AEI’s Center for Defense Studies has merged with AEI’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies to form the new, strengthened and expanded Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies. This blog will no longer be updated, but its body of work will remain available on this site. For updates on the recent and forthcoming work of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, visit See the press release for the Center below.

All the signs are that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ alleged shooting spree is hastening the US pullout from Afghanistan. This is tragic, because what’s at stake isn’t just whether that country becomes the tortured hostage of the Taliban again, and the safe haven of their Al Qaeda allies. It’s also the future fate of America’s most successful military strategy in decades — otherwise known as counterinsurgency.

Thanks to that strategy, the military situation in Afghanistan has undergone a remarkable reversal.

Back in mid-2009, the Taliban and their allies had overrun key provinces in the south and east of Afghanistan, as they tightened the noose around an increasingly isolated Kabul. Then, with President Obama’s reluctant approval, 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines arrived from Iraq, and brought the counterinsurgency strategy Gen. David Petraeus had used with stunning success in that country, to the mountains of Afghanistan.

To the amazement of opponents and skeptics (including Vice President Joe Biden), the surge worked. Last year Marines cleared out the last remaining Taliban strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand, turning the latter province over to the new 325,000-strong Afghan National Army. They and their US Army comrades were poised to do the same thing in eastern Afghanistan, starting this spring.

Counterinsurgency isn’t a new strategy. Its roots go back to the Indian wars on the American frontier. Contrary to media myth, it isn’t about winning a popularity contest, or even hearts and minds.

From the surge of “boots on the ground” to the endless patrols and tedious tea-drinking sessions to the handing out of food and medicine to the Predator strikes on the bad guys, it’s all about convincing the indigenous population that you aren’t going anywhere until the insurgents are beaten.

At the end of the day, goes the message, the enemy will be gone and we and our Afghan allies still be here to help — and everyone had better adjust their calculations accordingly, including President Hamid Karzai.

But since mid-2011, President Obama has seemed determined to undermine our success. First he announced he would be bringing home all the surge forces by this summer. Then in September he abruptly pulled Petraeus from overall command in Afghanistan, sending him off to run the CIA. Since then, Obama has refused funding to maintain the Afghan National Army at its current strength, on which the future success of the counterinsurgency depends.

Now reports are that, with the presidential campaign heating up, the president plans to announce the end of all combat operations in Afghanistan by 2013, a year ahead of time — a year our troops were supposed to use to consolidate their gains in order to be ready to head home for the 2014 deadline.

Obama’s hasty and arbitrary timetables, his insistence on shutting down combat operations ahead of time, his silence when allies like the French speed up their own withdrawal plans: It all adds up to a clear message to Afghans that we longer care who wins. It has undercut the brave effort and sacrifice of our troops. It also encourages the Taliban to hold on, because they’ll soon be back in charge.

That’s not just bad news for Afghans. It took the death and injury of thousands of our troops in Iraq, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, until a US Army that had once sworn, “No more Vietnams,” painfully relearned the counterinsurgency lessons forgotten after that conflict.

How many will have to die in future wars, if they are forgotten again?

Cross-posted from the New York Post.

(U.S. Army photo/Sgt Daniel Schroeder)

The cyber attacks on Japan’s Upper House, which occurred soon after attacks on the Lower House and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries last year, have brought increased attention to Japan’s susceptibility in cyber space. Media reports suggest that Japan will be left behind in terms of preparedness against internet-based attacks if it does not solve two problems quickly: (i) the lack of lawmakers’ understanding of cyber threats and (ii) the legal problems limiting the use of Japanese capabilities to defend against cyber attacks.

The lack of government attention makes it easy to understand why Japan is so vulnerable in cyberspace. In 2010, only three of Japan’s eleven political parties included statements about cyber security issues in their manifestoes for the Upper House election. In addition, one poll shows that only 45 percent of Lower House members changed their online passwords after the attack in 2011. Moreover, government-led cyber-attack drills conducted between October and December 2011 found that approximately 10 percent of government employees opened fake virus attachments. This evidence demonstrates that Japanese lawmakers lack awareness on the seriousness of this issue.

Furthermore, Japanese experts in cyber security argue that the current legal system could deadlock government cyber-defense projects. Unlike many other developed countries, Japan has not officially acknowledged cyber attacks as an emerging security threat. Therefore, there are no effective countermeasures against internet-based attacks under the existing constitution and Japanese law. In the beginning of this year, the Defense Ministry unveiled a project to develop mechanisms to trace and counterattack foreign hackers. Nonetheless, the government officials who have engaged in the project are concerned that uses of these mechanisms would be impossible without support from the legal system. The Criminal Code and/or Article 9 of the constitution could be interpreted to mean that cyber weapons are in violation of the anti-PC virus clause (which bans creating and distributing computer viruses to other individual’s computer), or constitute a “war potential,” respectively.  This interpretation may prevent the Self-Defense Forces from utilizing the cyber weapons to react to future cyber threats.

