One of the key, underpinning elements of President Barack Obama’s new defense strategy is, ostensibly, its “reversibility”: the idea that changes to the size and shape of the U.S. military can be undone in a time of crisis. This applies most of all to the Army and Marine Corps, the branches set to suffer force cuts under the new “strategic guidance.” Administration officials insist that, should events so require, the U.S. military will have retained the core expertise to restore itself in a timely fashion. The American experience in war — particularly in the past 10 years — tells another story: that the concept of “reversibility” is specious and threatens to leave our armed forces dangerously unprepared for future conflicts.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have subjected a shrunken, post-Cold War U.S. military to severe strains. The Pentagon entered the “Long War” hampered not only by successive force cuts and deferred and cancelled modernization programs, but also by the pervasive belief that U.S. high-end technology would permit us to wage conflicts on our terms, with limited “boots-on-the-ground.” As violence in Iraq increased, however, the full consequences of the post-Cold War changes to force structure came into clear view: the military that had been billed as “leaner and meaner” lacked the numbers to carry out crucial missions. In order to properly resource a counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, even before the 2007 “surge,” the Marine Corps had been converted to a mission-set far from its amphibious bread and butter, and reservists of all branches had been called up in increasingly larger numbers. And it was only after the success of the surge in Iraq, and the tamping down of the violence there, that the Pentagon could even begin to think about shifting ground to Afghanistan, where the last “surge” troops did not arrive until September 2010 — roughly nine years after U.S. Special Forces and CIA operatives first arrived in theater. The role of reservists in these wars, while a testament to the character and dedication of our citizen-soldiers, has also illustrated that they are not interchangeable with active-duty, combat troops. Meanwhile, soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors have found themselves deployed at increased rates, with an accompanying toll on them and their families.

These strains have not gone unnoticed. Decisions were made during the Bush years to augment the “end-strength” of both the Army and Marine Corps, although even these upward adjustments did not bring with them the capacity to conduct, as strategy dictated at the time, two major regional contingency operations simultaneously, and were slow to come in any case. The full psychological effects of high-pace deployments are also not yet understood, although, already, higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder have appeared among veterans, and military brass suggest that retention, insulated so far by a poor economy, will worsen.

In short, restoring the strength of the U.S. military after pre-9/11 force cuts has taken time, and has come at a high cost. A smaller and less capable force ceded the initiative to our enemies, placed an enormous burden on the backs of the less than 1% of Americans who serve in uniform and meant that an immense sacrifice in blood and treasure had to be made to regain the upper hand in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. And, even after 10 years, we have yet to overcome the legacy of the 1990s “peace dividend.” By many standards of readiness, the Army and Marine Corps — and the Air Force and Navy as well — are worse for the wear after two overlapping conflicts.

The Obama administration knows full well what the state of the military is. However, because it would rather shift the country’s spending priorities to domestic programs long favored by Democrats, it has willingly accepted, indeed gone beyond, what the 2011 Budget Control Act required in cuts to national security programs. To give this shift the patina of legitimacy, the administration has prepared a new “strategic guidance” that largely compounds the mistakes of the past. In the fiscal year 2013 budget, where the specific details of the president’s new strategy will be spelled out, we are likely to see deep end-strength cuts, a greater reliance on reserves and postponed modernization programs — all bolstered by the idea that, if anything goes wrong, we can quickly “regenerate” our military strength.

The new strategy comes both in the midst of a continuing war and with additional Pentagon budget cuts likely pending — the product of congressional “sequester” with the failed super committee. It is certain that President Obama’s decisions will leave his successor with constrained choices and greater risks in carrying out the country’s security commitments. Hoping that these constraints and risks can be mitigated by “reversibility” plans is a bet that history suggests is a long shot. Far better for Congress, and perhaps a new president, to challenge the administration’s assumptions and reverse course — a much sounder version of reversibility.

Cross-posted from the Daily Caller.

