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America’s Military Tug of War

Obama’s national security strategy lays out a vision of US global power based on a strong, modern economy at home and multilateralism abroad. But other forces in the US body politic are pushing in a different direction.

The strategy, rolled out last week but overshadowed by the continuing ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, is the administration’s first effort to articulate its vision of American national defense and global power.

“Our strategy starts by recognizing that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home,” says the introduction, listing deficit reduction, education, green energy and technological progress as the essential building blocks of US security. “We must see American innovation as the foundation of American power,” the document concludes.

The strategy emphasizes soft power, especially the role of American values. “We promote these values by living them,” the document says, emphasizing, in a swipe at Bush-era counterterrorism policies, “our commitment to the rule of law.”

Notably, the strategy acknowledges the limits of American power, warning against the danger of over-commitment and emphasizing the role of US alliances. “Our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by over-extending its power.”

“When we overuse our military might,” the strategy states, “or fail to invest in or deploy complementary tools, or act without partners, then our military is overstretched, Americans bear a greater burden, and our leadership around the world is too narrowly identified with military force.”

The blunt fact which underlies these recognitions is that - with a budget deficit that continues to balloon and spiraling defense costs that appear impossible to control - the US can not for much longer afford its current level of military spending.

“Our commitment to deficit reduction will discipline us to make hard choices, and to avoid overreach,” the strategy argues.

Instead, it calls for more cooperation with key allies and - while pledging to maintain US world leadership - recognizes that, in a globalized world, international power is increasingly diffuse.

Making a break with the Bush doctrine of unilateralism, the strategy promises that while America must reserve the right to act alone if necessary, the administration will “build new and deeper partnerships in every region and strengthen international standards and institutions.”

But as foreign policy expert Stephen Walt notes, this generalized commitment appears to be belied by the strategy’s specific undertakings.

“It is hard to identify any area of the world or any particular issue-area where the Obama administration intends to do less, or where it stands a good chance of getting others to do much more,” Walt writes.

He points out that, in addition to continuing its war against al-Qaida and its commitments in Iraq, the strategy commits the US to “create a new nuclear security regime, defeat the Taliban and build an effective government in Afghanistan, and keep the pressure on states that are defying the ‘international consensus’ like Iran and North Korea.”

Inherent contradictions

But the strategy’s apparent recognition of the financial and other limits to US power is not just contradicted within the document itself - it also appears to be at odds with the administration’s apparent determination to try and ring-fence defense spending as it searches for ways to reduce the growing gap between the federal government’s income and expenditure.

While the Obama administration established a special commission earlier this year to look at ways to reduce the out-of-control US budget deficit, veteran defense critic Winslow Wheeler notes that the president’s “going-in position is to exempt the Pentagon” from spending cuts.

And if the restraint implied by the strategy is at odds with the administration’s attitude to deficit reduction, it is flatly contradicted by the vision apparently animating the nation’s military spending, most recently laid out in the defense authorization bill before Congress.

Despite calls for restraint from - of all quarters - Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the bill splurges on an un-needed second engine for the new F-35 fighter, unwanted C-17 transport aircraft, overly ambitious aircraft carrier building programs and above-inflation pay raises for military personnel.

When the founding fathers created two separately elected branches of government in the US Congress and the presidency, they meant for them to check and balance each other. But they probably didn't intend that they should do so by pulling in more or less opposite directions.

By, Shaun Waterman




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