Beyond the Ground Wars

Feb. 1, 2012

Just days after the last US troops left Iraq, the Obama Administration unveiled new national security guidance, developed in close consultation with the nation’s military leadership.

The Pentagon has been preoccupied with manpower-intensive land wars, but it is time to think about what comes next. The new guidance delivers a sensible break from the thinking of the past decade.

The very short version: Military capabilities needed to address threats in Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East will be prioritized (see “Washington Watch,” p. 8). With DOD’s budget expected to increase only at the rate of inflation, there will have to be cuts. This requires tough decisions.

Indeed, critics found plenty to criticize when the guidance—really more of a priority list than a strategy—did not meet their preconceived notions.

From the left came familiar complaints that it does not cut enough defense spending, personnel, or equipment.

The strategy also came under fire from the right. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), House Armed Services Committee chairman, was apoplectic, releasing a statement condemning the strategy that seemingly refused to be influenced by what was actually in it.

This serves a useful purpose, however, by allowing for an exposition of exactly what the policy does—and does not—advocate. What follows is an annotated version of McKeon’s Jan. 5 press release. The statement, in italics, is presented in its entirety.

This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America.

Where and how has the United States been left behind? The US has the world’s largest economy, the most capable military, and is the undisputed leader of numerous international military and political organizations. The guidance defends America’s leadership in organizations such as NATO and acknowledges that spending must be restrained, in a calculated effort to reduce debt and rebuild the nation’s economic strength.

The President has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense.

The so-called retreat is actually an overdue reallocation of forces, and divestment is an interesting word choice for a plan to hold Pentagon spending roughly level, including inflation, over the next 10 years. The Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East will be prioritized, as they should be.

This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs.

Planning for China, Iran, North Korea, and such was derided as “next-war-itis” during a decade of land war domination. These threats will now get the attention they deserve. Meanwhile, commitment to the Asia-Pacific, Middle Eastern, and European regions will reinforce American leadership where it matters most and protect vital economic and military ties.

In order to justify massive cuts to our military, he [Obama] has revoked the guarantee that America will support our allies, defend our interests, and defy our opponents.

In reality, there are no massive cuts, only reductions relative to long-range spending plans. The strategy itself explicitly states that the US will uphold its commitments to its allies, defend its interests, and defy opponents—with force when necessary.

The President must understand that the world has always had, and will always have, a leader.

We agree, and the new strategic guidance helps ensure the United States will remain that leader.

As America steps back, someone else will step forward.

The US is not stepping back from its leadership position, but from secondary priorities. Most observers feel China is the nation most likely to challenge US hegemony, and this plan moves the US more securely into the Pacific—China’s neighborhood.

An honest and valid strategy for national defense can’t be founded on the premise that we must do more with less, or even less with less.

McKeon voted for the 2011 Budget Control Act, which said otherwise. The act ordered the Pentagon to make do with less by cutting more than $450 billion from DOD’s spending plans, and set up the “sequester” mechanism which could pull another $500 billion from Pentagon coffers.

Rather, you proceed from a clear articulation of the full scope of the threats you face and the commitments you have.

We might quibble on whether any eight-page planning guide can clearly articulate a full scope of threats, but the document does a commendable job of succinctly laying out the priorities and refocusing military effort.

You then resource a strategy required to defeat those threats decisively.

We live in a world in which money, time, personnel, patience, and capabilities are all limited. This has always been the case. The US had struggles and resource limitations in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

One does not mask insufficient resources with a fuzzy world view and a strategy founded on hope and a hollow force.

This document shifts the nation away from the sorts of grinding ground wars that minimized US advantages. It is a rational assessment of where America’s future dangers and opportunities lie. Regarding a hollow force, the document states, “We will resist the temptation to sacrifice readiness in order to retain force structure and will in fact rebuild readiness in areas … de-emphasized over the past decade.” Importantly, it makes “reversibility” a key tenet, by protecting military structures and industrial capabilities needed to quickly rebuild the military’s size if necessary.

McKeon is to be commended for his commitment to US security and our armed forces, but clinging to obsolete strategies and spending goals will do more long-term harm than good.

To bring this plan to fruition, the Administration must now follow through, beginning with the 2013 budget request.

“I’m pleased with the outcome,” said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman. “There will be people who think it goes too far. Others will say it doesn’t go far enough. That probably makes it about right.”