Although a revision of the constitution is not realistic, Japan must understand that cyber security is not only a domestic issue. Information stolen from major defense contractors and the Cabinet will drastically change the security map.  Future discussions should focus on how to incorporate cyber security as an emerging issue and adjust Japan’s current legal framework accordingly. A public-private partnership for the cyber defense is another effective approach. Effective action by Japan is necessary for the protection of the nation and its allies in cyberspace.


Leading Indicator of Decline

by Thomas Donnelly and Richard Cleary

The $489 billion cut to defense budgets engineered by Barack Obama — as well as the played-for-fool Republican accomplices on Capitol Hill — won’t just mean less American military power. These cuts have significant consequences for America’s allies, as well.

Consider the case of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The Obama Pentagon has reduced the 2013 purchase of Lightnings from 42 to 29 and reduced the planned five-year buy by more than 100 aircraft. This will drive the cost of each F-35 up, yet again; the development costs of the plane remain the same regardless. And because the JSF program has been an international effort since its conception, Obama’s decision increases the cost for everyone.

Thus it comes as little surprise that yesterday Italy announced a significant reduction, from 131 to 91, in its planned F-35 purchases. Rome’s decision threatens to sow doubt among other international partners. The timing of the announcement, only days after the U.S. fiscal year 2013 budget was released, shows that the Italians are following Obama’s lead — the White House has given them cover in using defense reductions as the principle ingredient in accepting government “fiscal discipline.” In “extending” the U.S. buy of F-35s—in practice, the purchase of 179 fewer Joint Strike Fighters through fiscal year 2017—the United States has thrown into question the economics of the program and opened the door for partner-nations to back out of commitments.

The consequences could be felt most critically in the Pacific. Proliferating the F-35 among America’s Pacific partners — traditional allies like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore — and potential new ones such as India — is a sine qua non of any meaningful military retrenchment in the region. But already Australia, arguably our closest ally, is on the verge of backing out. The Aussies had agreed to buy at least 100 F-35’s. A Pacific “pivot” without the Lightning would be a fizzle.

The F-35’s reliance on international partners should be a strength. It affords interoperability, giving the United States a platform around which it can build an international coalition capable of global reach. The Joint Strike Fighter’s inclusion of Italy and other partner-nations should also be a boon to the U.S. defense industrial base, whose future is tied to the F-35 project. Further, the program’s economics favor international purchases, balancing capital costs over more airframes, which also offers the advantage of greater allied power. All of these potential benefits, however, turn on a question of political commitment in the United States. In an environment where the Defense Department is increasingly the bill-payer for domestic, social programs, the F-35 has become a tempting target, and, with the specter of sequestration in sight, there may be more F-35 acquisition “extensions” in store.

But there’s more bad news in the Italian decision. Italy has been a stalwart proponent of the jump jet “B” version of the F-35 that is also critical for future capabilities for the U.S. Marine Corps. Indeed, Italian aircraft carriers are essentially the same size as Marine amphibious ships.  For the moment, it is unclear how Italy intends to apportion its cuts — like the Marines, their carriers will be of little use without an airplane — but if cost is the sole driver, Rome will be tempted to go exclusively with the cheaper F-35A and perhaps mothball one of its carriers entirely.  The British have already backed out of their F-35B commitment, even though they have yet to kill the two carriers they’ve been building in anticipation. The British think they can squeeze a catapult on their small carriers to accommodate the U.S. Navy’s version of the F-35, designated the “C” model, but it remains to be seen if the engineering makes any sense or is worth the cost. Israel and Singapore, as well as other Asian allies whose airfields are now threatened by Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles, were also intrigued by the jump-jet F-35, but a rise in price is inevitable and will be discouraging.

Indeed, the fate of the F-35 program is as good an indicator of the depth and breadth of Barack Obama’s retreat from U.S. military preeminence. If more international partners on the project start bailing or similarly “extending” their F-35 plans, the pace of American and allied decline will accelerate.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(flickr/U.S. Navy photo courtesy Lockheed Martin)

Will the Fiscal Crisis Break Italy’s Military?

by Riccardo Cursi

Most foreign observers understand the prime imperative of the Italian government of Mario Monti to be turning the course of the Italian fiscal ship—and rightfully so. The future of the Euro still seems to hang in the balance, contingent on decisions made in southern Europe. But this “moment of truth” extends beyond economic questions: Italy’s military, after years of tight budgets and overseas deployments, is approaching a breaking point. If the Monti government, with its new minister of defense, does not commit itself to resourcing properly its armed forces, Italy risks resigning itself to a marginal role in world affairs.

