By William D. Hartung

The Obama administration’s defense strategy review, unveiled at the Pentagon on January 6th, is already under attack. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has argued that the plan is naïve and dangerous. Independent experts such as Russell Rumbaugh of the Washington, DC-based Stimson Center have criticized the plan for being too timid in its pursuit of Pentagon spending reductions. A point that has not received adequate attention is the fact that the modest reductions contained in the Obama plan would still leave the United States military with unparalleled global reach at time when traditional military threats are rapidly receding.

There are a number of potentially positive elements in the Obama plan, but they are offset by calls for new commitments that will still leave the United States on a permanent war footing. The positive elements of the plan include a pledge to avoid fighting large-scale wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan; to increase reliance on diplomacy and development assistance; and to make the health of the United States economy the administration’s number one national security priority. If faithfully executed, these changes would justify reductions in U.S. military spending well beyond what the Obama administration has proposed so far. They would also set the stage for a less interventionary foreign policy.
Unfortunately, the encouraging parts of the Obama approach are counter-balanced by an expansion of U.S. military commitments that are more appropriate for a policy of global hegemony than they are for a policy of genuine defense.
For example, talk of reducing U.S. troop numbers in Europe has been matched with an increased military commitment to Asia, including a new Marine base in Australia; a large-scale naval presence in the Pacific and Indian oceans; and new arms sales to Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and other U.S. allies in the region. All of these efforts are aimed at “containing” China’s military.

Perhaps the most threatening development from China’s perspective involves U.S. plans to ring China with a missile defense system that, in theory, could blunt China’s ability to respond to a U.S. nuclear attack. Whether or not such a system would work, it will raise anxieties in China, whose nuclear arsenal of a few hundred long-range missiles is dwarfed by the thousands of strategic nuclear warheads that the United States possesses.

In the Middle East, the reduction of U.S. combat forces in Iraq will still leave a residual force of about 16,000, including uniformed military personnel, CIA operatives, and private military contractors. The United States will also be strengthening its network of military bases in the region. Last but not least, Washington is concluding record arms deals to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, including a record $60 billion deal for advanced combat aircraft, attack helicopters, guns and bombs to Saudi Arabia. Each new arms deal will involve dispatching U.S. troops and private contractors to help the recipient nation operate and maintain its U.S.-supplied weaponry.

And contrary to the implication that the new strategy could lead to “neglect” of U.S. military commitments in Africa and Latin America, there is a possibility that U.S. military activity in these regions could even increase from current levels. During the announcement of the new Obama defense strategy, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke of using “innovative means” to maintain a military presence in these two regions. The methods mentioned included increased rotation of U.S. troops through each area, more exercises with local military forces, and an increase in arms transfers and military training.

Africa offers a clear example of the new military approach in action. In the past two years the United States has intervened repeatedly in Africa, from its role in the coalition that overthrew the government of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadafi, to the dispatch of military personnel to Uganda and South Sudan, to the use of drones and U.S.-armed allies (such as Kenya) to intervene in the civil war in Somalia. Add to this the role of private contractors like Dyncorps in training African military forces, and the outlines of U.S. interventionary capacity in Africa become apparent. Nothing in the new Obama strategy would preclude engaging in or expanding similar activities in the future.

In Latin America, the primary form of U.S. military involvement in recent years has been the supply of arms and military training through a variety of programs, many of which on first glance do not appear to be military in nature. According to the “Just the Facts” data base maintained by the Center for International Policy, the Latin America Working Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America, U.S. military and police aid to Latin America and the Caribbean will total nearly $1 billion for Fiscal Year 2012. Total military and police aid to the region since 2007 exceeds $7.5 billion. In 2010 alone, U.S. arms sales to the region totaled another $1.7 billion. Add to this the deployments of U.S. troops to the region under the umbrella of counter-drug and humanitarian activities, and the U.S. military presence in Latin America is substantial. There is no indication that the new Obama administration strategy would change any of this. If anything, some elements, such as troop rotations and military exercises, could increase.

The bottom line of the new U.S. strategy, as pronounced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, is that the United States still wants to be prepared to fight and defeat any enemy, anywhere. The question that has not been answered in Washington, or even asked in the Congress or mainstream political circles, is whether the Obama approach is a strategy in search of enemies to justify it, rather than a disciplined approach to defending the United States from genuine threats. The most obvious challenges to U.S. security, from cyber attacks to nuclear proliferation, do not have military solutions. And potential future challenges like the “Chinese threat” are better dealt with through political and economic cooperation than by military buildups and saber rattling.

The “new” Obama strategy is not nearly new enough. True change will only come when U.S. leaders abandon the outmoded notion that the United States should be prepared to go anywhere and fight any battle in the name of “policing the globe.”

William Hartung is the director of the Common Defense Campaign: Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. He has also been the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation as well as the director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute. Bill Hartung’s latest book is Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011). He has been published and featured in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The World Policy Journal, CBS 60 Minutes, NBC Nightly News, and is a columnist for the Americas Program.