Now that the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling is fast approaching, debt reduction negotiations are getting serious. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission had recommended nearly $1 trillion in defense cuts across a decade. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his own plan that would entail similar cuts to defense in the context of an even larger $9 trillion debt reduction. President Obama, while saying that Bowles-Simpson went too far, committed himself to an arbitrary $400 billion cut to defense across 12 years, the only concrete cuts to spending that he identified in his April 13th speech. The deal taking shape among the Gang of Six of budget leaders in the Senate will result in an $800 billion cut to defense across a decade. The Project for Government Oversight, the Sustainable Defense Task Force, the Stimson Center, and Center for American Progress all also have offered plans for cuts.
Defense spending will be further cut; that seems inevitable in the current, beneficial, climate of reducing government spending. Moreover, to take our military leadership at their word, debt reduction is our country's gravest national security threat, a case Admiral Mullen has repeatedly made. The 2010 Joint Forces Command planning guidance, called the Joint Operations Environment, likewise warned that our debt is not only a strategic liability, but unless brought under control will crowd out all discretionary spending -- including defense -- as debt service payments dominate.
Given the magnitude of our defense spending and the relatively advantageous position we occupy compared to the magnitude of threats facing the United States, we can afford to accept near-term risk by cutting defense spending in order to solve the larger strategic problem of our national indebtedness.
The question is how much, and what, to cut. Here we ought to be intensely skeptical of debt hawks telling the Department of Defense what to cut. The Simpson Bowles Commission is not ideally suited to make the determination of whether manned aviation is a continuing requirement for warfighting. The major challenge facing the Pentagon is to design a robust defense program that can both win our current wars, prepare for future wars of different types than we are currently fighting, and engaging in activities that shape the nature of the security environment and affect the choices of potential enemies.
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President Obama was sharply critical of the Bush administration for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan; with his rapid drawdown of forces and funding announced last night, President Obama now deserves the same criticism.
President Obama has ordered a reduction of 10,000 troops by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end of 2012, and they will "continue coming home at a steady pace" through 2014, when "the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security." He argued success on the battlefields of Afghanistan and elsewhere allow us to fight in a new way -- a new way from 18 months ago, which was the last time he changed direction -- and to focus on nation building at home instead of abroad.
Make no mistake: the president's choices went against the advice of both the war's military leadership and Secretary Gates' recommendations. Understanding the deference the American public has for our military's judgment on the wars, the White House is aggressively trying to spin the president's policy as supporting our military commanders and as a gradual reduction in the force. Neither of those are true.
President Obama's drawdown announced tonight is more than six times the reduction recommended by our military leaders and endorsed by Secretary Gates. The military leadership advocated withdrawing only 3,000-5,000 staff and support troops before 2013, so that front line fighting forces would be able to consolidate gains in the south and take the fight to the last of the Taliban strongholds in the east.
Drawing down troop levels before the objectives are met will increase strain on the forces fighting in Afghanistan. It will increase the risk they run by stretching them thinner across the demands, and it will likely increase the time it takes them to achieve the objectives, putting the president's 2014 conclusion of the war in doubt. It will put diplomats and development experts operating in Afghanistan at greater risk, too. And it will reignite concern by governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that we are more concerned about the exit than the strategy.
It was the president's political advisors that advocated withdrawals of 15,000-30,000 troops -- and the president decided on the highest number of their high numbers. They see high levels of public dissatisfaction with the duration of the war and have suddenly realized the war is expensive (although the costs have not increased over projections from 18 months ago, when the president approved this policy). Given how little this president has invested in shaping public attitudes about the war, what is remarkable is that more Americans aren't opposed. He has been leading from behind again.
As Secretary Gates said last Sunday in rebuffing calls for a reduction larger than 5,000 troops, "we can do anything the president tells us to do, the question is whether it is wise." The president's decision to withdraw 30,000 troops from Afghanistan before 2013 is unwise; it increases the risk of achieving his objectives, the risk to our military forces and diplomats operating in Afghanistan, and the risk of ending this war in 2014.
The crucial question President Obama did not answer in his speech is why he is sending soldiers and Marines to fight in Afghanistan if he is unwilling to commit the resources to consolidate the gains they risked their lives to achieve. This is worse than strategic incoherence. It is morally wrong.
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It's easy -- and satisfying -- to mock the Obama Administration for their serial reviews of war strategy for Afghanistan, as their continuous review process suggests they still haven't figured out what they're doing in "the good war." But they're actually right to hold periodic reviews of whether the war is achieving its objectives. We owe no less to the men and women fighting this arduous campaign than to ensure the risks they are taking are essential to our national security.
Which is not to say the President was right to set an artificial deadline for drawing down the surge force. In announcing as part of the surge that its conclusion would begin in July 2011, the president badly compromised the effectiveness of both the military and political strands of his own strategy.
