January 06, 2012

You Can't Have It All

On Thursday, President Barack Obama and his top defense advisers unveiled new strategic guidance to direct the U.S. military as it transitions from a decade of grueling ground wars to an era of new challenges, including a rising China and looming budget cuts. The administration has adopted what is best characterized as a "pivot but hedge" strategy: The United States will pivot to the Asia-Pacific but hedge against unexpected threats elsewhere, particularly in the greater Middle East. This new guidance makes good sense in today's world, but it assumes that the Pentagon will absorb only $487 billion in budget cuts over the next decade. If far deeper cuts occur, as required by sequestration, the Department of Defense will not have the resources to execute the guidance. "Pivot but hedge" will die in its crib.

The pivot to the Asia-Pacific is essential because the region stands poised to become the centerpiece of the 21st-century global economy. By 2015, East Asian countries are expected to surpass North America and the eurozone to become the world's largest trading bloc. Market opportunities will only increase as the region swells by an additional 175 million people by 2030. As America's economic interests in the Asia-Pacific grow, its diplomatic and military presence should grow to defend against potential threats to those interests.

From the perspective of the United States and its Asian allies, China and North Korea represent the most serious military threats to regional security. China's military modernization continues to progress, and its foreign policy toward its neighbors has become increasingly aggressive over the past two years. Meanwhile, the death of Kim Jong Il means that nuclear-armed North Korea has begun a leadership transition that could lead to greater military aggressiveness as his son Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his power and demonstrate control. In light of these potential dangers, several Asian nations have asked the United States to strengthen its diplomatic and military presence in the region so it can remain the ultimate guarantor of peace and security. A bolstered U.S. presence will reassure allies who worry about American decline by clearly conveying an unwavering commitment to Asian security.

But while the Asia-Pacific is becoming more important, instability across the greater Middle East -- from Tunisia to Pakistan -- still makes it the most volatile region in the world. The Arab Spring unleashed a torrent of political change that has reshaped the region in previously unfathomable ways. Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons, and it has threatened recently to close the Strait of Hormuz. Trapped in the middle of the upheaval is Israel, a permanent ally and key pillar of America's regional security strategy. Meanwhile, U.S.-Pakistan relations continue to plunge toward a nadir, lessening American influence over a nuclear-armed and terrorist-infested state that is arguably the most dangerous country in the world.

Amid these dangers, U.S. interests in the greater Middle East remain largely unchanged: ensuring the free flow of petroleum from a region containing 51 percent of proven global oil reserves, halting nuclear proliferation, and guarding against the diminished but still real threat of Islamist-inspired terror attacks. Protecting these interests will unquestionably require the active involvement of the U.S. military over the next 10 years and beyond, though this certainly does not mean U.S. troops will necessarily repeat the intensive counterinsurgency campaigns of the last decade.

The administration's new guidance tries to balance America's rightful new focus on the Asia-Pacific with the continuing reality of deep instability in other areas of the world where U.S. interests are at stake. Yet implementing this "pivot but hedge" strategy successfully depends largely on how much Congress cuts from the Pentagon's budget, something that still remains undecided at the start of a divisive presidential election year.

The 2011 Budget Control Act, signed as part of last summer's negotiations over raising the U.S. debt ceiling, contains spending caps that will reduce the Department of Defense's base budget (excluding ongoing war costs in Afghanistan) by at least $487 billion over 10 years, according to Pentagon estimates. This represents a decline of about 8 percent compared to current spending levels. Administration officials have repeatedly described these cuts as painful but manageable. Indeed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated Thursday that these cuts require difficult choices but ultimately involve "acceptable risk."

Yet deeper cuts are an entirely different story. Administration officials are extremely concerned about the Budget Control Act's automatic spending reduction process known as sequestration, which was triggered in November by the failure of the deficit reduction "super committee." According to the Congressional Budget Office, this process would roughly double the cuts to the Pentagon's base budget, resulting in nearly $900 billion in total reductions. Current law requires these cuts to take effect in January 2013 unless Congress enacts new legislation that supersedes it.

The new guidance says little about what cuts the Department of Defense will make when it releases its fiscal year 2013 budget request next month. But the Pentagon has made clear that its new guidance and budget request assume it will absorb only $487 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. Defense officials have acknowledged that the new guidance cannot be executed if sequestration takes place. When announcing the new strategy, for instance, Panetta warned that sequestration "would force us to shed missions, commitments, and capabilities necessary to protect core U.S. national security interests."

Sequestration would likely require the United States to abandon its longstanding global engagement strategy and to incur far greater risk in future military operations. If sequestration occurs, the Pentagon will likely repeat past mistakes by reducing capabilities such as ground forces that provide a hedge against unexpected threats. A pivot to the Asia-Pacific might remain an executable option under these conditions, but the U.S. ability to hedge against threats elsewhere -- particularly in the volatile Middle East -- would be diminished. This is a recipe for high risk in an uncertain and dangerous world.

The Pentagon's new strategic guidance presents a realistic way to maintain America's status as a global superpower in the context of shrinking defense dollars. But further cuts, especially at the level required by sequestration, would make this "pivot but hedge" strategy impossible to implement and would raise serious questions about whether the United States can continue to play the central role on the global stage.