At the center of the storm stands new Italian Minister of Defense Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, a former Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. Economic and fiscal clouds aside, there is some reason for hope. Leaders matter, and the new Italian Minister of Defense has a track record that suggests he can think strategically and represent Italy’s men and women in uniform effectively. Having had planning and command responsibility for the participation of the Italian armed forces in operations conducted in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, Pakistan, and Lebanon, the new Minister has a considerable knowledge of what Italian troops need to uphold their country’s international commitments. Di Paola also oversaw the 2005 Defense Strategic Concept as Chief of Defense Staff at the Italian Ministry of Defense, a forward-leaning document that called for a diverse set of skills, flexibility in their use and the capability to exploit emerging technologies.

Still, Di Paola faces significant structural challenges, namely in the level and disbursement of defense budgets. Italian defense spending, already proportionally lower in historical terms than those of its European allies, has been dropping even further in the last few years because of the budget constraints imposed by the economic crisis. The budget of the Ministry for fiscal year 2011, which covers expenditures  for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force (“Defense Function”) as well as those of the Carabinieri, Italy’s gendarmerie force (“Territorial Security Function”), was approximately €20.5 billion ($27.8 billion), or 1.283% of Italian GDP. This is an amount that threatens Italy’s ability to maintain the current level of commitment to NATO, EU and UN missions and puts at stake its most ambitious procurement projects.

Secondly, the distribution of the funds allocated to defense purposes in the Ministry of Defense’s budget is increasingly unbalanced. The share of personnel costs rose from 46.4% in 2001 to 65.9% in 2011. To the contrary, investments—i.e. procurement and acquisitions—decreased from 25.5% to 24% in the same period, with a nadir of 12.5% in 2006. Costs for training, operations and maintenance were the most penalized during the decade, plummeting from 28.1% to 10%. These numbers confirm that budget reductions have been concentrated by Italian policy-makers on future programs and on the readiness of Italian armed forces, while larger cuts in personnel spending have been avoided as a matter of domestic politics. Recently adopted austerity budgets will produce a further cut of €1.45 billion ($1.89 billion) in 2012. As reported by Defense News, if this cut is concentrated in investments as past experience suggests it may be, it would result in a 28% drop of this part of the budget and necessitate a serious review of all procurement programs.

Indications are that Di Paola hopes to avoid this deep cut to investment spending. During his first hearing at the Joint Defense Commissions of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Senate on 1 December, Admiral Di Paola stated his intention to tackle the issue of the Italian armed forces’ personnel. The current structure, he pointed out, is no longer financially sustainable and he is open to a downsizing of it. Although in the 2005 Strategic Concept he had established the objective of a professional force of 190,000, a further reduction seems necessary if the Italian military is to maintain necessary levels of material quality and overall effectiveness—down to about 140,000/150,000 troops, according to press speculations. However, such a decision will result in challenging and politically difficult trade-offs. On the one hand, the reduction of volunteers—in 2012 only 9,000 will be enlisted, down from a previous estimate of 12,000—will likely rise the average age of deployed troops. On the other hand, a cut of high- and medium-rank officers would be costly in political terms.

In short, for Di Paola, the Italian bureaucracy and the economic winds sweeping Europe may be tougher opponents than even the ones he faced in the Balkans or in the Middle East.

(photo courtesy of Ministero della Difesa)

Hurry, wait…and die

by Arthur Herman

On Sept. 18, Army Spec. Chazray Clark stepped on an IED in Kandahar province, instantly losing an arm and both legs. But the 24-year-old Michigan native was still able to say, “I’m OK,” when his sergeant frantically called out his name. The patrol’s commander immediately radioed for an Army Medevac helicopter, or Dustoff. Clark’s comrade applied turniquets and carried him back to the landing zone for pickup. There they waited — and waited.

The Dustoff they needed was only two or three minutes away at a forward operating base. It couldn’t take off because, under Army rules, the rescue helicopters with their clearly marked red crosses need an armed-helicopter escort to enter a hot combat zone — and none were available.

An armed Air Force Medevac helo was available at Kandahar Air Base. It could have been dispatched to pick up Clark, who was still talking and fully conscious. The Army said no; rules are rules.

