The Obama Administration’s “Defense Strategic Guidance” (DSG), which was unveiled on January 5 as part of the broader programmatic document, Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, has been greeted with neoconservative howls of rage. The document “sends a clear message to America’s adversaries: Go for it,” was the view of the Washington Times editorialist, “this mini-Quadrennial Defense Review is an eight-page admission of American impotence.”
It is nothing of the kind. Obama’s DSG replicates all of the flawed strategic assumptions of the Bush era. Reading a short statement at a press briefing at the Pentagon to unveil the DSG, President Obama spoke of “enduring national interests” in maintaining the unparalleled U.S. military superiority, “ready for the full range of contingencies and threats” amidst “a complex and growing array of security challenges across the globe.”
Obama made no attempt to outline the basis for his claim that the security threats to America are growing, or to provide his own definition of “enduring national interest.” The terms “full-range,” “contingencies,” “threats,” or “security challenges,” are not value-neutral. Obama used them within a paradigm which treats the entire world as a legitimate sphere of interest of the United States. The consequence is that there will be new wars, as unrelated to the realist understanding of this country’s national interest as have been those in the Balkans under Clinton or in Iraq and Afghanistan under Bush.
Far from heralding “the massive $450 billion in defense budget cuts over the next 10 years” the President stated that “global responsibilities demand leadership, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.” This means that the rate of growth will slow down somewhat—and 45 billion a year is a drop in the $16 trillion ocean of debt—but there will be no “cuts.” Obama further stated that our defense spending “continues to be larger than roughly the next ten countries combined.” It is less than the rest of the world combined—the preferred neocon level of spending—but it is still much more than America needs, or can afford to spend.
The DSG claims that in the decades ahead it will be the task of the United States to “confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.” “Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region,” it declares, “they will be capable of denying the objectives of - or imposing unacceptable costs on - an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” This means that the totality of what the DSG treats as American commitments and interests around the world will continue to exceed the ability of the United States to defend them.
A strategically innovative president would accept the limits of American power and seek to establish a rational correlation between its ends and means. He would turn America into a “normal” power pursuing limited political, economic, and military objectives in a world populated by other powers doing the same. But Obama and his team remain wholly unwilling to do any such thing (not to mention his likely Republican opponents). His view of America’s role in the world still produces strategic blueprints for new self-justifying interventions around the world—interventions which are not merely unnecessary but detrimental to U.S. interests. “Making the world safe for democracy” has morphed since 1917 into many strange pursuits: making Libya, Syria, and Bosnia safe for the Islamic radicals; making Kosovo safe for the KLA. Under Obama the bipartisan continuity of methods and objectives has remained intact. The continuity of imperial assumptions and practices remains unbroken.
The DSG is a flawed document. The key issue of ends and means of American military power is still unexplored, and will remain so regardless of what happens next November.