Living in Strategic Denial

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It's the fourth quarter of the Obama presidency, and Obama's national security team is losing 35-0. According to the U.S. intelligence community, the global terrorist threats to the United States now exceed those from 2001. From the Levant to the East China Sea, Iranian, Russian and Chinese power creep forward at America's expense.

One might expect team Obama to run a hurry-up offense using a new, more daring playbook. The newly released National Military Strategy, however, shows that the White House is sticking with the same old plays. Indeed, were the document read in isolation, the reader would conclude that team Obama was actually winning, and that its playbook accounted for its success.

Back in 2011, administration strategists called for a reduction of America's military "footprints" on the theory that drones and special operations forces could finish mopping up Al Qaeda.

Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, which led to the disintegration of Iraq's security apparatus and the rise of the Islamic State, and he pulled back from Afghanistan before eastern Afghanistan could be pacified, which led to a resurgence of the Taliban and Haqqani Network. Obama limited U.S. military activities in Yemen to surgical strikes, allowing insurgents to overthrow the government and drive out all U.S. military and intelligence personnel.

More recently, the Obama administration attempted to regain lost ground in Iraq by sending a "light footprint" of U.S. forces to train Iraqis and help with intelligence, surgical strikes and logistics. That approach has also come up short, as the Islamic State has retained its strength and gained critical territory. Limited U.S. military support for friendly forces in Syria and Yemen has likewise failed to curb the spread of extremists.

Yet according to the new military strategy, "The best way to counter [violent extremist organizations] is by way of sustained pressure using local forces augmented by specialized U.S. and coalition military strengths such as ISR, precision strike, training and logistical support."

The new military strategy touts war by coalition as the key to defeating extremists without mentioning that coalition warfare failed to deliver in Afghanistan and Libya. "The United States is leading a broad coalition of nations to defeat" violent extremists in Islamic countries, the document states.

What are today's coalitions actually doing? America's leading coalition partner in Iraq is Iran, one of America's most dangerous adversaries. The Iranians are pursuing a sectarian strategy in Iraq that is inimical to the national unity Obama has made central to his Iraq strategy. Few believe that the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen can stem the extremist tide.

Obama's 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance called for a "rebalance" to Asia. Plans to increase U.S. air and naval resources in the Asia-Pacific region have not come to fruition because of steep defense cuts, including those stemming from sequestration. Voters may remember Obama promising in a 2012 presidential debate that sequestration "will not happen."

After his re-election, Obama ensured that it would happen by making unreasonable demands for tax increases that some of his own supporters attributed to "hubris." The new strategy asserts that "we will press forward with the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region," but it does not say from where the money will come.

Other statements in the new strategy likewise wish away the Defense Department's resource shortages. "Should deterrence fail to prevent aggression," one passage states, "the U.S. military stands ready to project power to deny an adversary's objectives and decisively defeat any actor that threatens the U.S. homeland, our national interests or our allies and partners." Yet Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno recently said that budget cuts had reduced the readiness of Army brigades to "historically low levels," with only one in three brigades ready to deploy.

To keep America's enemies from running up the score further, Obama will have to take more expansive military actions and increase defense spending. Perhaps Obama will come to realize this truth before he leaves office, as Jimmy Carter did in his last year. But it's also possible that he will finish out his term pretending that his strategy is working and no change is necessary.

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