Finally, a Dustoff crew did fly off from Kandahar without escort. But by now what should have been a 13-minute rescue operation had dragged on more than an hour. Clark was dead when he reached Kandahar.

Now some in Congress, in particular Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), are asking why Clark had to die — and why the US Army insists on conducting its medical evacuations as if our troops were in the Argonne Forest or at Normandy, instead of fighting a ruthless enemy who respects no civilized rules of engagement, even as we foolishly cling to ours.

In the old days, medics of every country went on the battlefield unarmed — the Geneva Conventions even required it. The red cross markings made it clear that their mission was saving lives, often on both sides — so they weren’t legitimate targets.

Even the Nazis in World War II respected that rule. When the Japanese didn’t, American medics learned to carry a sidearm or even a rifle, knowing they were sitting ducks otherwise. Geneva rules don’t apply when the enemy refuses to honor them.

Today, a Taliban that hides behind civilians, gang-rapes women and shoots children has no scruples about killing an American medic or downing a Medevac chopper. The Army has updated the rules in Afghanistan to the extent of sending along an escorting Apache attack ’copter when unarmed Dustoffs must pick up wounded in dangerous areas — even though that means one less Apache to fight the bad guys elsewhere.

But it still insists on painting its Dustoffs with big red crosses, even though that sends the clear message to Taliban killers that we can’t shoot back. It never sends them in alone unless higher-ups deem the area safe — a bureaucratic decision that probably cost Spec. Clark his life.

Interestingly, Marine Medevac choppers are armed and unmarked, as are the Air Force’s. But the Army insists that arming its Dustoffs would only add to their weight, leaving less space for medical supplies and evacuees. The fact that the Marines and the Air Force (and even the British) seem to consider such restrictions suicidal doesn’t faze the Army.

Army spokesmen point out that no Dustoff has ever been shot down in Afghanistan, and that their evacuation-survival rate (92 percent) is stellar. Still, soldiers will tell you of other instances when the lack of escorts delayed the arrival of a Medevac team — at times when every minute can make the difference between life and death. For Chazray Clark, it probably did.

Our soldiers in Afghanistan have to deal with enough absurd rules of engagement without having to put up with one that can turn a serious wound into a mortal one. They deserve better — as do our Dustoff crews.

It takes a special kind of heroism to thrust yourself into the midst of battle, when your entire focus has to be not the enemy but rescuing people you’ve never seen or met — including sometimes the enemy himself.

Those men and women deserve our best — and deserve a fighting chance.

Cross-posted from the New York Post.

(flickr/US Marine Corps photo/Maryalice Leone)

CDS Director Tom Donnelly appeared on this morning’s Diane Rehm Show to discuss last week’s FY2013 defense budget preview and its implications for U.S. national security. Other participants included deputy assistant secretary of Defense and and Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, Thom Shanker from the New York Times, and Larry Korb from the Center for American Progress. You can listen to the show in full here.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Joseph Harwood)

The President’s budget request will slash $487 billion from the military over the next ten years, delaying vital next-generation systems and giving the pink slip to 100,000 active duty men and women in uniform.  Unfortunately, this is a budget-driven strategy that kills jobs and puts our military at risk while it is still in harm’s way. Despite increasingly tough talk about the importance of Asia, the Obama administration’s preview of its fiscal year 2013 defense budget proves that it is a “pivot” in name only.

This budget is a prayer that the United States will not have to fight more than one major war at a time. The two-war standard has long been a way to measure America’s global reach and deter potential adversaries.  The world is no less dangerous today than it was twenty years ago—so why is the Obama administration planning for an era of decreased conflict?  Our world was changed on September 11th   because of an act of war for which America was not prepared.  With diffuse and growing threats, the world can ill-afford American complacency.   For example:

  • Great power competition is back.  China and Russia are building next-generation military arsenals at the same time that America is gutting its defense industrial base.  China especially is investing in high-technology programs that threaten America’s power projection capabilities. So far, the administration’s response has been to cut or delay the programs that could fight back, such as the F-22, F-35, and the next-generation ballistic missile submarine.
  • Iran continues its march towards nuclear weapons in blatant violation of its international obligations.  At the same time, it is fostering terrorism throughout the Middle East and menacing America’s allies and partners.
  • Pakistan is on the brink.  Between violent terrorism, government instability, and elements inside the military that support extremist groups, the fragile nation faces real questions about its ability to secure its nuclear arsenal.
  • Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has repeatedly attempted attacks against the United States.  If al Qaeda or a related group successfully attacks the American homeland, the United States may be drawn into a war of necessity.
  • North Korea remains a danger to our allies in Asia and continues to work with countries, like Iran, to challenge American and allied interests.