(flickr/U.S. Army/Spc. Kristina Truluck)

No Superpower Here

by Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly

With the end of the Cold War in sight, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell in the George H. W. Bush administration was asked how big the U.S. military should be. He replied, “We have to put a shingle outside our door saying, ‘Superpower Lives Here.’ ”

Barack Obama has taken the shingle down.

The “strategic guidance” announced this week from the commander in chief to the Department of Defense is, make no mistake about it, an order to retreat. The retreat is particularly evident in the greater Middle East, but it will also be visible in Europe. And the administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” to East Asia is largely rhetorical, meant to distract from the broader global retreat and the fact that planned American defense budgets will lack the resources to make that pivot militarily possible.

The clearest measure of diminished American ambition is the overthrow of the traditional “two-war standard.” What has made the United States a global superpower is the ability to conduct two large campaigns at once. This has been the agreed benchmark not just since the -Clinton administration’s 1993 “Bottom-Up Review,” but since 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt signed the “Two-Ocean Navy Act.” The Obama strategy is instead, as one senior administration official put it, to be able to “spoil” aggression in the event of a second simultaneous conflict.

This is a bright green light to our enemies and a flashing red one to our friends and allies. If the United States were to find itself engaged elsewhere, the risk-reward calculus for Iran or North Korea or China—anyone who dreams of chipping away at the international system that Americans have made and kept safe—will look very tempting. What would it mean to “spoil” a Chinese grab for Taiwan? An Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz? The next time North Korea sinks a South Korean vessel? To proclaim that we can only really deal with one threat at a time is an open invitation to the rogue states of the world to make mischief, a recipe for disorder, aggression, and danger.

The Obama retreat from the Middle East in particular is a reversal of decades of American policy and strategy. The withdrawal from Iraq, the likely abandonment of Afghanistan, and the reduction of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to pre-9/11 levels of strength—all of this rolls back the U.S. military posture in the region to a pre-Desert Storm stance. The ebbing of American power in the region is already creating a dangerous vacuum that others will scramble to fill. Does the president really believe the wars of the past are simply that—past? And that we will no longer need robust American ground forces to deter and respond to enemies, and to ensure American and allied interests in the region?

The president’s argument for this retreat is the need to “renew our economic strength at home,” which includes putting “our fiscal house in order.” But our economic problems have nothing to do with a defense budget that, as a percentage of the country’s wealth, remains well below post-World War II norms. Nor will the savings from defense cuts amount to more than peanuts in comparison with the trillion-dollar annual deficits the administration seems only too happy to run. No, the real game afoot here is making as much room as possible for the administration’s domestic spending agenda—at the cost of putting the country’s security, as even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admits, more at risk.

Not that the administration will acknowledge this. Instead, this agenda has been papered over with a veneer of strategic sophistication admiringly summed up by the New York Times: “The country must be smarter and more restrained in its use of force,” it editorialized. “[M]any of the challenges out there can be dealt with by air power, intelligence, special operations or innovative technologies like drones.” No doubt this will become the mantra of the smart set. But this sounds like nothing so much as the pre-9/11 “transformational” Don Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld could fairly say he didn’t see what was coming, that he was blindsided by history and then adjusted. Obama is making a conscious choice. It’s a choice for weakness, a choice that will invite war, a choice for American decline. It’s a choice the next president must reverse.

Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

(DOD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

President Barack Obama yesterday unveiled a new national defense strategy creating a “leaner” force that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta allows will create “some level of additional but acceptable risk.” Moving away from the traditional two war strategy, and hinting at substantial reductions in Europe, the president presented a dramatic shift in global posture for the United States. We asked House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon for his thoughts on the president’s announcement:

This morning, the president and his military leaders announced they would jettison the United States’ long-held two war strategy. What do you see as the implications of this decision?

This is an unrealistic posture. It presumes that in the face of two existential challenges to American interests, the military would abrogate their responsibilities. In reality, our Armed Forces will fight to win on two fronts with insufficient manpower and resources. The president is clearly repeating the mistakes of the past – by providing a force far smaller than is sufficient to meet the threats we face. The possibility of two simultaneous contingency operations is real. One need only look at the current instability in North Korea and the threats coming from Iran, for an example.

