Last Thursday, President Obama traveled to the Pentagon to announce a new defense strategy that meets the challenges and realities of the 21st century. The purpose of the strategy is twofold: To adapt the U.S. military to the changing geopolitical climate and to address current fiscal concerns. From a domestic political perspective, the strategy matches the realities of a burdened national budget by acknowledging places to cut expenditures. But the strategy is also good foreign policy that will keep the U.S. military strong while adjusting to new threats. The strategy is long overdue.
For decades, the Defense Department has functioned with a seemingly blank check from Congress, maintaining force levels and investing in technology that may or may not be necessary. Much of the post-World War II spending developed defenses against the Soviet Union, but the military has struggled in the last two decades to adjust to new realities in which the former Soviet bloc represents a diminished military threat to the Western powers. The events of September 11th and their aftermath, the continued war on terrorist networks, and the rise of new powers in Asia are creating a new reality. This is what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls a “strategic turning point after a decade of war.”
The Obama administration is right to issue a new and radical strategy at this time. The budgetary pressures at home have created a rare moment in which calling for cuts in defense spending is actually acceptable and even encouraged. It is also a chance to realign Defense Department priorities to match new realities.
The report’s major thesis is a shift toward the Asia-Pacific region, namely the threat posed by China’s rise as an economic and military power. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are other issues that are specifically mentioned in an otherwise high-level strategy report. The fact that China, Iran, and North Korea receive such direct attention confirms the importance of these issues to American defense.
The Middle East also drew attention, but this of course is not a new issue. American declarations in support of Israel are routine and un-alarming. What is new, however, is an acknowledgement of the Arab Awakening and its effect on geopolitics in the region.
The Obama administration realizes that the U.S. can continue to be a global leader while also working cooperatively with its allies. The report emphasizes the need to share “the costs and responsibilities of global leadership.” For example, in the Middle East, “the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in support of partner nations in and around this region.”
These statements and others are significant. For one, they are bold and direct. There are no diplomatic equivocations or vague references to adversaries. The report is also historical in its unprecedented acknowledgements of new threats and its ignoring of old ones, mainly Russia. The report breaks away from policy inertia hanging over from the Cold War such as the large troop levels in places like Germany.
Overall, the report is a breath of fresh air from a stuffy, bureaucratic capital. The report does not call for a drastic reduction of troops that will leave America ill-prepared for war, as some critics suggest. Rather, the strategies outlined in the report will make American stronger and safer by adjusting to 21st century challenges while remaining the best-trained, best-equipped, most advanced military in the world. The Obama administration has put another stamp on an impressive foreign policy agenda.
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