international analysis and commentary

Broken Promise of Change: The Obama Administration’s Defense Strategy and Budget


Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008 with the slogan of “hope and change.”  In the area of defense policy, though, little substantive change has taken place during his three years in office.  That point was confirmed again in early January when the administration released its latest defense guidance document “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.”  What is so striking about that document and the proposed military budget for the new fiscal year is how little the Obama administration’s approach differs from that of its predecessors.  The dominant theme is one of continuity, both in terms of strategy and spending levels. 

That fact has generated growing uneasiness among some members of the president’s liberal political base as well as among foreign policy realists in the Republican camp, including some members of the so-called Tea Party.  Those critics continue to press the White House for significant cuts in the military budget and for meaningful changes in the nation’s security strategy. 

An especially caustic critic is former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who ridiculed pervasive media reports that President Obama was cutting almost half a trillion dollars from the defense budget.  Obama “is not cutting a single dime out of the military budget,” Armey charged.  “He is actually substantially increasing military spending over the next several years.  Washington has once again cleverly disguised a spending increase as a ‘cut.’”

Armey is correct.  President Obama’s so-called cuts are only modest reductions from the baseline budget set by the Congressional Budget Office that projected large increases in military spending over the next decade.  As Armey notes, such spending “will continue to rise under President Obama’s plan, just at a slightly slower rate.”  Liberal advocates of lower military spending, such as Representatives Barney Frank and Dennis Kucinich, have voiced similar objections.

Administration officials have reacted testily to such criticism.  Indeed, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sometimes sounds like a neoconservative hawk when he denounces proposals for slowing the growth of military spending.  Arguing that the administrations proposed $487 billion in reductions from the CBO baseline budget was as far as the country could go in a prudent fashion, Panetta warned that an additional half-trillion dollars in reductions that will take place automatically if Congress cannot agree on a new budget, “would lead to a hollow force incapable of sustaining the missions it is assigned.”  On other occasions, Panetta has used such apocalyptic terms as “doomsday” and “catastrophic” to describe the probable impact on the U.S. military.  In a letter to Senator John McCain, he warned that the automatic “cuts” would leave the United States at the end of the decade with “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

For zealous hawks, though, even the administration’s modest budget proposals threaten to undermine America’s security and global role.  William Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, typified the response of that faction when he warned that the suggested spending levels “would decimate our military.”  Administration officials note that their budget is taking fire from both sides.  “There will be people who think it goes too far,” stated Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  “Others will say it didn’t go nearly far enough.  That probably makes it about right for today.”

Despite the furor from those who want even more robust military outlays, the spending levels in the Obama budget are actually higher in inflation-adjusted terms than the average budgets throughout the Cold War.  Critics understandably ask why that should be so when the United States no longer faces a powerful military adversary like the Soviet Union.  Secretary Panetta implicitly cited the reason why spending remains at such lofty heights, when he noted that a smaller force could not sustain the missions it is assigned.  He added that “if we had to do over a trillion dollars in cuts in this department,” we’d probably “have to start over” regarding defense strategy.

The defense guidance document released in January makes it clear that the administration has no intention of rethinking the nation’s security strategy or overall global role—despite a yawning $1.5 trillion deficit in the federal budget for the current fiscal year.  Secretary Panetta’s transmission letter accompanying the document underscores the lack of substantive change in the administration’s national security strategy.  The U.S. military, Panetta’s letter affirmed, “will have a global presence emphasizing the East Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, while still ensuring our ability to maintain our defense commitments to Europe, and strengthening alliances and partnerships across all regions.” (Emphasis added.)  That force “will be prepared to confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.”

What is so striking about those passages is that there is little indication of setting priorities and pruning less essential commitments—an acknowledgement that there are limits to America’s ability to shape developments in the world.  It was notable that the passage about being prepared to confront and defeat aggression did not confine that obligation to thwarting aggression against the United States—or even the United States and its treaty allies.  The extent of the commitment is seemingly open-ended.

About the only feature that is new about the 2012 defense guidance document is the statement that the U.S. military presence would emphasize the East Asia-Pacific region.  That does represent a shift from the Euro-centric U.S. security strategy that has been in place since the end of World War II.  But most other portions of the document could have been produced by the administration of George W. Bush, or for that matter, almost any of President Obama’s predecessors during the past six decades.  The principal thrust was a commitment to maintain every aspect of Washington’s “global leadership,” as though the United States was not under acute fiscal pressures or enduring an increasingly obvious case of strategic overextension.

The military budget and underlying security strategy that the Obama administration has put forth is the latest evidence that the promise of meaningful change that candidate Obama made in the 2008 presidential campaign was an illusion—at least with respect to defense policy.  The United States continues its worrisome trajectory toward strategic insolvency.