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The Disarming of America

The outlook for our armed forces under Obama: not good.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The Disarming of America

In the cover story in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, Walter Russell Mead argues that Barack Obama’s foreign policy should be understood as a channeling of Thomas Jefferson via Jimmy Carter. The cover picture makes the point more bluntly. It shows two men linked by a boldface equals sign: Barack Obama = Jimmy Carter.

The president’s supporters understand that this is not a compliment. But more important than any faculty-lounge fight over differing interpretations of Obama’s foreign policy is the actual course of Obama’s defense policy. The simultaneous release on February 1 of the president’s 2011 budget and the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review revealed the essentially Jeffersonian-cum-Carterite nature of this administration’s approach to the world; the only thing missing is a return to gunboats and coastal fortifications. The several narrower defense reviews to come—on missile defense, space, and nuclear weapons—will fill in the outlines drawn by the budget and the QDR.

Obama’s neo-Jeffersonian defense posture would reduce the profile of U.S. military power. To do this, the administration has only to let nature take its course: The U.S. armed forces have been shortchanged since the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush may have been a hawk, but he was a cheap hawk, and only in the wake of the decision to surge forces in Iraq in 2007 did he ask Congress to increase the size of the military, adding a mere 37,000 soldiers to the active rolls of the Army. Bill Clinton before him reaped a bounteous “peace dividend,” making the largest of the post-Cold War reductions.

But the defense review and budget proposal suggest that the Obama administration wants to limit future American military “adventurism” by limiting our capabilities. The president is looking to eliminate the last vestiges of the Reagan-era buildup. Once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “ended” (not “won”), the arms control treaties signed, and defense budgets held at historic lows while social entitlements and debt service rise to near-European levels, the era of American superpower will have passed. Mead summarized Obama’s Jeffersonian approach neatly:


Obama seeks a quiet world in order to focus his efforts on domestic reform—and to create conditions that would allow him to dismantle some of the national security state inherited from the Cold War and given new life and vigor after 9/11. Preferring disarmament agreements to military buildups and hoping to substitute regional balance-of-power arrangements for massive unilateral U.S. force commitments all over the globe, the president wishes ultimately for an orderly world in which burdens are shared and the military power of the United States is a less prominent feature on the international scene.


Because the president has yet to articulate a formal national security strategy, the defense review is the clearest statement we have of his inward-looking orientation. The QDR’s formulation of “America’s global role” is telling: “America’s interests are inextricably linked to the integrity and resilience of the international system.” This stands American strategic culture on its head; past presidents saw that the integrity of the international system depended upon the resilience of American power. But in the Obama view, international politics is not a competition for power, but an exercise in cooperation. As the review puts it, we “advance our interests by reinforcing the rights and responsibilities of all nations.”

This is an intellectual justification for allowing the U.S. military to continue to atrophy. America’s armed forces are significantly smaller than they need to be, and the major weapons systems they operate were fielded in the Reagan years. In 1990, the U.S. Army had 780,000 soldiers on active duty and operated the “Big Five” weapons systems: the M1 Abrams tank, the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, the UH-60 Black Hawk troop transport helicopter, and the Patriot air defense missile. Twenty years later the Army is only 70 percent as big; it can’t meet its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan without mobilizing about 100,000 National Guard and Army reservists. It operates the same Big Five, having failed five times to field a replacement ground combat vehicle, twice to field a new howitzer, and once to introduce a new armed scout chopper. Tens of billions invested in research have yielded very little procurement, except the Stryker wheeled vehicle and the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected “MRAP” monster trucks that may not be very useful after Iraq.

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