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The Obama Way of War

To the rear, march!

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The Obama administration came to office convinced that a failure to pay sufficient attention to the Asia-Pacific region was the other giant strategic blunder of its Bush predecessors. Harvard’s Joseph Nye recently captured the fundamentals of administration thinking: “Asia’s return to the center of world affairs is the great power shift of the twenty-first century,” he wrote. “But, rather than keeping an eye on that ball, the United States wasted the first decade of this century mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Nye also agreed with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s fawning praise of the president: “[B]y elevating this dynamic region to one of our top strategic priorities, Obama is showing his determination not to let our ship of state be pushed off course by prevailing crises.”

Never mind that the Democratic critique of the Bush administration after 9/11 was that it had been too concerned about great-power balances and had not paid enough attention to warnings about al Qaeda. Never mind, either, that until this year the White House had placed its hopes on a renewed effort to “engage” China, emphasizing issues such as trade and climate change that were supposed to be sources of cooperation rather than conflict. Never mind that it is in the nature of “prevailing crises” to, well, prevail—particularly those that involve a horrendous attack on American soil like 9/11. And, most of all, never mind that the Asia-Pacific region didn’t have to be “elevated” to “one of our top strategic priorities” for any previous president, at least from William McKinley onward; America’s actions through the 20th century transformed Asia as surely and as profoundly as Europe.

To the degree that the Obama pivot represents a new seriousness in responding to the security challenges of China’s rise as a global great power and its provocative military modernization, it’s a long overdue development. From the Clinton years onward, the United States has been hamstrung between the Scylla of “engagement” and the Charybdis of “containment,” at one point leading Zalmay Khalilzad, whose long career as a diplomat and strategist was capped by a tour as ambassador to Afghanistan, to coin the term “congagement.” In its defense guidance pledge to “rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” the Obama administration deserves credit for taking a more muscular rhetorical line than either Clinton or Bush. But its promise to “continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely” in places like the South China Sea where Beijing has become more bossy and intimidating is not borne out in the resources it would provide.

The peak of the pivot campaign came with Obama’s trip to Australia, where he announced that about 2,500 Marines would be based at Darwin, in northern Australia. “The United States is a Pacific power,” he told the Australian parliament, “and we are here to stay.” Indeed, for the 21st century, “the United States of America is ‘all in.’ ”

But Peter Beinart, contributor to the Daily Beast and often a channel for administration thinking, sees the Obama Asia pivot as more in line with the offshore balancing approach to the Middle East. “A token deployment of Marines in northern Australia notwithstanding,” he wrote, “the Obama administration’s strategy will be to buttress America’s naval presence in the Pacific and aid those nations on China’s periphery that fear its hegemonic ambitions.” Likewise, Kenneth Lieberthal, a former National Security Council official and longstanding China adviser to Democratic politicians, warns that an all-in approach runs “the longer-term risk that Asia will increasingly become a cost center for the United States (providing security is expensive), while the region will continue to serve as a growing profit center for China (due to its vast economic engagement).”

Cheap-suit superpower

The belief in American decline has become so deeply entrenched among the strategic smart set—which would probably construe the history of the 20th century as one giant “cost center”—that it has become a driving force. It represents much more than an analysis of events: It’s an opportunity to force the United States to shake off the sorrows of empire and snap back from imperial overstretch. The Obama administration doesn’t just seek a “rebalancing” of U.S. strategy, it intends to make a permanent retreat, by removing the military means of mischief. With a smaller force, we’ll resist the temptation to fight wars just because we can.

Tellingly, the commander in chief frames his new guidance to his troops as the strategy we can afford rather than as a strategy for peace (or, God forbid, victory). “We must put our fiscal house in order here at home,” says the third sentence of the president’s cover letter introducing his “Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” and “renew our long-term economic strength.” The touchstone is “the Budget Control Act of 2011, [which] mandates reductions in federal spending, including defense spending.” It is hardly surprising that Obama has promised to veto any legislation that would exempt the military from the draconian further cuts that sequestration would bring to future Pentagon budgets. Not going to let this crisis go to waste.

