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Obama's Blindspot By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 05, 2008


President-elect Barack Obama appointed his national security team December 1. It included Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, whom Obama had attacked during the Democratic presidential primary because of her Senate votes for using force in Iraq and for declaring Iran a terrorist state. Obama also kept Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. Gates had been appointed to the Pentagon in 2006 by President George W. Bush and oversaw the troop "surge" that turned the war around in Iraq, despite Obama's prediction that the surge was destined to fail.

Obama launched his White House campaign on the leftist antiwar plank of an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. He has now changed his tune. At Monday's press conference, he said that Gates' mission will be "responsibly ending the war in Iraq through a successful transition to Iraqi control." The president-elect said he wanted to bring most – but not necessarily all – American combat troops home from Iraq within 16 months, pending consultations with his military commanders about the pace of withdrawal. Obama cited the newly completed U.S.-Iraq agreement that covers the presence of American troops in Iraq until 2011, saying it signals "a transition period in which our mission is changing." He added, "It indicates we are now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq." Obama's more pragmatic stance on Iraq, coupled with his support for stronger military efforts in Afghanistan, have sparked hope in the national security community that the incoming administration is not the isolationist, cut-and-run gang that MoveOn.org and other defeatist groups had hoped for when they endorsed Obama's candidacy.

"We're going to have to bring the full force of our power, not only military but also diplomatic, economic, and political, to deal with threats, not only to keep America safe but also to ensure that peace and prosperity will exist around the world," Obama said, noting that his security team nominees, "share my pragmatism about the use of power and my sense of purpose about America's role as a leader in the world."

Susan Rice, whom Obama wants as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is not an isolationist. A Rhodes Scholar who earned a doctorate in international relations at Oxford University, she served on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council staff before rising to Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. She has argued that it was a mistake not to have intervened in Rwanda in 1994 when hundreds of thousands of Rwanda's Tutsis were massacred by Hutus in a tribal war that continues to play out today in the Congo. "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required," she told The Atlantic Monthly in 2001. Last year, she testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and repeated her argument made in The Washington Post (Oct. 2, 2006) for military action to stop the slaughter of black Africans in the Sudan by the Islamic dictatorship. She said, "The U.S., preferably with NATO involvement and African political support, would strike Sudanese airfields, aircraft and other military assets. They could blockade Port Sudan, through which Sudan's oil exports flow. Then, the UN force would deploy – by force, if necessary, with U.S. and NATO backing." She even envisioned American troops in the UN ground operation. 

But there may also be a downside to these appointments that runs beyond the current conflicts which Obama realizes cannot be lost on his watch if his presidency is to be considered a success by the American people. Gates, for example, has backed the accelerated expansion of the Army and Marines. Obama has pledged to continue this program, adding 65,000 Army soldiers and 27,000 Marines. The added ground troops are needed to relieve the strain of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Gates has suggested trade-offs may be needed in long term programs to fund the current counter-insurgency campaigns. He has considered cancellation of expensive projects such as the Army's high-tech Future Combat Systems and the Air Force's F-22 air superiority fighter. And he has shown no interest in expanding shipbuilding to maintain a 300-ship Navy which the admirals believe is necessary to sustain America's global reach.

In a May 13 speech, Gates said, "any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to...irregular campaigns." Such one-dimensional thinking, and at the low end of the conflict spectrum, would endanger America's strategic superiority against the most dangerous threats—rival major powers with the resources to expand their international influence. The U.S. and its allies must, of course, win the current campaigns against insurgency and terrorism. But it must be remembered that such irregular warfare is the tactic of the weak, of those whose capabilities are inadequate to win control of people and territory. Sustained irregular warfare on a level that could expand into a successful bid for conquest generally requires outside support for arms, training and diplomatic backing. To deter such outside intervention, a strong U.S. conventional and strategic capability is needed.  

Iran is the prime example of a threat that runs across the entire conflict spectrum. Tehran is an oil-rich extremist state that supports terrorist groups and foreign militias that destabilize the Middle East. It is pursuing a nuclear program which could set off a regional arms race. Iran is backed by China and Russia, who provide both material and diplomatic support as part of their strategies to become peer competitors of the United States.

On November 21, the National Intelligence Council released its Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World report. It painted a grim future consistent with earlier Pentagon predictions of a world torn by "persistent conflict" driven by the same hatreds and ambitions that have always plagued international politics. The NIC warned that "advances by others in science and technology, expanded adoption of irregular warfare tactics by both state and non-state actors, proliferation of long-range precision weapons, and growing use of cyber warfare attacks increasingly will constrict US freedom of action." It is thus imperative that America strive to keep the gap between its capabilities and those of rising rivals as wide as possible by investing in new generations of advanced weapons, high-tech research, and a robust defense industrial base.

Candidate Obama, however, pledged to cut expensive weapons programs, in particular the Future Combat System and missile defense. Last February, Obama told a meeting of Caucus4Priorities, "I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space."  Caucus4Priorities was a project of the Priorities Action Fund, a non-profit organization that wants "to redirect 15% of the Pentagon's discretionary budget away from obsolete Cold War weapons towards education, healthcare, job training, alternative energy development, world hunger, deficit reduction."

On his campaign website, Obama stated, "As we rebuild our armed forces, we must not simply recreate the military of the Cold War era." The Cold War military was designed to fight other major powers. Instead, Obama focused his attention on small wars and humanitarian missions, with an emphasis on special operation forces, Marines and "smaller, more capable ships, providing the agility to operate close to shore."

If Obama wants to cut the purchase of advanced weapons systems to pay for the expensive domestic programs he promised during the campaign, Gates could give him political cover the same way Defense Secretary William Cohen did during the Clinton Administration. Cohen had been a Republican Senator. At the Pentagon, he oversaw the "procurement holiday" of the 1990s when the acquisition of new military equipment practically came to a halt. The American military still has not recovered from that lost decade, which also saw the drastic shrinkage of the defense industry. It should be noted that retired Marine General James Jones, who Obama has chosen as his National Security Advisor, was Secretary Cohen's military assistant.

The NIC report warned that the greater dangers are coming from a resurgent Russia and a rising China, not terrorist groups. Russia was described as "more proactive and influential...and a leading force in opposition to US global dominance." Moscow intends to be an "an energy superpower" capable of "reestablishing a sphere of influence in its Near Abroad." The NIC sees "China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country." China will have the world's second largest economy by 2025, and will be a leading military power. "US security and economic interests could face new challenges if China becomes a peer competitor that is militarily strong as well as economically dynamic and energy hungry." 

Obama has said very little about either Russia or China other than to stress his desire to engage both in new diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes. Expanding and modernizing the American armed forces to confront aggression from either Moscow or Beijing is not on his agenda, nor will it likely appear in his defense budgets.

Yet, the U.S. military must be prepared to fight major wars against other nation-states, or their well-armed proxies. Air supremacy, command of the sea, and the ability to project heavy ground forces are necessary capabilities. Larger, deeper force levels are required for all services, to be issued with the best arms and equipment American industry can devise. If the United States fails at the high-end of conflict, it cannot succeed anywhere else in the long run.

William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.


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