There’s no question that President Obama’s new National Security Strategy, released late last month, is an improvement over the "shoot first, ask questions later" approach favored by the Bush/Cheney administration. But it is not different enough.
On the positive side of the ledger, the Obama administration’s strategy document pledges to increase funds for diplomacy and foreign assistance, and to favor strong alliances over go-it-alone approaches. It defines the spread of nuclear weapons as "the gravest danger" facing the United States, and reiterates the administration’s pledge to seek a world free of nuclear weapons. And it acknowledges that some of the most urgent threats we face have nothing to do with terrorism.
What is missing from the Obama strategy is any sense of limits. While the mix of tools may be different, the overriding goal is the same: to be able to project military power anywhere in the world on short notice, and to be prepared to fight two or more wars simultaneously. Unless these commitments are scaled back, it will be virtually impossible to demilitarize US foreign policy and address nonmilitary threats like climate change and global poverty.
But even on this score there may be a ray of hope. The National Security Strategy asserts that US influence abroad is grounded in the strength of its domestic economy, and pledges to "grow our economy and reduce our deficit." Achieving either of these goals will require a rethinking of US global commitments.
In the short term, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, it makes no sense to cut federal spending. But over the longer term, it will be necessary to take steps to reduce deficits from their current high levels. And that’s where the Pentagon comes in.
Any serious effort to reduce federal deficits must start with substantial reductions in Pentagon spending. At around $700 billion per year, military spending rivals Social Security as the largest item in the federal budget. It is at its highest levels since World War II and has increased steadily since 2001 – the longest period of sustained growth in military spending in the history of the United States.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made some attempts to tame the Pentagon beast, but so far his efforts have fallen far short of what is needed. Last year he succeeded in eliminating major weapons programs such as the F-22 combat aircraft and the Airborne Laser (ABL), a Star Wars–style missile defense system.
Gates has been talking tough ever since, telling a crowd gathered in Abilene, Kansas (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s hometown) that "the gusher has been turned off" on Pentagon spending. He has made some stark comparisons, noting, for example, that the United States spends almost as much on its military as the entire rest of the world combined; and that the US Navy is larger than the next thirteen navies combined, eleven of which are possessed by US allies.