6 Lessons of Obama's New Pentagon Plan for American Foreign Policy

Less counterinsurgency and nukes, more Asian fleets and secret spy teams

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President Obama speaks at the Pentagon / AP

The Obama administration's new plan for reducing Defense Department spending by $450 billion in the years ahead will not dramatically transform much of anything. Though the headline treatment of Thursday's roll-out is that the U.S. will no longer design its military to fight two simultaneous land wars, that was (as U.S. generals in Afghanistan discovered shortly after the 2003 Iraq invasion) already the case. But there are some important signals here for how the world's richest country plans to conduct foreign policy and what role the world's strongest military will play in global affairs. All of these trends were already apparent in Obama's handling of the military and foreign policy, but this new military blueprint underscores their centrality to the administration's approach.

1) The Death of Counterinsurgency

It's tough to mark exactly when the Obama administration began changing its mind about counterinsurgency, which it had emphasized as part of the ramp-up in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was the firing of General Stanley McChrystal in June 2010, which seemed a bit too speedy to be entirely about his controversial quotes to Rolling Stone and not about lost White House faith in his devotion to counterinsurgency doctrine. Maybe it came later that year, when air strikes increased (a counterinsurgency no-no) in Afghanistan. But, somewhere along the string of failures and all the non-progress in the now decade-plus war, America's love affair with the strategy that many believe helped turn around Iraq seems to have ended. National security writers are debating the extent to which this new plan marks the end or mere decline of counterinsurgency, but the point is almost moot with former CIA director Leon Panetta taking over as Defense Secretary, a job-switch likely meant to emphasize the Pentagon's more shadowy counterterrorism-centric approaches over the let's-fix-an-entire-society strategy of counterinsurgency.

2) The Decline of 'Decisive Victory'

Since World War II, maybe even since Napoleon Bonaparte, the nations of the West have increasingly viewed the only satisfactory military victory as a total and decisive military victory. But this has not historically been the rule. We in the U.S. might assume that wars are about "winning," and that "winning" means so totally dominating our enemy that they have to do whatever we tell them to. This assumption was contributed, in part, to our failures in Vietnam and Afghanistan. For most of history, even the "winning" side of a war often fought just enough to force whatever concession they were after. For reasons that Jazon Fritz and Anne-Marie Slaughter explain beautifully, Obama's austerity cuts and reduction in ground forces (with a greater emphasis on naval and air forces) may return the U.S. to the historic norm, in which every military encounter need not be "decisive."

3) Europe Can Handle Its Own Security Now

It's sometimes easy to forget that, for most of modern history, Europe has been the center of warfare and conflict. Today, the Soviet Union is long gone, the European Union has made continental war unthinkable, and the armies of Europe and still so technologically advanced that outside invasion would be virtually impossible. After a generation of guaranteeing European security, the U.S. is getting out of that game, cutting our Army brigades there in half. The only surprise is that it didn't happen sooner.

4) Shifting to Asia, But Not Because We Fear War with China

The U.S. force size in Asia-Pacific will increase, part of Obama's long-planned pivot to Asia, which is increasingly a center of global economic power. The force increase is not to prepare for some Cold War-style showdown with a rising China, although deterrence is certainly part of it. Obama seems to mean it when he talks about America's "Pacific Century," and putting a military presence there is a great way to extend U.S. hard as well as soft power.

5) The Forever War Wages On

When Obama picked the CIA director as his new Secretary of Defense, he was making a statement about how he wanted the Pentagon to evolve. The U.S. military has increasingly emphasized a CIA-tinged strategy of drones, special forces, cyber attacks, and secret operations against threats from terrorists to Iranian nuclear scientists. It's a strategy meant to deter and manage threats, not eradicate them outright, and to be cost-effective. Wired's Spencer Ackerman explains that, under our new Pentagon, the "Shadow War" will be continuing, with military-led global surveillance programs actually increasing.

6) Another (Very) Small Step Toward a Nuclear-Free World

One of the plan's least discussed provisions is a decrease in spending on nuclear weaponry. It's not clear how much, and it's almost certainly a tiny fraction of what we could cut (the U.S. could still easily annihilate the globe several times over), but even a symbolic cut would be an important step toward Ronald Reagan's dream of eradicating all nuclear weaponry. We'll probably need to maintain some for deterrence purposes as long as China possesses warheads and Iran and North Korea pursue them, but there's no reason we need 5,113 warheads to deter one from Pyongyang. Extra warheads is an invitation to further proliferation from competitors and increases the likelihood of theft or an accident.