The president also announced that tens of thousands of ground troops will be cut from the Force. What will that mean in reality for the United States in the world?

Quite simply, it puts us back on a pre-9/11 footing. It means that the next time we have to engage in a major ground operation, we won’t have the forces we need, just as we didn’t in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will go to war with the Army and Marine Corps we have, and that our forces will assume greater risks and suffer greater casualties to get the job done. Moreover, the president has announced these cuts before we have successfully concluded our mission in Afghanistan. It is not clear how these cuts will impact current operations or our contingency plans.

The Obama administration recently announced a “pivot” to Asia. When you look at the budget numbers, do you believe that such a “pivot” can realistically be supported?

I agree that the Asia Pacific is an under-resourced theater. But, it’s baffling that, in this fiscal environment, the president would be talking about a pivot to Asia before our work is done in the Middle East. The pivot East is realistic assuming we abandon our commitments and our allies elsewhere – it does not mean we will maintain our capabilities elsewhere and build up our presence in Asia. That’s the reality of these defense cuts. The president’s strategy, where he officially abandons America’s ability to fight two wars simultaneously, says this better than I could. We will be able to fight one war and “spoil” another. That’s political-speak for a one-dimensional force. The 21st century has grown into one of the most dynamic and challenging security landscapes in history, a time when our economy has never been more dependent on our military and our security. It’s astounding that the president still pays lip service to shrinking our “Cold War” military, as if the Soviet Union was the only justification for having a strong, capable defense that could react to the unforeseen, and protect our prosperity in globalized world.

What’s the take-away message for America’s adversaries in the world? What about our allies?

Simple. America will do less with less – until the next contingency. At that point, our military will be forced to go to war without the forces or capabilities it needs, costing us in both blood and treasure. It means our ability to lead will be called into question. It disrupts a globalized world, already deeply sensitive to and intolerant of instability. Our allies could seek alliances elsewhere. Our enemies could be emboldened. And if we do abdicate our role as global leader, which is largely driven by our military and economic strength, the vacuum will either be filled by another power that doesn’t share our values or the global order will slip into the same dangerous multipolarity that landed us in World I and World II. Make no mistake, shrinking your force does nothing to enhance flexibility or agility, as the president has claimed. Having fewer ships, for example, does not increase your flexibility to respond to various crises, like the Libya operation and relief in Japan.

How is Congress going to react to this new “strategy” and to sequestration?

Congress is going to press forward with its highest constitutional responsibility in mind – to provide for the common defense. I have introduced legislation that will work to mitigate the effects of sequestration. The House Armed Services Committee conducted months of rigorous oversight in which Congress was repeatedly warned by Secretary Panetta and top military officials that the size and scope of the cuts entailed in President Obama’s new strategy would entail more risk. In my view, they are untenable and dangerous. However, the reality is the commander-in-chief chooses strategy, not the Congress. We will advocate for modifications to the strategy, insist that any new strategy should contain a substantive, not merely rhetorical response to the growing array of threats to the United States around the world – but ultimately the president owns it. What we can do is advance legislation to stop the “doomsday” effects of sequestration, so that defense is not forced to shoulder the load of our domestic fiscal profligacy.

Cross-posted from the Enterprise Blog, where the interview was conducted by Enterprise Blog Editors.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new defense strategy yesterday. It’s a strategy designed to take into account both the hundreds of billions already slashed from the Pentagon’s budget since the Obama administration came into office and the hundreds of billions more to be cut in the years ahead. It is a “declinist” strategy for an administration all too willing to accept the waning of American hard power and influence in the world.

The headline news coming from the new strategy is that the administration is tacitly abandoning the two-war capability. But one need only look at how we have handled Afghanistan and then Iraq to see that the U.S. never had the forces to deal with both wars simultaneously. Indeed, one reason the conflict in Afghanistan has taken as long as it has is because it was not until just a little more than a year ago that we had sufficient troops to begin a full-fledged, fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign.

Rather than fixing this problem, Obama’s new strategy would cut tens of thousands more from America’s active duty forces.

The question is, should we care? And, even if we do care, can we afford to do anything else in light of current budget deficits?

