Building a Second-Rate Power

Building a Second-Rate Power

By Alan Dowd – ASCF Senior Fellow

February 2014 – “If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military,” Robert Gates warned before he left the Pentagon, no doubt aware of what was coming, “people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country.” In a similar vein, Leon Panetta worried that sequestration “would turn America from a first-rate power into a second-rate power.” And Chuck Hagel warns that sequestration will have “far-reaching consequences, including limiting combat power, reducing readiness and undermining the national-security interests of the United States.”

How did we get here? The answer is buried in a 5,700-word speech President Obama delivered in early 2011. As he talked about the consequences of the debt-and-deficit crisis, the president turned to the Pentagon for a solution: “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness,” the president said, “but we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world.” That last phrase says everything about where we are headed—and why we are headed there. The president wanted “a fundamental review” of America’s place and purpose in the world. And today his vision is coming into focus.

Diminishing Defenses

Sequestration was not forced upon the White House by Congress. In fact, as Bob Woodward has detailed, “The automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House…Obama personally approved of the plan.” Equally important: before the sequester guillotine fell, the president ordered the Pentagon to cough up $487 billion from its spending plans. Thus, the Pentagon is losing nearly $1 trillion in projected spending between now and 2021.

The long-term consequences of this drastic downsizing will be felt by the American people and their allies in some future crisis in the South China Sea or Strait of Hormuz, or in the wake of some terror attack, or in the silence of some unanswered ultimatum. But the short-term consequences are being borne by the military in the here-and-now.

• Sequestration has forced the Air Force to ground 33 squadrons. The Air Force has announced plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes. Congressman Buck McKeon notes, “The last B-52, the backbone of our bomber fleet, rolled off the assembly line during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

• Today’s Navy fleet numbers 285 ships—down from 594 at the height of Reagan’s buildup. If sequestration continues apace, the Navy will be forced to mothball 38 more ships and may have to cut the carrier fleet down to just eight flat-tops. “Our historic dominance,” concedes Adm. Samuel Locklear, chief of Pacific Command, “is diminishing.”

• Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno warns that if troops are deployed for combat post-sequestration, “They are not going to be trained properly. That means when they go, it is going to take them longer to do it. They might have more casualties.” According to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, “We are beyond muscle” and will soon “cut into bone.” If the sequester remains in place without substantive modification, the active-duty Army will shrink to between 380,000 and 450,000; the Marines will shrink to between 150,000 and 175,000.

• In 2011, Panetta put sequestration’s toll in perspective: “After ten years of these cuts, we would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.”

This might make sense if our enemies were beating their swords into plowshares. But we know the very opposite to be true. North Korea is rattling nuclear sabers. Iran is racing ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program. The Middle East is on fire. Far from being “on the run,” al Qaeda is reconstituting in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. China’s military spending has grown nine-fold in the past decade—an unparalleled jump in military spending on a percentage basis. Russia has unveiled plans for 2,300 new tanks and 600 new warplanes in the next decade.

Yet in the years ahead, the U.S. military will have fewer resources, slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a smaller global role—and so will America. It’s no wonder that for the first time in 40 years, a majority of Americans say the United States “plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago,” according to recent Pew polling. “The share saying the U.S. is less powerful has increased 12 points since 2009.”

Echoing that sentiment, The Washington Post reports that Asian governments see “a mood of withdrawal in the U.S. capital” and “diminished U.S. leadership.”

According to The Los Angeles Times, Middle East allies are “worried that the United States is scaling back its historic role as a powerbroker and peacemaker.”

The New Republic laments, “The post-American world is here: behold it and weep.”

Even The New York Times has noticed, detecting “a broader scaling-back of the use of American muscle…Cutting deals with former adversaries is in.”

Perplexing Policies

In response to this line of criticism, Secretary of State John Kerry says he’s “perplexed by claims…that somehow America is disengaging from the world—this myth that America is pulling back.”

The fact that such a perception exists is evidence of its truth. In geopolitics, power is as much about the perception as reality. But Kerry disagrees, countering that “our engagement…is measured by the results we are able to achieve.”

