The U.S. Cannot Wish Away Its Present Security Concerns

Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Poster Collection, US 1153, Hoover Institution Archives.
Poster Collection, US 1153, Hoover Institution Archives.
Poster Collection, US 1153, Hoover Institution Archives.

Grand strategy requires states to have a long-term plan. It also requires that means and ends be clearly articulated and calibrated to each other. The Obama administration’s long-term plan appears to shift U.S. economic and military assets away from the Middle East and toward Asia.1 The Middle East, however, shows no signs of relinquishing its role as the world’s central battleground. Furthermore, means and ends are mixed together as priorities under the Obama doctrine.

The Obama doctrine holds that fiscal constraints, including the need to reduce the deficit and debt, and rebalancing of the U.S. military away from the “wartime strategy” of the last decade dictate national priorities in defense and foreign policy.2These priorities are: protecting the homeland; ending U.S. involvement in the two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; countering terrorism and dismantling terrorist organizations, especially in the Middle East and North Africa; rebalancing U.S. economic diplomacy and military resources toward the Indo-Pacific region; enhancing existing relationships with allies in Europe and elsewhere; developing new partnerships with states and regional organizations; maintaining a leadership role in major international organizations; controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction; reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles; resizing the military and reducing the rate of increases in defense spending; and improving and using cyber techniques, drones, and special operations forces to combat state and transnational threats as much as possible.3

During the 2008 presidential race, Senator Barack Obama began to articulate his strategic priorities. He declared: “I will focus…on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”4 Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became the top priorities for the White House in January 2009.

The president has remained remarkably consistent about his national security priorities. In January 2012, the Department of Defense issued Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.5 According to White House and Defense Department senior officials, the report emerged from unprecedented conversations among national security principals, including the president, and thus should be viewed as a comprehensive statement of U.S. strategic priorities. To support this new guidance, President Obama, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a joint press conference to highlight the positions presented in the report.6

Echoing statements from his presidential campaign, the president declared that the wars against terrorists and tyrants in the Middle East were ending in large part because: “We’ve decimated al-Qaida’s leadership. We’ve delivered justice to Osama bin Laden and we put that terrorist network on the path to defeat…. Now we’re turning the page on a decade of war…. And as the transition in Afghanistan continues, more of our troops will continue to come home.”7 He then spoke of downsizing the military and the U.S. footprint around the world: “As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints, we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces.”

While the Obama administration seeks to have the U.S. military presence recede in the Middle East, it has declared that U.S. military and economic presence in Asia will grow. In fact, the president has said that “budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region.” According to the Obama Doctrine, the twenty-first century will be the American-Asia Pacific Century.

Following the president’s remarks, Secretary of Defense Panetta spoke of the administration’s crowning counterterrorism achievement of “hav[ing] significantly weakened al-Qaida and decimated its leadership.” He added that the “serious deficit and debt problem” was a “national security risk” that contributed to the need to reduce the size of the military. Reiterating the president’s comments, Panetta noted that “the U.S. military will increase its institutional weight and focus on enhanced presence, power projection, and deterrence in the Asia-Pacific.” At the same time, however, he said that the U.S. will continue to be a major political and military force in the Middle East.

Panetta also remarked: “The bottom line of what we’re seeing happen is that we’ve just ended the mission in Iraq, and we’re in the process of ending a mission in Afghanistan. And I think our view is that we’ve achieved those missions, or we’re in the process of achieving those missions.”

As reflected in the strategic guidance document, the secretary of defense in 2012 stated that in addition to the military requirements necessary for the Asia rebalance, cyber security and special operations will be protected in the defense budget. The expectation is that cyber and special operations forces will be central parts of “a force sized and shaped differently than the military of the Cold War, the post-Cold War force of the 1990s, or the force that was built over the past decade to engage in large-scale ground wars.”

General Dempsey joined his colleagues when he emphasized the Asia focus of U.S. national security policy: “Our strategic challenges in the future will largely emanate out of the Pacific region.”

These priorities are fully reflected in the Quadrennial Defense Review, 2014. In line with the 2012 strategic guidance, the QDR 2014 states that the U.S. “has enduring interests in the Middle East, and we will remain fully committed to the security of our partners in the region.” But “the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region” is a priority that is well in the making. The overall rebalancing and resizing of U.S. forces is largely due to “increasing fiscal constraint.”8

Consider just a few international crises that have bubbled up in the past few months. Russia has annexed part of Ukraine. The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) is a formidable military and political force in Syria and Iraq, and has gained control of more territory than al-Qaeda could have realistically ever hoped to dominate. An ISIS caliphate would redefine the Middle East. Missiles are pointed at Israel from every direction. Hundreds of innocent Palestinians in Gaza have perished in the cross-border conflict that is consuming both sides. These political realities are clearly at odds with the Obama administration’s strategic guidance.

The United States has a mix of priorities that are not specifically tied to the major project of resizing the US military. During his speech at West Point last spring, President Obama once again ticked off major achievements on his priority list: “Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.”[9]

The recent QDR, issued a few months before the West Point speech, presents a different assessment. It states that “although core al Qai’da has been severely degraded, instability in the Middle East and civil war in Syria have enabled al Qai’da to expand its global reach and operate in new areas.”[10] The Obama administration is resizing the U.S. military in the midst of partial fulfillment of its ambitious list of priorities.

As the only superpower, the United States provides extended deterrence for much of the world.  When its leadership fails to tie priorities to an overall strategy that can be clearly articulated and understood by domestic and international audiences, it is no surprise that chaos ensues even in countries where the White House once claimed to have helped improve security and secured sovereignty. The absence of a strategy is also why President Obama’s recent speech at West Point fell flat for many Democrats and Republicans. As a warning to adversaries, it lacked credibility.


1. On the Asia shift, see statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama in the fall of 2011., and, both accessed on August 4, 2014.

2. The Quadrennial Defense Review, 2014 notes that “the 2010 QDR was fundamentally a wartime strategy.” It then marks off how the national priorities outlined in the Defense Strategic Guidance, 2012 and the QDR 2014 are premised on a significantly reduced military. See, for example, page 12., accessed on August 4, 2014.

6. According to then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “In my experience, this has been an unprecedented process, to have the President of the United States participate in discussions involving the development of a defense strategy, and to spend time with our service chiefs and spend time with our combatant commanders to get their views. It’s truly unprecedented.” See, accessed on August 4, 2014.