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You could probably count on one hand the number of conservatives who expected President Obama to give the address he did in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, up until then, his major speeches had been built around such themes as nuclear disarmament, Muslim-American relations, multilateralism, and the occasional criticism of America’s role in the world before he was elected to office. What he had not talked about in any serious way were his views regarding the use of military force. With his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the president filled in that gap.
Whether it was having just decided to escalate the military effort in Afghanistan, the dangers still posed by al Qaeda, the growing crisis with Iran, or simply the maturation of his own views since coming to office, the president felt it necessary to spell out, in a manner he had not previously, the utility and justice of employing American military might. “There will be times when nations–acting individually or in concert–will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”
In tone, this was a world away from his “World That Stands as One” speech in Berlin in July 2008. In Berlin, Obama spoke as an emerging global president; in Oslo he spoke as an American commander-in-chief.
We cannot know how the process that resulted in the Afghanistan surge has altered Obama’s thinking. But by asserting that the American military had “helped underwrite global security for more than six decades,” he has forthrightly admitted that, while international and multilateral institutions may be helpful, they are far from being sufficient. Without a power to enforce, international law remains hortatory at best.
This anchors Obama to the broad tradition of American strategy from the Truman Doctrine through the Bush Doctrine. Gandhi-like principles of non-violence are not adequate for handling the world’s most ambitious or brutal powers. As the president rightly concluded, it would not have stopped Hitler nor will it “convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”
Nevertheless, the questions remain: Will the reality match the rhetoric? Was Afghanistan an exception or, as some commentators are now suggesting, the expression of an Obama doctrine?
The jury is still out. In the struggle for the greater Middle East, the “Long War” is far from over. The prospects for a nuclear Iran within the span of even a single Obama term are pretty high. As the focus of American effort shifts to South Asia–and to Pakistan, in particular–the prospects for more terrorism will grow. China’s economy may be intertwined with ours, but its geopolitical ambitions continue to grow. Both friend and foe wonder about American decline.
Beyond dealing with immediate crises and conflicts, a commander-in-chief also has obligations to ensure that U.S. armed forces are prepared to win the wars we’re in and deter the wars we wish to prevent. Here the questions about Obama’s purpose grow larger.
One of his first acts as president was to outline a long-term budget plan that would reduce military spending to a 50-year low while dramatically expanding social entitlements and national debt. By the end of a second Obama term, defense budgets would drop below 3 percent of GDP while entitlements and debt service would rise to 22 percent, making it virtually impossible to reverse course. This is a formula for making the U.S. defense profile more in line with the countries of Europe; it is not a formula for sustaining global security.
Thanks to some creative accounting, the White House argued, and the press has largely accepted, the claim that the administration increased the Pentagon budget last year. But, in fact, when one sorted through the monies shifted between defense supplementals and the annual Pentagon budget, the total was a cut. And it was a real cut in terms of programs, as well, with the past year seeing the termination of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter program, the Army’s Future Combat System, and billions of dollars of other weaponry. The forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review is likely to add to that list, with reports that it will argue for mothballing two aircraft carrier battle-groups and eliminating one or more wings of fighters.
There has been a growing gap between American strategic ends and military means ever since the post-Cold War “drawdown” of the 1990s. George W. Bush fought two wars but did little to fix the underlying gap; only with the Iraq surge did he belatedly acknowledge the need for larger forces. If President Obama sticks to current budget plans, this gap will widen dramatically. However, if the president is serious about the view he set forth in Oslo, then it needs to be backed by a change in the military’s budget. Defense dollars will be the real test of whether there is an Obama doctrine that is more than just words.
Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at AEI. Thomas Donnelly is director of AEI’s Center for Defense Studies.
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