The ability to handle two major military campaigns at the same time used to be the sine qua non of American global leadership. However, its critics often say it is an out-of-date, Cold War-era planning paradigm that no longer fits today’s realities. Yet, in fact, it has been a force-sizing metric that ensured we had sufficient forces not only to fight wars but, more broadly, allowed us simultaneously to carry out a number of other, crucial national security missions: protecting the homeland, maintaining a favorable balance of power across the Eurasian land mass, deterring rogue regimes, protecting the great commons (sea, space and now cyberspace) and, at times, acting as a global good neighbor when catastrophes strike such as the ones that hit Japan last year.

Not having such forces in place is a gamble that we have a good idea of what military contingencies will arise next. However, if the post-Cold War era has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot know what exact problems will arise next.

Every president since George H. W. Bush has found himself using the military in wars he never expected. And given the general uncertainty in the international arena today, it’s a good bet that while we might not know what will come next, we can be pretty certain that something will. And when it does, the nation should not be put in a position where our adversaries think they can, through timing and clever planning, take advantage of our being militarily preoccupied elsewhere. Having sufficient military force to handle more than one war effectively at a time has been the nation’s strategic insurance policy.

Moreover, the announcement of a new strategy shouldn’t distract us from the fact that there are more cuts to come as a result of the failure of the super committee to reach an agreement on deficit reduction—cuts on the order of $500-$600 billion over the next decade that will force more force cuts and devastate plans to modernize each of the services. The administration claims it now wants to “pivot” security efforts to the Asia-Pacific region. However, there is a real question of whether projected defense spending levels will be enough to resource the increase in air, sea and space capabilities that the pivot requires, while simultaneously maintaining air and naval dominance in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

Undoubtedly, keeping a large and capable military force modernized, paid and trained takes a large amount of money. But there are also costs for having a strategy that openly admits it’s taking a gamble on what the future will demand. Ask any sound investor and he or she will tell you that an uncertain world is a much tougher world to do business in.

Those potential costs in peace and prosperity have to be paired against the savings gained by paring back the defense budget. And here the cost-benefit analysis is clear. Defense cuts, even of the scale now being talked about, will do little to fix our current fiscal problems.

In 2011, the deficit was $1.3 trillion, while the whole department of defense budget, wars included, was half that amount.

The real driver behind our long-term debt is the growth in entitlements. These have grown exponentially as part of the federal budget, amounting now to some 60% of the total federal budget. while defense spending, with wars included, remains basically at the same level as it did during the mid-1990s.

There is a déjà vu quality to this most recent exercise in scaling back America’s defenses. During the Clinton years, defense cuts became the bill-payer in an effort to balance the budget, while Congress and the administration allowed domestic spending to continue to grow. It left us with a military that, come 9/11, had to scramble to meet the new threats and tasks it faced.

As then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked, “You go to war with the army you have.” The question is, do we want the next serious conflict we face to be one in which America’s military is sized and equipped based on what we can afford as a result of ObamaCare or, more prudently, based on what the nation’s security requires?

Cross-posted from Fox News?

(U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Reece Lodder)

This morning, President Obama, Secretary Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey unveiled a new defense strategy, based on the $450 billion cuts from this summer’s Budget Control Act, the product of the debt-ceiling deal.

Yahoo! News’ Laura Rozen covers the strategy and quotes CDS’ Tom Donnelly in a piece describing the strategy. Here’s an excerpt:

“You can pretend that the world will behave the way you want it to, or you can look at reality square in the face,” Donnelly said. “Or you can run from it, which is what this administration is doing–in Iraq, soon enough in Afghanistan, and, with these cuts, running from the future.”

To read the article in full, click here.

(DoD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

How to get more Ivy Leaguers into ROTC

by Cheryl Miller and Jon Hillman

One year after Congress voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” elite universities such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia have ended Vietnam-era bans on the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) with highly publicized signing ceremonies among senior military officers and university leaders.