In addition, unanticipated threats may await America in the years ahead. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out last year, the American record in predicting where our next war will be has been perfect. “We have never once gotten it right.”

Secondly, Obama’s proposed defense budget hides the true extent of defense cuts. The budget reflects $487 billion in cuts, but another $500 billion looms unless Congress reverses sequestration. The President should either be upfront about the true impact of sequestration or else work with Congress to reverse these cuts.

A host of civilian and military leaders have repeatedly warned that sequestration cuts will be “devastating” to the Pentagon and “very high risk” for America’s national security.  Even Secretary Panetta himself wrote in November that, under sequestration, the United States would have the “smallest ground forces since 1940,” a “fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest level since 1915,” and the “smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force.”

The Executive Branch, however, is passing the buck to Congress.  “My hope,” said Secretary Panetta yesterday, “is that when members understand the sacrifice involved in reducing the defense budget by half a trillion dollars, it will convince Congress to avoid sequestration, a further round of cuts that would inflict severe damage to our national defense for generations.”  Yet the President has threatened to veto any effort to avoid sequestration that does not raise taxes, while remaining silent on the need to rein in the spiraling growth of entitlements, which consume nearly two-thirds of the federal budget.  The Obama administration must assume its share of the responsibility—and obligation—to fully reverse the catastrophic cuts to defense.

Lastly, the proposed budget leaves devastating gaps in manpower and next-generation programs.

  • Ground forces are facing a massive cut, with the Army losing 80,000 active duty soldiers and the Marine Corps losing some 20,000 active-duty personnel.  A larger force has already faced severe strain due to numerous deployments.  A smaller force means that when duty calls, troops will face increased stress, increased danger, and more time away from their families.
  • The Air Force is in the middle of a modernization crisis.  The administration has announced yet another delay in F-35 production at the same time as cuts to six fighter squadrons.  A 2009 RAND study has the United States losing an air war with China because the U.S. simply does not have enough fighters to compete with overwhelming Chinese numbers.  These cuts do not help the situation.
  • The U.S. Navy, which also faces a modernization crisis, will maintain 11 aircraft carrier groups, but the total number of surface ships and submarines will decrease dramatically.  For an administration supposedly focused on the Pacific, a defense budget that decreases shipbuilding and fleet size simply does not make sense.

America’s military and the citizens it serves deserve better.

The Defending Defense Project is a joint effort of the Foreign Policy Initiative, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation to promote a sound understanding of the U.S. defense budget and the resource requirements to sustain America’s preeminent military position.


The Obama Way of War

by Tom Donnelly

You can criticize Barack Obama—and fear not, I’m about to—but he has been a consequential president. Obamacare, his signature domestic accomplishment, is a substantial step toward the government-run health care program that Democrats have long desired. It may be hard to get rid of, even with a Republican president and congressional majorities. Undoing the effects of Obama foreign and defense policy won’t be any easier. Beginning with the Libya intervention, the president has been charting a new direction for American strategy and acting with great energy to create a fait accompli that will make it difficult for a successor to reverse course. The leading-from-behind Obama Doctrine consists of three main tenets: a smaller, secret, and “silent” approach to the Long War in the greater Middle East; a “Pacific pivot” that would deter China from the temptations of aggression but ask allies to carry much of the burden; and a restructuring of the U.S. military to forestall any future return to a more ambitious—and more traditional—form of American leadership.

The silent war

Embarking on the campaign that would make him president, Barack Obama began with a stinging criticism of George W. Bush’s Iraq war, which he charged was a “dangerous distraction” from the war on al Qaeda and in Afghanistan. It “should have been apparent to President Bush and Sen. [John] McCain, the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was.” Thus, Obama wrote in a July 2008 New York Times op-ed, “Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and al Qaeda has a safe haven.”

Obama has been resolute in viewing the post-9/11 wars narrowly as antiterror campaigns rather than in the larger context of traditional U.S. strategy across the greater Middle East. A more comprehensive view would consider the 2003 Iraq war as an extension of a trend that can be traced to 1979—the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, of the Iranian hostage crisis, of the seizure of the Grand Mosque by a band of Sunni extremists, and of Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in Baghdad. From that time on, the downward spiral of events across the region has made it increasingly difficult for the United States to preserve its previous posture as an “offshore balancer,” working through local regimes and using military force only to tip the scales to preserve “stability” and the flow of oil. After the Cold War, when the prime directive was no longer to limit Soviet influence, the local regimes themselves were the biggest threat to stability; our “partners” became the problem.

With Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S.-led response in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the offshore balancer came ashore. We had “no opinion” on Arab-on-Arab disputes, “such as your dispute with Kuwait,” as Ambassador April Glaspie unfortunately told Saddam Hussein before he sent his army across the border. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney promised the Saudi king that once Saddam’s army was expelled from Iraq’s “19th province,” U.S. troops would return home. But having leapt over the fence, the United States could not go back, even as it was reluctant to go forward. The contradictions of this half-in, half-out posture played out for a dozen years. Even before 9/11, the Clinton-era effort to “keep Saddam in his box” appeared to be in tatters. After 9/11, George W. Bush decided that “pursuing stability at the expense of liberty does not lead to peace,” and that the United States had no better choice than to try to provoke a deeper transformation of the political order in the Middle East.

If Bush saw the global war on terror as a way to expand American involvement in the Middle East, Barack Obama’s focus on terror is an attempt to limit it. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen sees this “radical shift from President Bush’s war on terror” and dubs Obama’s way of war the “doctrine of silence.” Cohen rightly argues that “there has seldom been so big a change in approach to U.S. strategic policy with so little explanation.”

The signature instruments of the silent war are remotely piloted aircraft—“drones,” as the headline writers love to call them—covert action and special operations forces, and computer or “cyber” attacks. With the withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, U.S. conventional forces will no longer be in the “regime change” or counterinsurgency business but will man an increasingly “offshore” framework with limited strike capability and, if needed, the ability to patrol contested waterways like the Strait of Hormuz.

The administration’s love affair with drones has gotten the lion’s share of attention. In late December, the Washington Post’s Greg Miller sketched Obama’s “emerging global apparatus for drone killing”:

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.

The setup artfully combines military and CIA assets to maximize operational effectiveness and mask the size and scope of the effort. Strikes are “increasingly assembled à la carte,” reports Miller, “piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.”

The article’s account of the September 30 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki reveals the intricacy of this “toggling” campaign. As the CIA went hunting the American-born cleric whose Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula organization in Yemen had sponsored a number of attempted terrorist attacks, including that by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009, it assembled a fleet of its own Predator and Reaper drones reinforced by those of the Joint Special Operations Command. So seamless was the Awlaki strike that it remains unclear whether a CIA or JSOC aircraft actually delivered the lethal missile, though the administration justified the killing under CIA legal authority. When Awlaki’s son was similarly killed two weeks later, however, it was done under authority granted to the Defense Department by post-9/11 legislation.

While the administration’s toggling legal posture has provoked criticism from both the liberal left and the libertarian right, Obama’s use of drones is generally praised. “What this does is it takes a lot of Americans out of harm’s way .  .  . without having to send in a special ops team or drop a 500-pound bomb,” says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Select Committee on Intelligence. The Bush administration had increasingly employed drones, conducting about 44 strikes in Pakistan and killing as many as 300 Taliban and al Qaeda operatives, according to the New America Foundation. But the Obama administration has become positively addicted to the drone war, having conducted nearly 250 strikes and widening operations to Yemen, Somalia, and surveillance of Iran, as the recent crash there of the larger and more sophisticated RQ-170 Sentinel indicates.

Obama’s successes—most spectacularly, the killing of Osama bin Laden—have given him great leeway to continue and expand the silent war, even among liberals looking for an alternative to out-and-out weakness. “Why do I approve of all this?” Roger Cohen asked himself.

Because the alternative—the immense cost in blood and treasure and reputation of the Bush administration’s war on terror—was so appalling. In just the same way, the results of a conventional bombing war against Iran would be appalling whether undertaken by Israel, the United States or a combination of the two.

Andrew Cummings of the Guardian seconds Cohen’s loud cheers for silent war when it comes to Iran. While allowing that a “covert campaign” would be “rife with physical, diplomatic and legal risks, [it] is the lesser of many evils.” Because he acknowledges that sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran from deploying nuclear weapons, but finds a real war equally unappetizing, Cummings hopes that silent war will encourage Iran to reopen the “dialogue” on its nuke program. “Covert action creates the time and space for pressure to build, while”—presto!—“reducing the need for military action.”

Even the occasionally sensible David Ignatius of the Washington Post can go ga-ga for drones. After the Awlaki killing, he saw a “hint of deterrence” in the Obama way of war. Especially praiseworthy is that the drone war “recognizes the need for limits”:

We don’t have enough drones to kill all the enemies we will make if we turn the world into a free-fire zone. And there’s something important in the hint of a deterrence strategy: This is how wars end in the part of the world where al Qaeda arose—through a balance of mutual restraint that makes a de facto truce possible, even between the most bitter enemies.

