The U.S. Army is on course to an active-duty strength of 420,000 if sequestration returns as scheduled in 2016. This force size, down from 545,000 at the end of the Iraq War, would be the lowest since the Interwar Period. Nothing in the international environment or the nature of modern warfare justifies such a reduction, which is being driven entirely by the budgetary concerns from the worst depths of the recession. This reduction puts the nation at grave risk and seriously compromises the ability of future presidents to respond to foreseeable crises. It must not happen.
The ostensible justification for the reduction in ground forces is that the current administration has decided that the U.S. will never again commit its military to long-term counterinsurgency operations. The administration also refuses to contemplate the possibility of conventional war and has decided that its preferred military action—targeted air-strikes—is the only military action that future presidents should be able to undertake, and it is shaping the military accordingly.
But even President Obama is finding it harder to stay out of Iraq than he had imagined. The limited air strikes he has ordered against ISIS are failing to prevent that group from continuing its advance in either Iraq or Syria. Australia has already ordered Special Forces to Iraq, and it seems certain that the U.S. will need to do so as well. This president may continue to refuse to accept this reality. His successors are much more likely to adjust to it.
It is one thing for a sitting president to choose not to use particular tools of American power. It is another thing entirely for him to decide to strip those tools from his successors. The first choice may be wise or foolish, depending on the circumstances. The second is a dereliction of the president’s responsibility to keep the nation ready even for unpleasant contingencies after he leaves office.