A Humble Piece of Pie — January 9, 2012

I wonder how many people these days remember that George Bush, during the 2000 Presidential campaign, promised a “humble” foreign policy.  He didn’t see the US’ role as telling others around the world what they should do, and he strongly opposed “nation-building” as a poor use of our military.

I mention this because of two things.  First, because it contradicts the beloved fantasy of the Left that Bush was a bloodthirsty warmonger just itching for the opportunity to blast away at the first enemy he could find.  And I am always interested in rehabilitating W.

But the second reason is the more topical.  This illustrates how events can overtake the strongest-held beliefs, and force a president onto a course he did not plan or expect.  Once 9-11 happened, all hopes for a humble foreign policy, with the US in the role of enabling the world’s peoples to realize their aspirations, took a back seat.  It became a decade of war.

That’s the risk in President Obama’s new defense budget.  To recap, he plans to cut $487 billion in defense spending over the next ten years, about an 8% reduction.  Most of that will come in personnel costs – the plan is for the Army to shrink from its current 570,000 to about 490,000, about 14%, and the Marine Corps by a similar proportion.  The strategy abandons a core tenet of our military posture for fifty years: the ability to fight two separate land wars at the same time.  Now, we will be able to fight one war, and be able to frustrate opponents’ plans in a different theater.

The 21st century military will focus on air and sea power, and geographically concentrate on the Pacific and Asia, which is increasingly vital as an economic area, and, with the rise of China, one of potentially evolving strategic balance.  But one wonders what will happen if the need for our military arises elsewhere.

It is in the nature of military planning that the threats we expect and prepare for are not the ones that ultimately appear.  That only makes sense – our adversaries can see what our capabilities are, and – particularly in this age of creative asymmetry in war – can find ways to attack us that we don’t anticipate.  George W. Bush didn’t expect to use ground troops to rebuild failed nations, but history had other plans.

The real problem here is that this strategy was designed backwards – rather than study the possible threats around the world and develop contingencies for meeting them at an acceptable cost, this strategy started with the budget and then reshaped the military to conform.   This approach will inevitably leave our military unprepared for the fight we get.

The money thing was one of President Obama’s principal reasons for wanting out of the two Mideast wars, so much so that his haste in pulling out troops has left the situation very unstable.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban knows we plan to leave, and so do the locals we have been trying to keep onside.  Who would risk their lives to help the Yankees when they know they will be left high and dry by August of 2012?  In Iraq, as I discussed last week, our feckless approach to negotiating a continuation agreement led to a precipitous withdrawal, and renewed sectarian conflict and the promise of civil war all over again.

So when Obama says, as he did in announcing his defense cuts, that “the tide of war is receding,” he’s not saying that peace has broken out.  What he means is, we’re bailing.

The Pentagon cutbacks are of a piece with so much else of this President’s foreign policy.  Abandonment of our hard-won gains in Iraq and Afghanistan; “leading from behind” in Libya; watching ineffectually as revolution in Egypt deposes one long-standing ally, and as Bashar al-Assad slaughters his people for attempting the same.

In Iran, his reticence has been most damaging.  Not only did he repeatedly extend “the hand of friendship” to the mullahs, with no response apart from contempt, he also neglected the protesters of the Green Revolution as they sought to reclaim their country. Meanwhile, Iran moves steadily toward the nuclear threshold.  The day is not far off when one of two things will happen.  Iran will go nuclear, in which case the region will ratchet up an order of magnitude in riskiness, or Israel will go to war to prevent it, in which case the administration will finally need to decide whether to take the side of our closest ally in the region.

Where Bush foresaw a humble foreign policy, Obama has given us one.  I don’t think it’s what the world wanted, nor what the situation demanded.  A more vigorous presence may not enable us to control events, but by being forthright and reliable with both our friends and adversaries, including a willingness to exert our power when it’s called for, we can influence things toward the direction we choose.  When we “lead from behind,” we are for the most part passively hoping that the outcome is to our liking.

The scary thing about all this is that Obama clearly has made a choice between defense and social programs, and his choice is the latter.  I haven’t seen a single item in domestic spending that faces anything close to an 8% reduction in funding.  And so far, there has been no credible proposal for containing spending on entitlements, which is where the real budget danger lies.  Instead, we have larded on another one in Obamacare.  But the military is ready to be plucked – just as it was when Bill Clinton balanced his budget by cutting back on security preparedness.

Europe has long since opted for butter over guns, but they had the US military to back them up if, say, a conflict like Bosnia raised the risk of genocide on their doorstep.  But even with defense spending at a fraction of the level maintained by the US, Europe didn’t have enough money to pay for the promises their politicians made to the electorates, so we end up with the euro crisis.

Obama is taking us down that road, and there is no one to pull our chestnuts out of the fire as we have done for Europe.

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