New Defense Strategy Will Get Political

National military strategy is something the Pentagon takes very seriously and takes many months to finalize. Military officers and civilians alike spend endless hours in meetings, consulting with each other on various threats in the world and how the U.S. should  respond. Terrorism, cyber-warfare, long range missiles, nuclear weapons, Iran, North Korea, Taiwan, Kashmir, Pakistan, the South China Sea, piracy, and the list goes on.

When the President took center stage yesterday at the Pentagon, with all those high ranking, uniformed military officials behind him, to declare the new "Obama Doctrine," hundreds of other people had put in thousands of hours to craft it. Whether you like the strategy or not, Obama had very little to do with the crafting of it. He was briefed, asked a few questions and signed off on the work of his military brass. He did not come up with this doctrine sitting in the Oval Office by himself.

His message yesterday at the Pentagon was a political one. First, he wants to remind us all that he is still the President and Commander-in-Chief. He wants to draw that sharp contrast with a Republican field struggling to gain or hold credibility.

Second, he wants to appease his liberal base. The manpower reductions are significant, but for a nation unlikely to engage a land war in Asia, they are appropriate. However, President Obama wants to make sure his liberal base knows that he cut the defense budget and is shrinking the overall size of the military. The peace activists and anti-war wing of his party will be pleased.

Third, he wants to project an image of leadership, a quality most agree he has lacked to this point. One press conference is not going to change that perception to many Americans, but to Democratic Party loyalists, it is encouraging to see a President in a position of strength while giving clear orders.

Finally, the President wants to pick a fight with Republicans in Congress. He touched their sacred cow. The President is counting on Congressional Republicans to scream bloody murder regarding these cuts. His plan is to portray Republicans as hypocrites for saying they want to cut federal spending yet crying fowl about cutting billions from a massive expense item. He will then portray them as war mongers who would rather spend trillions on propping up private defense companies and starting unnecessary wars than spend millions on welfare for the nation's poor and elderly. Finally, he will point out that he is listening to his generals and that any Republican who disagrees with his cuts are anti-military and should listen to the senior officers.

Republicans need to fight their natural urge to fall into President Obama's trap. They will certainly, and fairly, hit him for cutting defense spending while he has had no qualms about spending bailout money on banks, car makers and a poorly operated set of stimulus projects. Those critiques are fine, but don't make the argument about money. Make the argument about why the President is backing off Iran, abandoning Afghanistan and getting soft on Pakistan's militants. Make it about investment in missile defense systems, naval asset replacement, veterans treatment plans and troop pay/benefits. Those are better arguments to stand on.

Republican candidates for President and those in Congress should use this defense spending program as a catalyst for a broader spending reduction package. They should be flexible on cutting defense spending, but offer the President an exchange: Republicans will go along with your defense cuts if you agree to a major reform of Social Security. Both sides have to touch their third rails at the same time.

I am not suggesting that this will result in the kind of reductions that we need to adjust our long term national budget; however, it offers real cuts while giving both sides some meaningful political cover.

The President has laid a political trap. Republicans need to be smarter than the average bear to avoid it.



Filed under: National Goverment


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  • What you implied near the end, but did not really cover, is whether the automatic sequester because the Super Committee didn't do anything resulted in these cuts.

    The other question is how much of the budget is needed for actual defense priorities (especially since while we have a reason to be in Afghanistan, we don't have a reason to intervene elsewhere, such as to bring democracy to Syria) as opposed to a stimulus plan for defense contractors, of which home state senators are always in favor. We may now have something like the end of Vietnam, but defense contractors (especially Boeing and Grumman) proved that they were not too good when converted to transit vehicle assemblers.

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