The Asia pivot

The corollary to walking softly and carrying a silent stick in the greater Middle East is the equally bally-hooed strategic “pivot” to Asia—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s term—that’s been a centerpiece of Obama administration rhetoric for the past six months. Prefacing his new “defense guidance,” the “first Pacific president” declared that “as we end today’s wars, we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.”

The Obama administration came to office convinced that a failure to pay sufficient attention to the Asia-Pacific region was the other giant strategic blunder of its Bush predecessors. Harvard’s Joseph Nye recently captured the fundamentals of administration thinking: “Asia’s return to the center of world affairs is the great power shift of the twenty-first century,” he wrote. “But, rather than keeping an eye on that ball, the United States wasted the first decade of this century mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Nye also agreed with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s fawning praise of the president: “[B]y elevating this dynamic region to one of our top strategic priorities, Obama is showing his determination not to let our ship of state be pushed off course by prevailing crises.”

Never mind that the Democratic critique of the Bush administration after 9/11 was that it had been too concerned about great-power balances and had not paid enough attention to warnings about al Qaeda. Never mind, either, that until this year the White House had placed its hopes on a renewed effort to “engage” China, emphasizing issues such as trade and climate change that were supposed to be sources of cooperation rather than conflict. Never mind that it is in the nature of “prevailing crises” to, well, prevail—particularly those that involve a horrendous attack on American soil like 9/11. And, most of all, never mind that the Asia-Pacific region didn’t have to be “elevated” to “one of our top strategic priorities” for any previous president, at least from William McKinley onward; America’s actions through the 20th century transformed Asia as surely and as profoundly as Europe.

To the degree that the Obama pivot represents a new seriousness in responding to the security challenges of China’s rise as a global great power and its provocative military modernization, it’s a long overdue development. From the Clinton years onward, the United States has been hamstrung between the Scylla of “engagement” and the Charybdis of “containment,” at one point leading Zalmay Khalilzad, whose long career as a diplomat and strategist was capped by a tour as ambassador to Afghanistan, to coin the term “congagement.” In its defense guidance pledge to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” the Obama administration deserves credit for taking a more muscular rhetorical line than either Clinton or Bush. But its promise to “continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely” in places like the South China Sea where Beijing has become more bossy and intimidating is not borne out in the resources it would provide.

The peak of the pivot campaign came with Obama’s trip to Australia, where he announced that about 2,500 Marines would be based at Darwin, in northern Australia. “The United States is a Pacific power,” he told the Australian parliament, “and we are here to stay.” Indeed, for the 21st century, “the United States of America is ‘all in.’ ”

But Peter Beinart, contributor to the Daily Beast and often a channel for administration thinking, sees the Obama Asia pivot as more in line with the offshore balancing approach to the Middle East. “A token deployment of Marines in northern Australia notwithstanding,” he wrote, “the Obama administration’s strategy will be to buttress America’s naval presence in the Pacific and aid those nations on China’s periphery that fear its hegemonic ambitions.” Likewise, Kenneth Lieberthal, a former National Security Council official and longstanding China adviser to Democratic politicians, warns that an all-in approach runs “the longer-term risk that Asia will increasingly become a cost center for the United States (providing security is expensive), while the region will continue to serve as a growing profit center for China (due to its vast economic engagement).”

Cheap-suit superpower

The belief in American decline has become so deeply entrenched among the strategic smart set—which would probably construe the history of the 20th century as one giant “cost center”—that it has become a driving force. It represents much more than an analysis of events: It’s an opportunity to force the United States to shake off the sorrows of empire and snap back from imperial overstretch. The Obama administration doesn’t just seek a “rebalancing” of U.S. strategy, it intends to make a permanent retreat, by removing the military means of mischief. With a smaller force, we’ll resist the temptation to fight wars just because we can.

Tellingly, the commander in chief frames his new guidance to his troops as the strategy we can afford rather than as a strategy for peace (or, God forbid, victory). “We must put our fiscal house in order here at home,” says the third sentence of the president’s cover letter introducing his “Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” and “renew our long-term economic strength.” The touchstone is “the Budget Control Act of 2011, [which] mandates reductions in federal spending, including defense spending.” It is hardly surprising that Obama has promised to veto any legislation that would exempt the military from the draconian further cuts that sequestration would bring to future Pentagon budgets. Not going to let this crisis go to waste.

