is to maintain defense spending at a minimum of at least 4 percent of GDP–which, in an economy of $14.5 trillion, means the budget would be higher than it is today. Whether he can make good on that pledge remains to be seen; but at least it is a level of commitment that was lacking in the current White House which acquiesced in a congressional deal this summer and is resulting in the steady evisceration of our hard-won military capabilities.
I do not by any stretch blame Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the dismaying spectacle that unfolded today and will unfold during the next few weeks as specific programs are targeted for cuts and elimination. He was, by all accounts, a staunch defender of the armed forcs, but he was undercut by a lack of presidential leadership–something that can be corrected in November.