The damning hypocrisy of the Obama defense cuts

Last week, President Obama announced the results of his defense review, which would slice $500 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years and reduce the size of the U.S. military — an act which must be seen across the Atlantic as one of the great hypocrisies of his presidency.

Obama with advisersErin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Department of Defense

President Barack Obama walks with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (right) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (left) on the way to a press briefing at the Pentagon on Jan. 5, 2012, to outline defense spending cuts.

Why should America’s overseas allies be miffed by the announcement? Simple. For the past three years, the Obama administration has criticized them for doing the same.

There’s no doubt that the criticism — also leveled by the Bush administration — is fully justified. The majority of European states in NATO continue to chip away at their own defense spending, leaving the alliance less capable of responding to global threats.

When President Obama took office, he made a point of warning European allies against the “deep ambivalence” some displayed toward the military, even raising the subject in his Nobel acceptance speech.

The tension reached its height last year, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates blasted Europe’s defense cuts, which he declared would risk reducing NATO to “military irrelevance.” Instead, the administration urged its allies to make a “serious effort to protect defense budgets from … the next round of austerity measures.”

But tested with the same calls for austerity in the United States, the president has shown no willingness to live by his administration’s creed.

Indeed, Obama pressed hard in last year’s budget talks to slash U.S. defense spending in order to preserve his many domestic priorities — precisely the type of tradeoff his administration had vilified Europeans for making.

His new defense posture solidifies this approach and leaves the United States with little credibility to pressure its NATO partners to reverse their own damaging defense reductions.

The hypocrisy was compounded by a second, equally damning about-face in the president’s plan. Since 2010, it has been the Obama administration’s policy that “the United States must retain the capability to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations.” U.S. allies have organized their defense resources around this long-term strategy.

Yet the president’s plan for a shrunken military candidly admits that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”

Oddly, the plan does little to explain what has changed in the world to allow the United States to make such a dramatic shift to what it calls a “small-footprint” approach (an elusive concept that has been used for decades simply to justify reducing the size of the fighting force).

And if history has taught us anything, it’s that when America tries to shrink its military for a “new” era, it has later regretted — and paid dearly to reverse — those reductions.

For example, Obama’s justification that “the tide of war is receding” seems to echo Bill Clinton’s calls for a “peace dividend” of defense spending cuts in the 1990s, a move which weakened the U.S. military and decimated America’s covert workforce in the lead-up to 9/11. The damage took years to undo.

This time, however, the threat horizon doesn’t seem nearly as clear as it might have for Clinton in the wake of the Cold War. Instead, the United States remains at war in Afghanistan, continues to fight terror groups around the globe, faces the rise of an increasingly belligerent China, and must deal cautiously with the turmoil wrought by the Arab Spring — hardly a time to step back from U.S. security commitments.

But to meet these challenges, Obama’s strategic review (ironically titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership”) proposes reducing active-duty ground forces to pre-9/11 levels and, as officials have quietly admitted, to move America away from the ability to fight two ground wars at once.

NATO allies would be right, then, to question how Washington could ask them to bolster their defense forces at a time when America is shrinking hers, or even to do “more with less” when in fact the United States plans to do “less with less.”

There is no question that America and its European allies face a difficult budget environment, and defense should not be immune to belt tightening. But the president is responsible for setting strategy based on requirements, and then fighting for the resources to meet those requirements. Nowhere is that more important than in defense.

This is the message we have preached to our NATO partners: that they are obligated to stand armed against 21st-century threats and must adjust their resources to meet those obligations. The president’s plan embraces the opposite approach — one we’ve derided many overseas for following — by setting resources and then determining what obligations can then be met.

In the big picture, though, the administration’s defense cuts might not be complete hypocrisy. If Obama’s critics are correct — that he seeks to remake America in the image of Europe — then the president is simply being consistent.