The administration certainly has profited from the Groundhog Day qualities of the debate about getting the government’s fiscal house in order: Washington wakes up to the horrors of the deficit and the debt and decides it’s time to make sure that “defense is on the table” along with domestic discretionary programs and that taxes shall not be raised nor entitlements restrained. If sequestration occurs this year, something like $1.3 trillion will have been chopped out of planned military spending during the Obama years—about $330 billion through 2010, $489 billion under the 2011 Budget Control Act, and at least another $500 billion under full sequestration. The landscape is littered with the corpses of procurement programs terminated early, like the F-22 Raptor, or killed in the womb, like the Army’s Future Combat Systems family of vehicles. The Obama administration has fulfilled Donald Rumsfeld’s dream of “skipping a generation” of modernization, but this is a second generation almost skipped.

While these are big numbers in the context of defense spending, they’re chicken feed when measured against the debt, the deficit, and the costs of baby boomer entitlements, which are only going to mount from here. The 2011 annual federal deficit was about $1.3 trillion, with total federal spending about $3.5 trillion. The 2011 defense budget, including the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a little over $700 billion. The total federal debt has risen to $15 trillion, roughly the same as U.S. gross domestic product. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s June 2011 long-range budget forecast, a failure to tame -entitlement spending could double the debt again as the boomers retire en masse. Even eliminating the U.S. military entirely would have no serious effect on the government’s balance sheets.

To fully limn the extent of America’s defense decline would be a long and lugubrious task, so consider the strategic bottom line: The Obama administration has admitted that the U.S. military will no longer be large enough to fight two wars at once. This has been the standard of American global power since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, one observed and saluted by every president since. As Colin Powell put it in 1989, we had put a “shingle outside our door saying ‘Superpower Lives Here.’ ” And while it’s true that the active duty forces of the United States have often fallen short of this standard, “two” was the eternal answer to the classic question of defense planning: “How much is enough?”

In leaking this change to the press, an anonymous administration official described Obama’s strategy as “spoiling” any second-war act of aggression while fighting the first. And the defense guidance goes on at length about “reversibility” as a “key part of our decision calculus” when defense cuts have to be made. In other words, the Obama Pentagon knows this is a very bad idea to begin with.


Unfortunately, reversing the effects of the Obama way of war will be extremely difficult. Suppose a new Republican commander in chief were determined to lead a resurgence of American power. Could he easily renegotiate a status-of-forces agreement in Iraq that would allow for the redeployment of U.S. troops to a level that would jump-start domestic reconciliation and diminish Iranian influence? Could he convince Hamid Karzai or his successor that this time we mean business? What would it take to genuinely change the calculus of the Pakistani army? Would the president have the military means to do more than delay or disrupt Iran’s drive to become a nuclear power? To really establish a military posture in the Asia-Pacific that would reassure the Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Australians, and Indians while deterring China? What defense investments could he make while expecting to see a tangible return in the course of a four-year term?

The Obama administration has been at pains to practice what it calls “smart power,” and there is undeniably a consistent and logically coherent narrative to the Obama way of war. On the other hand, history favors the constant more often than the clever. This is particularly the case for Americans; our most successful commanders have not been the most brilliant ones.

Obama’s way of war, his “rebalancing” of U.S. strategic priorities, and the damage done to American military power are already being felt in the world. The greater Middle East, never “stable” to begin with, is undergoing an epoch-defining political change—who knows where the Arab revolts will end, or what a nuclear Iran would mean?—while having its American security blanket ripped away. Our Asian allies, who have been begging for attention as China increasingly muscles its way around the region, may be cheered when the 2,500 Marines arrive in Australia, and be even happier if they pop up around the South China Sea on a regular basis, but they won’t see it as an “all in” commitment. And when the up-to-now sole superpower confesses it lacks the means to deter or fight simultaneous crises or conflicts, its assertions of leadership will ring hollow. The president vowed in his defense guidance that the American military will be the “best in the world.” That much is true. But the problem, since 9/11, has not been the quality of the force but its quantity.

Nations, like markets, look at both fundamentals and trends. The world’s developed and developing democracies, (also known as America’s allies) have been and remain eager to invest in the security that the United States provides. It’s not a cost center but a profit center for them. It’s a profit center for us, too—part of the reason the world invests in America, even with our Greek-like debt-to-GDP ratios and unfunded government liabilities. Barack Obama is seeking to reverse a century-long trend in international affairs—the energetic exercise of American power. And he’s well on his way to solidifying this dubious achievement.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(flickr/White House/Pete Souza)