That strategy consists of taking the fight to the Taliban's strongholds, building Afghan security forces capable of taking over the fight, dramatically improving Afghanistan's capacity for governance, setting the domestic and regional relationships conducive to preventing Taliban and al Qaeda resurgence, and handing over provinces to Afghan control as the political and military conditions allow.
The current review is debating how many troops to withdraw to meet the president's promise of a significant drawdown. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes 15,000 should be the initial bid. Senior administration officials tell journalists killing Osama bin Laden creates an opening for a major change in the agreed approach. The president has stated that we have achieved most of our objectives, suggesting a major drawdown is possible.
The military leadership reportedly advocates the smallest drawdown politically acceptable to the White House so that they have the power to keep pressure on the enemy. They believe our forces are breaking the back of the resistance and can meet the 2014 withdrawal timeline provided the president doesn't tie their hands in the meantime.
Secretary Gates reprised his elegant orchestration from earlier reviews, taking a planeload of journalists to Afghanistan to foster stories in advance of the decision, making the case for the current strategy, and emphasizing in public that his counsel to the President will be a drawdown of only a few thousand support troops. By publicly endorsing the military's position, he makes more difficult any precipitous withdrawal and also shields the military from charges of "boxing the president in," something the White House bitterly accused them of in earlier reviews.
What the White House wanted was the military to give their advice solely in private, minimizing the cost to the president's for ignoring that advice. They wrongly equated a public debate in advance of the president setting policy as insubordination.
The U.S. military has wide latitude to influence national security policy in the making; only once the president and Congress establish policy and law must they salute or resign. Thirty five years into an all-volunteer force, when so few Americans have military experience, it is crucial not only to good policy but to public understanding that our military give their judgment to educate our judgment.
The president has the right to choose policies contrary to their advice; it's his job as Commander in Chief to weigh the broader costs and trade-offs associated with governing our country. And president's often fail to provide the resources -- soldiers, money, and time -- that military leaders recommend. President Lincoln needed a faster timeline than General McClellan believed possible, President Roosevelt chose to prioritize the European theater before the Pacific, President Clinton went to war over Kosovo without a ground campaign, President Bush approved a war plan for the 2003 invasion of Iraq that most of the military leadership considered unduly risky, President Obama went to war in Libya despite military (and civilian) concerns about the limits of our interest and of the means he would commit to the fight.
But it's the president's choice. That's what he gets elected for. He does not, however, get to make his choices without having to explain why he disregarded military advice. There may be compelling reasons; in the case of Afghanistan that would be difficult to square with the president's own earlier statements about the importance of the war. If President Obama chooses to disregard our military and civilian defense leadership's counsel on Afghanistan, he will owe them -- and us -- an explanation.
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The White House has opened a new front in the Afghan war - or, rather, in their effort to shed the burden of the Afghan war. The Washington Post reports that cost will be a new and major element for consideration. The $113 billion spent this year for Afghanistan is described as unsustainable; the article concludes, "To many of the president's civilian advisers, that price is too high."
This is preposterous from an administration that budgets a tripling of our national debt by 2018. President Obama has twice submitted budgets that never eliminate deficit spending, yet now claims it cannot sustain the $107 billion to fight a war the president described as "no idle danger; no hypothetical threat," but a vital national security interest to our country. The Obama White House is trying to seize on conservative momentum to reduce federal spending by cutting the only government program they don't support: winning the war.
The civilian advisers quoted in the article cite the success of counter-terror raids like that which killed Osama bin Laden as the more cost-effective strategy. This approach ignores the negative consequences of operating punitively. Pakistan's outrage at the raid is justifiable, as is President Karzai's concern about raids on Afghan homes -- these are leaders accountable to their publics and they're barely able to justify their current cooperation with us. How would the administration retain those governments as partners if we do not invest in positive operations like strengthening their security forces? How would our counter-terrorism teams get the information necessary to those raids without the help of local security forces and people? Are we willing to tolerate the higher risk of failure associated with the counter-terror approach? Does it not drive up the cost of U.S. operations everywhere if all fragile countries see of us is our military strikes? How will that affect the United States' image in the world?
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President Obama had three significant challenges for his "major address" on the Middle East:
His speech today achieved none of those.
The president laid claim to "a new chapter in American diplomacy," which he described as "shifting our foreign policy after a decade of war." But the vision he now endorses for the universality of American values has actually been the basis for our foreign policy in the Middle East for several administrations, most stridently that of his immediate predecessor -- it was President Obama's policies that had sought to tone down the emphasis our values in order to work more constructively with the repressive governments of Iran and Syria, as well as the repressive governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
He said of democracy's advance that "change will not be denied." But isn't it being denied in Bahrain, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iran? The president said yes, but didn't explain why our policies are different toward those governments. Instead, he continued to promote the sophistry that there is no conflict between our values and our interests. Can anyone tell what our policy toward Saudi Arabia will be as the result of the president's speech? I doubt it.
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Osama bin Laden's death is welcome news. He symbolized the virulence of al Qaeda animosity to America and also symbolized the limits of American power in fighting this kind of war.
