January 5, 2012
President Barack Obama put his personal stamp
Thursday on a rejiggered Pentagon strategy for absorbing hundreds
of billions of dollars in defense budget cuts, marking a turning
point in U.S. security policy after a decade of war.
In a rare appearance in the Pentagon press briefing room, the
president announced that the military will be reshaped over time
with an emphasis on countering terrorism, maintaining a nuclear
deterrent, protecting the U.S. homeland, and "deterring and
defeating aggression by any potential adversary."
Those are not new military missions, and Obama announced no new capabilities or defense initiatives. He described a U.S. force that
will retain much of its recent focus, with the exception of
fighting a large-scale, prolonged conflict like the newly ended
Iraq mission or the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
"As we end today's wars and reshape our armed forces, we will
ensure that our military is agile, flexible and ready for the full
range of contingencies," he wrote in a preamble to the new
strategy, which is titled, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership:
Priorities for 21st Century Defense."
The strategy hints at a reduced U.S. military presence in Europe
and says Asia will be a bigger priority. It also emphasizes
improving U.S. capabilities in the areas of cyberwarfare and
Obama's decision to announce the strategy himself underscores
the political dimension of Washington's debate over defense
savings. The administration says smaller Pentagon budgets are a
must but will not come at the cost of sapping the strength of a
military in transition, even as it gets smaller.
In a presidential election year, the strategy gives Obama a
rhetorical tool to defend his Pentagon budget-cutting choices.
Republican contenders for the White House already have criticized
Obama on a wide range of national security issues, including
missile defense, Iran and planned reductions in ground forces.
Obama also wants the new strategy to represent a pivot point in
his stewardship of defense policy, which has been burdened
throughout his presidency by the wars he inherited and their drag
The new strategy moves the U.S. further from its longstanding
goal of being able to successfully fight two major regional wars --
like the 1991 Gulf War to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait or a
prospective ground war in Korea -- at the same time.
The strategy document announced by Obama contained no specifics on the size of expected troop reductions; the Army and Marine Corps already are set to shrink beginning in 2015. The document said the Pentagon will have to find savings in pay and health care benefits for members of the military, but it offered no specifics.
It made clear that while some current missions of the military
will be curtailed, none will be scrapped entirely.
"Wholesale divestment of the capability to conduct any mission
would be unwise, based on historical and projected uses of U.S.
military forces and our inability to predict the future," the
The administration and Congress already are trimming defense
spending to reflect the closeout of the Iraq war and the drawdown
in Afghanistan. The massive $662 billion defense budget planned for
next year is $27 billion less than Obama wanted and $43 billion
less than Congress gave the Pentagon this year.
Appearing with Obama to answer reporters' questions about the
strategy document were Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. Panetta in recent months had previewed the main themes of the strategy by emphasizing a need to continue pressuring al-Qaida and paying more attention to Asian security challenges, including China and North Korea.
Factors guiding the Obama administration's approach to reducing
the defense budget are not limited to war-fighting strategy. They
also include judgments about how to contain the growing cost of
military health care, pay and retirement benefits. The
administration is expected to form a commission to study the issue
of retirement benefits, possibly led by a prominent retired
The administration is in the final stages of deciding specific
cuts in the 2013 budget, which Obama will submit to Congress next
month. The strategy to be announced by Panetta and Dempsey is meant to accommodate about $489 billion in defense cuts over the coming 10 years, as called for in a budget deal with Congress last summer.
An additional $500 billion in cuts may be required starting in
A prominent theme of the Pentagon's new strategy is what Panetta
has called a renewed commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific
The administration is not anticipating military conflict in
Asia, but Panetta believes the U.S. got so bogged down in Iraq and
Afghanistan after 9/11 that it missed chances to improve its
position in other regions.
China is a particular worry because of its economic dynamism and
rapid defense buildup. A more immediate concern is Iran, not only
for its threats to disrupt the flow of international oil but also
for its nuclear ambitions.