The administration certainly has profited from the Groundhog Day qualities of the debate about getting the government’s fiscal house in order: Washington wakes up to the horrors of the deficit and the debt and decides it’s time to make sure that “defense is on the table” along with domestic discretionary programs and that taxes shall not be raised nor entitlements restrained. If sequestration occurs this year, something like $1.3 trillion will have been chopped out of planned military spending during the Obama years—about $330 billion through 2010, $489 billion under the 2011 Budget Control Act, and at least another $500 billion under full sequestration. The landscape is littered with the corpses of procurement programs terminated early, like the F-22 Raptor, or killed in the womb, like the Army’s Future Combat Systems family of vehicles. The Obama administration has fulfilled Donald Rumsfeld’s dream of “skipping a generation” of modernization, but this is a second generation almost skipped.

While these are big numbers in the context of defense spending, they’re chicken feed when measured against the debt, the deficit, and the costs of baby boomer entitlements, which are only going to mount from here. The 2011 annual federal deficit was about $1.3 trillion, with total federal spending about $3.5 trillion. The 2011 defense budget, including the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a little over $700 billion. The total federal debt has risen to $15 trillion, roughly the same as U.S. gross domestic product. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s June 2011 long-range budget forecast, a failure to tame -entitlement spending could double the debt again as the boomers retire en masse. Even eliminating the U.S. military entirely would have no serious effect on the government’s balance sheets.

To fully limn the extent of America’s defense decline would be a long and lugubrious task, so consider the strategic bottom line: The Obama administration has admitted that the U.S. military will no longer be large enough to fight two wars at once. This has been the standard of American global power since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, one observed and saluted by every president since. As Colin Powell put it in 1989, we had put a “shingle outside our door saying ‘Superpower Lives Here.’ ” And while it’s true that the active duty forces of the United States have often fallen short of this standard, “two” was the eternal answer to the classic question of defense planning: “How much is enough?”

In leaking this change to the press, an anonymous administration official described Obama’s strategy as “spoiling” any second-war act of aggression while fighting the first. And the defense guidance goes on at length about “reversibility” as a “key part of our decision calculus” when defense cuts have to be made. In other words, the Obama Pentagon knows this is a very bad idea to begin with.


Unfortunately, reversing the effects of the Obama way of war will be extremely difficult. Suppose a new Republican commander in chief were determined to lead a resurgence of American power. Could he easily renegotiate a status-of-forces agreement in Iraq that would allow for the redeployment of U.S. troops to a level that would jump-start domestic reconciliation and diminish Iranian influence? Could he convince Hamid Karzai or his successor that this time we mean business? What would it take to genuinely change the calculus of the Pakistani army? Would the president have the military means to do more than delay or disrupt Iran’s drive to become a nuclear power? To really establish a military posture in the Asia-Pacific that would reassure the Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Australians, and Indians while deterring China? What defense investments could he make while expecting to see a tangible return in the course of a four-year term?

The Obama administration has been at pains to practice what it calls “smart power,” and there is undeniably a consistent and logically coherent narrative to the Obama way of war. On the other hand, history favors the constant more often than the clever. This is particularly the case for Americans; our most successful commanders have not been the most brilliant ones.

Obama’s way of war, his “rebalancing” of U.S. strategic priorities, and the damage done to American military power are already being felt in the world. The greater Middle East, never “stable” to begin with, is undergoing an epoch-defining political change—who knows where the Arab revolts will end, or what a nuclear Iran would mean?—while having its American security blanket ripped away. Our Asian allies, who have been begging for attention as China increasingly muscles its way around the region, may be cheered when the 2,500 Marines arrive in Australia, and be even happier if they pop up around the South China Sea on a regular basis, but they won’t see it as an “all in” commitment. And when the up-to-now sole superpower confesses it lacks the means to deter or fight simultaneous crises or conflicts, its assertions of leadership will ring hollow. The president vowed in his defense guidance that the American military will be the “best in the world.” That much is true. But the problem, since 9/11, has not been the quality of the force but its quantity.

Nations, like markets, look at both fundamentals and trends. The world’s developed and developing democracies, (also known as America’s allies) have been and remain eager to invest in the security that the United States provides. It’s not a cost center but a profit center for them. It’s a profit center for us, too—part of the reason the world invests in America, even with our Greek-like debt-to-GDP ratios and unfunded government liabilities. Barack Obama is seeking to reverse a century-long trend in international affairs—the energetic exercise of American power. And he’s well on his way to solidifying this dubious achievement.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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