Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s address to the National Defense University today, hyped by the administration as a “strong message that the time has come for [the Department of Defense] to consider fundamental change in how it is organized and how it operates to better reflect 21st century strategic and fiscal realities” turned out to be a bit of a wet noodle. Any time a “reform” agenda begins with Eisenhower references – the “Solarium” review or the “New Look” program – it’s an indicator to the pabulum to follow. (No one ever seems to mention Ike’s strategy of “Massive Response” – that is, to nuke anyone who looked at us cross-eyed – which was the product of the review and the strategy that led to the New Look.)
But just beneath the ritual do-more-with-less incantation was the confession that, in fact, the Obama Doctrine is really to do less with less. The “fundamental change” in store is the retreat of the American military from its forward stations, particularly in the Middle East. This is what Hagel was chosen to do, and he again reiterated his “keen appreciation” of the limits of military power and the need to use it “judiciously,” which is to say use it less. And he contrasted his planned approach to the Pentagon with that of the Reagan administration. For Ronald Reagan, he lamented, “cost and efficiency were not major considerations.” True. Reagan was more concerned to win the Cold War. He valued effectiveness over efficiency.
But the Hagel speech also heralds the start of process that will quantify and codify the extent of the Obama retreat. As the secretary noted, he’s already initiated the “Strategic Choices and Management Review,” under which the Pentagon’s accountants will determine what strategy and force structures the plummeting levels of defense spending will allow. A second indicator will be the release of the president’s budget 2014 budget, which in the case of the Pentagon will pretend that the problem of sequestration has disappeared – at least Hagel admits that the current sequester “is already having a disruptive and potentially damaging impact on the readiness of the force.” Soon after will come the fifth Quadrennial Defense Review, if you count the 1993 Bottom-Up Review the sixth post-Cold War attempt to define America’s long-term defense requirements. Deriving from Obama’s January 2012 “defense guidance,” Hagel’s QDR will chart the course for American military “retrenchment.” Forces that are advancing do not want to “retrench,” they want to exploit; forces that are retreating are those that seek to retrench.
Actually, this will be the seventh attempt to retrench. The process began with the first Bush administration’s 1992 “Base Force,” the purpose of which, as then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell framed it, to “put a shingle outside our door saying, ‘Superpower Lives Here.’” Obama and Hagel are taking that one down.