Obama Should Call Rumsfeld to Work on Defense Strategy and Cuts

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photo courtesy:  White House

While budget details of President Obama's just unveiled new defense strategy remain scant and vague and the President feels the need to continue hawking his combo of budgetary constraint and military hawkishness, stating that his forthcoming budgets would still be larger than those of the preceding Bush administration.  Obama last week stated:

Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this. It will still grow. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration. And I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined.

Nonetheless, the President and his team are indicating serious shifts in America's strategic picture.  A rebalancing is underway -- troops, resources, and attention shifting away from the Middle East and South Asia with a reconfiguration of assets and slight beefing up in Asia -- not just of personnel and naval and air capacity but time on the Presidential attention clock. 

China Vice President Xi Jingping, widely estimated to be the successor later this year to Hu Jintao as China's next generation President, will visit Washington, DC in February -- and the message, communicated by new China handler-in-chief Joe Biden, will be constructive but hard-headed, interest-driven mutual US-China engagement in which the US will communicate that it's legs in the region aren't weakening with China's rise -- but rather getting stronger and providing an ongoing platform for the peace and stability that have benefited much of the region including, as one senior White House national security official told me, CHINA.

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To some degree, one might call this element of President Obama's new strategy the "Mearsheimer Imperative" -- responding at long last perhaps unconsciously to University of Chicago uber realist John Mearsheimer's call for US focus on China's inevitable, "offensive realist" ambitions to become "the Godzilla" of the Asia Pacific region -- working to push the US out of the regional picture.  In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan has written an incisive and daring profile of Mearsheimer that blasts through the surface noise criticisms of Mearsheimer's recent work focusing on Israel's disruption of America's strategic behavior and choices. (will post link when available -- next Tuesday morning 8 am)But rebalancing slices of the White House's attention pie are but one part of the strategic shift.  It's also clear that the era of large-manned occupations of other countries, the wholesale adoption of and rebuilding of states, or COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy, is over.  One element of COIN that grew in the fold of the doctrine was the integration of highly sophisticated information, communications, and geospatial intelligence -- informed by feeds of massive data as well as from on the ground intel from small units working in the field -- to the battle field and drone targeting.  When America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, its capacities in standing up a "smart army" and "smart soldiers", fighting units integrated into real time intelligence frameworks, far outstripped any other nation.  But in the ten plus years since, America's capacities in the intelligence arena as well as the ability to deliver decisive blows to enemies (albeit frequently at intolerably high costs to innocent civilian lives) from relatively remote distances has upended the need and rationale for large scale troop deployments.

Just as the controversial drone has quietly and quickly replaced the manned bomber as the platform of choice for surgical bombing of targets -- the information and computing revolution and military capacity that has grown out of it -- in part developed in concert with COIN-innovator General David Petraeus' support -- has made COIN and a big chunk of the US Army less relevant to prosecuting contemporary conflicts.  Petraeus, now Director of Central Intelligence, is helping to usher in new strategies and management for the further consolidation of intelligence to conflict missions.  In some ways, Petraeus was a founding father of COIN, and is now helping to oversee the dismantlement of COIN and ushering in a new successor strategy that is potentially, leaner, smarter, and more nimble -- and potentially substantially less costly than COIN.

061108_rumsfeld_hmed_10a.grid-6x2.jpgThis gets me to former defense secretary twice over Donald Rumsfeld -- a complicated and controversial personality in the defense and national security arena.  But the overall package that Obama seems to be promulgating in this era of hard choices has played out briefly if unsuccessfully before -- and that was when President George W. Bush called Rumsfeld back to service in early 2001 to reshape and modernize the Pentagon.  The Fiscal Times' Bradley Graham has written an insightful flashback piece about the arm-wrestling over strategy and defense budgets in that pre-9/11 period when Rumsfeld was skirmishing against the Pentagon's generals and working to compel efficiencies and new ways of conducting wars. 

Presented by

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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