President Barack Obama's new American defense strategy doesn't look so new. His election-slanted Defense Strategic Guidance manifesto sounds more than a bit like Donald Rumsfeld-era chatter circa summer 2001. Aircraft, ships, smart weapons and intelligence systems? Yea, verily. Ground troops? Not so much, because we're done with Clinton-era peacekeeping, we'll save money (soldiers are expensive!) -- and hear this, Luddites, it's the 21st century.
Like Rumsfeld, Obama intends to cut ground forces. Admittedly, we don't know how severe his cuts will be, and one thing observant Americans have learned is that the White House can quickly recast numbers (e.g., unemployment figures).
1990s post-Cold War cuts pruned ground troops. I thought Rumsfeld's deeper cuts were strategically unsound. On Aug. 26, 2001, the San Antonio Express News published an essay of mine titled "Grunt Work." It argued that the U.S. needed lots of infantrymen. Given Obama's neo-Rumsfeldian strategy, several lines from that article remain germane.
"The presence of soldiers, of flesh and blood committed to combat, remains the ultimate statement of political will to persevere and win. ... Technology is fundamental to success in battle. War, however, is still won in hearts and minds, particularly wars waged by liberal democracies. ... The U.S. will inevitably confront situations where technologically superior weapons aren't strategically decisive. ... Pentagon 'reform' will fail unless we field a force competent across 'the spectrum of conflict.' That means fielding both competent Private E2s and B-2 bombers, a force trained to use the bayonet as well as the brightest smart bomb."
For these observations I was dubbed a Luddite by a Beltway defense genius in a letter that ran in the Pentagon's "Early Bird" news, short days before 9-11 plunged us into a war with an enemy who believed America lacked the will to persevere. The last decade has demonstrated otherwise. The persistent on-the-ground presence of combat soldiers supporting a policy of political modernization and liberalization in Afghanistan and then Iraq was something al-Qaida ideologues did not imagine. As we hunted down its leaders, we ground down al-Qaida's claim to divine sanction and superior moral stamina. That took trained soldiers.
It's a paradox only old soldiers and a handful of strategists fully appreciate. On the media-shaped strategic battlefield, trained soldiers are often the most strategically decisive military force. This runs completely counter to the Obama 2008 campaign narrative regarding Afghanistan and Iraq.
In many respects, this 2012 manifesto is really Candidate Obama 2008's retreat from the Global War on Terror camouflaged in Pentagonese. The president's introduction claims "we have responsibly ended the war in Iraq, put al-Qaida on the path to defeat ... and made significant progress in Afghanistan, allowing us to begin the transition to Afghan responsibility."
Agree on al-Qaida's path, but Iraq ended responsibly? That's arguable from many angles, to include the assertion that it's ended and we left responsibly. Obama's failure to commit a residual force to Iraq may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; we don't know yet. But the tout is campaign sloganeering. Progress in Afghanistan is, like the country, fragmentary. "Transition" (it's Pentagon jargon) can mean anything, but signaling retreat isn't smart diplomacy.
Obama 2008, however, ran on ending Iraq, ending the GWOT (remember, he called it an overseas contingency operation) and closing Guantanamo Bay. The manifesto doesn't mention Gitmo. It does mention denying Iran nukes, which may take waging war and require ground forces. Wait, Obama derided George Bush for preparing to attack Iran's hideous regime ...
The administration may not have thought this phrase through, either; it asserts the strategy "supports the national security imperative of deficit reduction through a lower level of defense spending."
Reducing the deficit, which makes profound strategic sense, requires reductions in all federal spending, particularly entitlements. Obama, however, is loathe to make such cuts; he might look like a tea partier. Instead, he panders to left-wing ideologues and just spends less on defense.
The manifesto ends with truly vague, and insidious, Pentagonese. See, the document "is designed to ensure our Armed Forces can meet the demands of the U.S. National Security Strategy at acceptable risk." Before the president starts cutting, let's ask him, or his teleprompter, to define "acceptable risk."
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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