So let’s look at those results.

The first indication of the president’s desire to circumscribe America’s global role came in 2009, when U.S. ground commanders requested 50,000 troops for the Afghanistan surge. In response, the president tortuously declared, “It is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before vowing—in the very same breath—“after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” By delivering less than his generals requested and putting an expiration date on America’s “vital national interests,” the president sent an unmistakable message that he was not interested in finishing the job. Rather, “For him, it’s all about getting out,” as Gates concludes in his new book.

The result: The Taliban is surging, America’s allies are heading for the exits and Afghans are worried.

This echoes what happened in Iraq. As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained in 2011, “painstaking staff work” led military commanders to recommend keeping 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to sustain gains made during the surge. This backstop force would smother terrorist flare-ups, keep Nouri al-Maliki honest, train Iraq’s nascent army and send a not-so-subtle message to Iran’s leaders that the Middle East was not theirs for the taking. But President Obama torpedoed U.S.-Iraq negotiations with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a residual force of just 3,000 troops—a force not even large enough to defend itself. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reported, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq…despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.”

The result: Western Iraq is under the control of a revived al Qaeda. Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other at rates not seen since 2007. And Iran is using Iraq as a corridor to arm Syria’s Bashar Assad.

Speaking of Syria, after calling any use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would invite U.S. military action, after putting the diplomatic, political and military wheels in motion for punitive strikes against Assad, the president undercut himself by engaging in a prime-time debate with himself over the ramifications of U.S. intervention. His secretary of state, his defense chiefs, and U.S. allies in France and Saudi Arabia were primed for action, but Congress was divided and Moscow was promising a deal. And so, the president slammed on the brakes. Make no mistake: seeking congressional authorization for military action—something the much-maligned Bush administration did before Afghanistan and Iraq—is the preferable way to go to war. However, other precedents—Reagan in Grenada, the elder Bush in Panama, Clinton in Kosovo, Obama himself in Libya—underscore that congressional authorization was not essential in Syria. In the end, punting the issue to a dubious Congress and accepting the Russian proposal represented a way to justify not intervening.

The result: The Russian-brokered deal transformed Assad from an international pariah “who must go” into an indispensable partner who must stay. Yet predictably, Assad has not made good on his end of the bargain. Just last week, a U.S. diplomat reported that only 4 percent of Assad’s chemical weapons had been removed and concluded that the Assad-Putin disarmament gambit had “seriously languished and stalled.” According to Foreign Policy magazine, Assad is now “backtracking on his commitment to scrap his chemical weapons program.” Worst of all, the entire episode has provided friend and foe alike with fresh reasons to doubt America’s role in the world. As French foreign minister Laurent Fabius concludes, “Today we live in a zero-polar, or a-polar, world.”

Of course, this zero-polar, post-American world was coming into focus even before the Syria debacle. In Libya, administration officials promised America would “lead from behind”—the oxymoronic phrase coined by the president’s staff to justify his stand-off approach. What we have learned since the White House floated this silly phrase is that no one likes a backseat driver. Consider this anecdote from early in NATO’s air war over Libya: When Washington grudgingly agreed to continue operations after an urgent appeal from the allies, a NATO official emphasized that the extension of U.S. air power “expires on Monday”—a bruising metaphor for American leadership in this age of retreat.

More of the same is on display in Egypt, where the president’s zigzagging policies have left Egypt’s democrats, autocrats, generals and masses wondering where Washington stands; in the Pacific, where the president promised to “pivot” a preponderance of U.S. military power but is unable to back the rhetoric with maritime muscle; and in Iran, where the president has dismantled his own international-sanctions coalition, in hopes that Tehran will live up to his hopes. The terror regime in Iran, we now know, “has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons.”

Lessons Unlearned

The good news—and bad news—is that we’ve been here before.

It’s good news because there’s a roadmap that will get us out of this danger zone—hopefully before some aggressor miscalculates.

But it’s bad news because the American people and their elected officials shouldn’t have to relearn what they already know—that lowering our defenses invites what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”

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