In dumping the Pentagon's two-war strategy, President Obama is reversing a doctrine adopted by Republican and Democratic presidents, including himself.
His 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated document that lists the armed forces' major missions and required forces, stated that the U.S. is "maintaining the ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors" in "overlapping time frames."
But Mr. Obama's revised strategy, on which he put his personal imprint by announcing it at the Pentagon on Thursday, discards talk of prevailing in two wars.
In fact, it says that upcoming cuts in Army and Marine Corps land forces will mean the standing army will be able to fight only one small war for a limited time. The Pentagon would have to mobilize reserves for a protracted conflict, such as the one in Afghanistan.
"Forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations," the blueprint says. If engaged in a long conflict, the military can deny or impose unacceptable costs on a second aggressor, but the new strategy does not use the words "defeat" or "prevail."
Mr. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said abandoning the 2010 quadrennial review is necessitated by the deficit crisis and is allowed by the fact that the Iraq War is over and the Afghanistan War is winding down.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California and other Republican hawks say predicting that land wars will not erupt is too risky.
"The last 10 years of war have taught us this lesson," said Mr. McKeon. "After every major conflict in the last century, the United States has cut its military, only to have to painstakingly rebuild it the next time our security is threatened. Sadly, this strategy repeats the mistakes of the past. ... History has taught us this is a perilous course, expensive in both lives and treasure."
Other budget priorities
Retired Marine Corps Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr. told The Washington Times that the Obama strategy is not driven by military necessity, but by the deficit.
"The new strategy is one derived not from risk analysis, but by fiscal constraints," said Gen. Mundy, who was Marine Corps commandant from 1991 to 1995. "One has only to ask, 'Would we have conceived this strategy had not we been driven financially to do so?' I doubt anyone in the business of defense would answer 'yes.'
"Our country is nearing financial desperation. Our elected leaders have been unable to deal with that threat. And the military establishment is being asked to pay a disproportionate portion of the bill to solve it."
He added: "This is not without precedent. It has occurred of necessity at other times in our history. However, while the military culture is such as to respond to difficult orders with a 'can do' attitude and to conceive positive plans to deal with them, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the new strategy is one of carefully assessed military choice rather than one driven by fiscal priorities elsewhere in our society."
Hawks' 'uphill fight'
Reversing the strategy and the impending cuts it justifies seems a long shot, given the fact that Republican leaders and Mr. Obama agreed last year to reductions that the Pentagon says will amount to $487 billion over 10 years. The only way to reach that goal, strategy advocates say, is to trim personnel and weapons, and then lower the mission requirements.
Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said defense hawks have introduced a bill to stop any cuts in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
"It's an uphill fight," Mr. Kasper said.
The 2013 defense budget to be released next month likely will take the Army from 569,000 soldiers to perhaps fewer than 500,000, and the Marine Corps from 203,000 to about 170,000.
The Obama's administration's 2012 five-year budget submission, which came before the budget act's required cuts, called for $571 billion in base spending, without direct war cost, in 2013. Now, the administration is likely to present a budget some $50 billion below that.
The strategy seems to be taking its cue from someone no longer at the Pentagon.
Robert M. Gates, Mr. Obama's first defense secretary, told an audience at West Point a year ago: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it."
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda led to two major land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it also thrust the Pentagon into a new era of war fighting.
The Pentagon greatly expanded special operations forces and invested heavily in intelligence gathering and pilotless aircraft. Together, these assets allow the destruction of a terrorist network with limited forces, as opposed to a full-fledged invasion.
The Obama strategy is banking that counterinsurgency and small conflicts, not long land wars, are in the future.
Retired Army Gen. George A. Joulwan, who was supreme allied commander in Europe from 1993 to 1997, told The Times that new military strategies have a poor record of predictions.
"We've been through all this before," he said. "This is about the fourth time that we have downsized and reorganized our military forces. Unfortunately, it never is predictive of what's going to happen."
For example, when Gen. Joulwan took NATO command in 1993, national security officials said the Clinton administration planned to focus forces on Asia. Ground forces were reduced significantly, and the emphasis was on massive air and naval power.
A short time later, Gen. Joulwan was sending 60,000 troops, 20,000 of them American, into the Balkans in Operation Joint Endeavor to stop Serbian atrocities in Bosnia.
Later, President Clinton authorized weeks of airstrikes on Serbia to stop its attacks inside neighboring Kosovo. Five years later, the U.S. was sending hundreds of thousands of troops into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Up to the task?
Gen. Joulwan said the real test will be when the Obama administration presents its 2013 budget and spells out the details of its strategy. "Does it match requirements with resources?" he said. "If not, our senior military leaders need to lay out the risks."
He added: "I think what we should be looking for is an agile, balanced force that can deter as well as fight and a forward presence that reassures our allies and partners who share our values and ideals. This is particularly important in Europe.
"What I argued for [while on active duty] is the capability to conduct five simultaneous, regional contingencies because I think that's the strategic environment we're in. And I do see an enlarged role for special forces and CIA-type operatives. But we do need to be able to deter conflict as well as to fight and win. And that's the challenge for the new national security strategy."
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