Elections, as President Barack Obama knows, are a time of big ideas.
So it would seem fitting that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will roll out a new Pentagon national defense strategy just a few days into a make-or-break election year for the White House. [Panetta is expected to formally unveil the new strategy tomorrow and President Obama should be introducing the new strategy at the Pentagon.]
With U.S. forces out of Iraq and Osama bin Laden dead, the country is primed for the sort of transformational thinking about government that President Obama used as part of his pitch to get elected in 2008.
Unfortunately, Panetta is poised to offer up another missed opportunity for the Obama administration to do something grand, and necessary, something which could improve the country’s standing for decades to come.
A basic tenet of good defense policy is that strategy should drive the sort of armed forces the country requires.
A strategy document should not be a bureaucratic apology note.
This one looks ready to justify the political pain of hundreds of billions of dollars in unpopular defense spending cuts that are already in the works.
So far, the Obama administration’s repositioning of U.S. grand strategy post-Iraq is predictable and underwhelming.
Take China, for example. Playing up threats in the Pacific when power plays in the Persian Gulf remain an acute concern is misguided. Trying to square off the Pentagon against China requires just the kind of military the White House says the country no longer can afford. Another U.S. aircraft carrier won’t keep Chinese cyber spies out of sensitive government and corporate networks.
Indeed, depriving the military, and defense contractors, carries great political risk. Defense isn’t the signature political issue issue right now in this presidential election; it’s the economy – particularly what many Americans now find to be a spirit-crushing labor market. Cuts equate to job loss in and out of government. Certainly not as many pink slips are in the offing as defense industry trade groups claim, but it is hard to imagine voters turning out to support a president who cost them their livelihood.
That’s no excuse to fob off a fundamental reexamination of how the U.S. defines national security until 2013 or later. The country will be worse off with another consensus showdown over appropriations budget lines. It is time for a defense strategy informed by unconventional metrics such as successful conflict prevention overseas or the risks posed by our own country’s failed education system. This is the moment for a strategy that acknowledges the military’s current dominance of American foreign policy, and cedes room to the government’s civilian arms.
This is a very uncomfortable dialogue to begin within the defense community, but it is the right thread to follow.
President Obama, as Commander in Chief, shoulders heavy responsibilities. Giving wing to transformational ideas is one of them. He of all people should know that whoever creates a compelling narrative about the interconnection of politically disparate elements, such as education and foreign aid and sea power, will lead the defense debate in a time of austerity.
It is possible to spend less, as a country, and be stronger. In these times, that is perhaps the biggest idea of all.
August Cole is a fellow at the American Security Project, where he focuses on defense industry issues. The former Wall Street Journal defense reporter is based in the Boston area.