President Obama served our country well, both in his actions approving the operation and in his statement after its success. He commended the intelligence operatives and analysts who collected the clues and connected them, and the military folks who fought their way into the compound and killed bin Laden. He gracefully had been in touch with his predecessor and with Pakistani President Zardari. He praised cooperation with Pakistan that made the operation possible, which, even if untrue, it will assist future efforts.
The President put the achievement in context of the broader war we are fighting, allaying concerns the Administration might see this as justification for "ending" the war on terror (or whatever the polite term is for it now); because the grim truth is that this war will continue until the al Qaeda terrorists who threaten us finally conclude it isn't worth continuing.
The operation itself was shrewdly planned, even to the detail of having a body to demonstrate we'd killed bin Laden -- because of course al Qaeda has every reason to deny it -- and disposing of the body at sea to prevent any burial place becoming a shrine for al Qaeda.
Perhaps the most gratifying part of bin Laden's death is the demise of al Qaeda that preceded it. They are still virulently dangerous, but they no longer represent a major political force in the so-called Arab world. The really good news that bin Laden's death is that al Qaeda's violent ideology has been on the wane for years now.
Muslims have not embraced a variant of their faith that legitimizes killing innocent people; the debate among the faithful has moved decidedly in the direction of opposing such butchery. And the wave of political change sweeping across the Middle East refutes al Qaeda's claim that only violence and intolerance can produce the change that the people of the Middle East are craving.
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Ryan Lizza has a lengthy and hilarious exposé in The New Yorker about foreign policy in the Obama administration. It sets out to be a portrait of nobly serious people bringing American national security into line with our diminished influence, "remaking" American foreign policy. The administration clearly thought it was a good-news story, since Secretary Clinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon went on the record.
What makes the article so funny is the pompous self-regard of the administration officials and the complete lack of appreciation for how woefully inadequate their performance has been in meeting these challenges. They are "not cursed with self-awareness," to quote Annie Savoy from the movie Bull Durham. Secretary of State Clinton compares herself as a collegiate Vietnam war protester to the young Egyptians who brought down the Mubarak government. Both Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes explain the importance of reducing involvement in the middle east because our strategic interests lie in Asia ... as the administration engaged in combat operations in Libya. A presidential memo is cited as wisely anticipating the middle eastern revolutions, except that the memo calls for tailored country by country programs that the administration's policies clearly did not have. The author even unwittingly adds to the humor, saying "Obama's instinct was to try to have it both ways."
The richest portrait in this regard is unsigned: a senior official describes the president's doctrine as "leading from behind." I am not making this up.
Ask any young Marine what "leading from behind" means. They probably won't know; they've only ever seen leaders out front, sharing in the greatest risks because that is the responsibility of command. To the extent they will even understand what you're asking, those Marines will probably say that a leader in the back of the formation is a coward, because they are making their Marines take risks the commander will not expose himself to.
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Cuts of an additional $34 billion a year in a baseline budget of $533 billion will not destroy America's defenses. If enacted by the Congress, such cuts would amount to about a 3 percent real decline in defense spending. But that's not why the president's budget proposals are so problematic.
The president claims his budget "puts every kind of spending on the table." But, in fact, it only puts one kind of spending on the table: defense. The FY 2012 budget produced by the administration (the one disavowed by the president's new, new approach) contained cuts in only one federal department: defense. The budget outline presented by President Obama on Thursday contained gauzy figures for cuts in health care; among agencies, only defense was targeted for reductions.
By singling out defense as the sole bill payer for debt reduction, President Obama has reinforced the impression that he views defense as a bank account to pay for other, preferred, programs: government-sponsored medical research and clean energy, expanded broadband, etc.
Gates said when he produced the last round of defense cuts for the Obama administration that any further reductions would severely impair our military's ability to protect and defend our interests, so he clearly does not share the president's confidence that "we can do that again."
And recall that neither Secretary Gates nor Admiral Mullen will be at the helm of the Defense Department when this review is conducted. The administration will surely means test the candidates for both jobs: agreeing to wring an arbitrary $400 billion from Defense will be a precondition for either position.
President Obama's program for producing these cuts is to "conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world. I intend to work with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs on this review, and I will make specific decisions about spending after it's complete."
It's as though the Obama administration had never conducted a year-long evaluation of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world. And yet, the White House released its National Security Strategy less than a year ago, and the Department of Defense conducted just such a Quadrennial Defense Review in 2009-2010.
This is Mao's permanent revolution: DOD is to be involved in a constant strategic review to justify ever-shrinking resources. The White House seems not to realize the Department of Defense does not exist to produce budget reports. It exists to protect and advance our national interests, to fight and win the nation's wars, to deter threats from potential adversaries, to train the military forces of friendly countries so they are better able to control the territory of their countries, to kill terrorists that pose a danger to America and its allies around the world. That the president doesn't seem to realize what DOD actually does really is bad for the country.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.