No superpower here

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama talks with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, right, before delivering remarks on Veterans Day at the Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington, Va., Nov. 11, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • The clearest measure of diminished American ambition is the overthrow of the "two-war standard"

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  • Obama's new #defense strategy is green light for enemies, red light for allies

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  • Our economic problems have nothing to do with a defense budget that sits below post-WWII norms

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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 real game afoot here is making as much room as possible for the administration’s domestic spending agenda..."

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.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies and Gary Schmitt is director of Advanced Strategic Studies and the Program on American Citizenship at AEI

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