President Obama speaks about the revamped U.S. military strategy as Defense… (Rich Clement/Bloomberg )
As he unveiled his administration's new blueprint for U.S. defense strategy last week, President Obama sought to vaccinate himself against charges that he was gutting the nation's military.
Even after the strategy is fully implemented, he said, "the defense budget will still be larger than it was at the end of the Bush administration."
So it seemed a little odd when, an hour later, the second-ranking official in Obama's Pentagon presented what sounded like a rebuttal.
"You have, over the next four years, a reduction in total defense spending as rapid as any we experienced after Vietnam or after the Cold War," Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
The two statements weren't as contradictory as they sound. When Obama said the defense budget would continue to grow, he was talking about the Pentagon's core budget, not the extra costs of waging wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. When Carter said spending was about to plummet, he was talking mostly about war spending, plus the modest trims the administration proposes on future growth in the non-war budget.
But the contrast between the two statements — are we cutting, or are we growing? — reflected the underlying dilemma of Obama's desires on defense: He wants to have it both ways.
The president has been blunt in arguing that the nation's fiscal problems can't be solved unless military spending is reduced. To that end, he has imposed a cut of $487 billion in the core defense budget over the next 10 years, and threatened to cut more if needed.
But will the budget cuts leave enough, as Obama has promised, to enable the military not only to continue the fight against terrorism but also to increase the U.S. military presence in Asia and to defeat any conceivable adversary that arises?
The president has sought to lay out a global strategy on a shoestring, but it's a very large shoestring; that core budget will still amount to an average of about $560 billion a year for the next 10 years. And while his critics will charge that Obama is imposing radical cuts, most of what is proposed in the Defense Strategy Review, as it's officially named, sounds more like carefully calibrated moderation.
The report says U.S. defense planning should now focus on Asia, especially the growing military power of China. But contrary to some early reports, it doesn't propose diminishing the U.S. commitment to policing the Middle East.
The report says the United States hopes never to fight another long and costly counterinsurgency war like the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — but it adds that the military should be prepared to fight that way again if it needs to.
And, in a section that provoked some controversy, the report says the U.S. military should no longer be structured so it can fight two ground wars at the same time, something that has been a cornerstone of American defense rhetoric for decades. But it still says the United States should be ready to fight at least a war-and-a-half — one on the ground, the other mostly from the sea and the air.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta illustrated that concept with a telling example: If war broke out in Korea, he said, the United States could fight on the ground; and if Iran chose the same moment to block the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. forces would "deal with those threats" some other way.
But even abandoning the two-war doctrine wasn't a radical step. In fact, the doctrine has long been mostly a fiction — as we learned in 2003, when we couldn't fight a medium-sized war in Iraq without taking troops away from Afghanistan.
In any case, the strategy says, decisions must also be "reversible." The Army and Marine Corps will shrink, for example, but the Pentagon will maintain a plan for rebuilding them quickly if a future president decides to wage two wars after all.
That was a key factor that helped win a measured endorsement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the generals and admirals who run the armed forces.
"It's not perfect," said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "There will be people who think it goes too far. Others will say it didn't go nearly far enough. That probably makes it about right for today."
That won't make it immune from sniping in an election year, though.
The two leading Republican candidates for president, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, immediately denounced Obama's proposal and reiterated their calls for significant increases in defense spending over the next 10 years.
But the issue divides the Republican Party between two kinds of hawks: defense hawks and budget hawks. A few Republicans, such as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, have called for even deeper cuts in defense spending than Obama has dared propose. And even Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama in 2008, has said he accepts the premise that defense spending must be trimmed; McCain said he would study the president's plan "carefully and thoroughly" before issuing any critique.
Public opinion polls, on the other hand, are less ambiguous: Most Americans oppose deep cuts in defense spending, but they divide on partisan lines. The Democrats and independents whose votes Obama needs for reelection are likely to applaud the careful cuts he has proposed.
Unveiling a major shift in defense policy in an election year can be perilous for any president, especially a Democrat. But Obama's proposal was anything but radical. It formalized decisions that were already underway — and already widely accepted by the military leadership. It bowed, as it had to, to the arithmetic of the federal budget. But it sought to preserve the global reach of the U.S. military — even in a time of austerity.
Obama will be criticized over the coming weeks by Republican legislators for proposing cuts they consider too deep. But over time, the question will more likely be whether the president, acting in this election year, cut deeply enough.