Yet for all the fanfare, Yale is the only university that will have cadets training on campus next fall. Columbia and Harvard have restored ties with the Navy, but the new partnerships are limited to a campus office. Stanford has requested its own naval unit (to save their students a 45-minute commute to UC-Berkeley), but the Navy appears unlikely to approve the request.

Stanford’s is a telling episode: The chief obstacle to ROTC’s expansion today is not antimilitary sentiment but a Pentagon that prefers to allocate its resources to surer recruiting prospects, primarily in the South and the Midwest. Last year the Ivy League had 54 students commissioned through ROTC, or 1% of total commissions, and the Defense Department is reluctant to launch new programs where student interest appears low.

Read the rest of the article on the Wall Street Journal website.

(flickr/user Tulane publications)

Cameron the Neo-Con?

by Gary Schmitt

A little more than five years ago, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-Conservative Party leader David Cameron gave a speech designed to distinguish his own foreign policy vision from that of both the sitting prime minister, Tony Blair, and American neo-conservatives. Although the timing of the speech revealed an unflattering shade of political opportunism on Cameron’s part, it spelled out an approach to foreign policy and the post-9/11 world that was actually far closer to Blair’s and American neo-conservatives’ than was understood by most commentators at the time. With hindsight, perhaps Cameron’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya to prevent a humanitarian disaster and remove Muammar Gaddafi’s regime should not have been a surprise to anyone.

For one, Cameron recognizes in his 2006 speech that there might be times when the British government will act militarily for reasons not traditionally put forward by states. While not as effusive as Blair’s 1999 speech in Chicago defending the right of NATO to intervene in the Balkans to stop the slaughter there, Cameron did state that he believes “we should be prepared to intervene for humanitarian purposes to rescue people from genocide.”

And while Cameron, in his address, suggests that Blair has been too much the junior partner in the “special relationship,” he also notes that “Britain just cannot achieve the things we want to achieve in the world unless we work with the world’s superpower.” Surely this is a point 10 Downing Street appreciates now more than ever, given the key military capabilities—such as intelligence, precision-guided weapons, and air-refueling support—that the United States needed to provide for the NATO operation to succeed in Libya.

Nor does Cameron distance himself from neo-conservatism in matters of foreign policy; to the contrary, he stipulates that he in fact agrees with its core precepts as he understands them: first, Islamist terrorism is a unique and deadly threat; second, military preemption is sometimes called for; and third, the promotion of political and economic freedom “is an essential objective of Western foreign policy.” And while one could argue whether any of these is a uniquely neo-conservative principle, it is certainly true that critics of America’s post-9/11 policies often point to each as somehow representative of the so-called neo-con turn in American statecraft.

In fact, the real distinction Cameron appears to draw between his own foreign policy vision and that of neo-conservatives is less about those general propositions than, by his estimation, their hubristic application. What had been lost was a sense of “humility”  and “patience” when it comes to the conduct of policy. In short, the difference to be drawn between Cameron’s self-avowed “liberal conservatism” and “neo-conservatism” is mostly a matter of prudence in how a policy should be implemented and expectations of its timely success. Or, as he succinctly put it, “we must be wise as well as good.”

For the future prime minister, this was especially the case when it came to pushing the freedom agenda. Echoing a long-standing Tory view that true democratic rule is a product of long habituation, Cameron argues that it was wrong to believe that it could “quickly be imposed from outside. Liberty grows from the ground—it cannot be dropped from the air by an unmanned drone.”

No serious student of international affairs, including neo-cons, thinks otherwise. Indeed, if anything, just as prevalent and problematic is the traditional Tory and conservative view that building a democratic state is not only difficult and time-consuming but virtually impossible in countries of the world’s backwaters.

Perhaps it is understandable that Cameron would want to avoid the cloud hanging over the American and allied efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan; certainly the political cost to both Blair and Bush was enormous. But the Bush administration did not go into either Afghanistan or Iraq with the primary intention of establishing democracies there. The primary goal was to remove from power regimes that either were protecting terrorists that had attacked the United States or were thought to be a security threat that could no longer be tolerated in a post-9/11 world. Yet if the goal was removing despots from power, it necessarily followed that they had to be replaced with something. And, putting aside for the moment the strategic merits of possibly establishing a stable democratic order in one or both of those nations, what democratic leader today is going to suggest that it’s perfectly okay for the new regime to be despotic as well—just as long as he’s our despot. In short, at times, democratic nation building is not nearly the option some think it is.

It’s possible, of course, that Prime Minister Cameron will escape Colin Powell’s maxim that “you break it, you own it” when it comes to Libya. However, if reports of roaming militias, factionalism, and outside players like the Qataris having an outsized influence within post-Gaddafi Libya are accurate, then there may well be considerable cost to taking the current, largely “hands off” approach. Sometimes being an effective “liberal conservative” just might mean being a “neo-conservative” in practice.

Cross-posted from the American.

(flickr/user bisgovuk)

Did Obama Bungle Iraq?

by CDS Editors

In an entry today in the Washington Post’s “Right Turn” blog, Jen Rubin considers whether the recent political unrest in Iraq, including most notably the call for arrest of the Sunni Vice President by Shi’ite President Nouri al-Maliki.  AEI experts Tom Donnelly, Gary Schmitt and Fred Kagan are quoted in Rubin’s article. Here is one excerpt:

Is Iraq unraveling just weeks after President Obama pulled all troops out of the country, against the advice of his military and in defiance of critics? Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute tells me this morning: “Indicting a vice president and killing his bodyguards is out there, even by Iraqi standards. Maliki must have had these moves in mind even while meeting with Obama last week and before. And the Kurds are protecting Hashemi, so there’s obviously broad-based Kurd-Sunni opposition to Maliki’s power-grab. Not yet a civil war, but a pretty brutal punctuation to the ‘end’ of the war.”

For the post in full, click here.


What’s Next for North Korea?

by Michael Auslin

Kim Jong-il’s death came like the line from Fletch: He’d been dying for years, but when it came it was very sudden. Now the world waits to see what will happen to the most repressive and secretive regime on earth. For the past two years, Kim’s putative successor has been his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, whom the world did not even know about until he was abruptly thrust into the North Korean “limelight.” The under-30 Jong-un will likely be mentored (read: controlled) by his powerful uncle, Chang Song-taek, who is Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and has likely been running the government while the elder Kim slowly faded away. Of course, there are also two older sons of Kim Jong-il who at one time were considered heirs apparent but have been thrust into the shadows. They may have designs on the throne and allies in the military or government that we don’t know about.

For now, however, the North Koreans are following the old Soviet script for succession. Kim Jong-un has been named head of the official state funeral committee, thereby confirming his ascendancy for the moment. His work will begin after the funeral on December 28, when he will have to start consolidating his power; alternatively, we may begin to see hints that he is merely a figurehead, such as increased prominence of other leaders. Only if the regime itself is in danger of fissioning or being attacked by the oppressed people of North Korea will the situation on the peninsula change to any appreciable degree.

What Asian and Western governments need to prepare for is some kind of military demonstration, such as a new nuclear test, a ballistic-missile test, or even a limited attack on South Korean territory or property, all of which have been the stock in trade of the Kim regime. As a means to prove that the new leadership is fully in control, as a warning to South Korea and the United States not to take advantage of the death of Kim Jong-il to push for regime change, or because of factional in-fighting among the North Korean leadership to jockey for position, an act of aggression is very likely after Kim Jong-Il’s funeral. The Obama administration, along with its South Korean ally, needs to make clear now that any such destabilizing actions will be met with a response.

Sadly, there is little chance that Kim Jong-il’s death means the dawn of a new spring in North Korea. Its terrorized and brutalized populace will have to endure more horrors at the hands of the third Kim to rule since the end of World War II, and Asia and the rest of the world will continue to wait nervously for another threat to their safety and security. Now may not be the time to try and weaken the new government, but neither is it time to relax our guard. Our wait-and-see attitude is justified only if we are prepared to strike back against unprovoked aggression and retain the moral compass to condemn the regime for the barbarity that it is.

Cross-posted from National Review Online.

(flickr/user zennie62)