Re-ordering of priorities in new US defence strategy

President Obama and defence chiefs Image copyright AFP

The Obama administration has dusted off a new strategy for these cash-strapped times: "Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense."

The title sums it up really, for the word "priorities" hints at the cuts to come, but the promise of sustained leadership speaks of a superpower status that even this current White House does not have the courage to abandon.

For decades during the Cold War, the Pentagon doctrine was to maintain a "two war military". The idea was that the US could deal with two major adversaries in different places at the same time.

This was not just an abstract concept - spending decisions involving hundreds of billions of dollars were based on it. So, for example, the US marines maintained major task forces both in the Pacific and Atlantic, complete with dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft in order to be able to carry out major amphibious operations in both places at the same time.

During the past 20 years the US has cut its forces and Pentagon people started bandying about concepts like a "one-and-a-half war military". That meant being able to fight one major and one lesser adversary at the same time.

Shift to Asia-Pacific

Why did they bother with these ideas?

The US, with its sense of global leadership and "manifest destiny", did not want to admit to its own people that it was scaling back its ambitions in order to save money.

Its strategists were also intensely aware that some enemies to US interests might take a crisis in one part of the world that sucked in the US military to be a green light to start trouble in another.

In today's world, with the Obama administration looking to save anything up to $1tn on defence between now and 2020, there is a new and even more tortured formulation.

Today's paper says, "even when US forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of - or imposing unacceptable costs on - an opportunistic aggressor in a second region".

It is not a two war military, but a war in one place and bit of a nuisance elsewhere military.

As to the geographic and spending impact of this, the paper is clearer. The US is re-ordering its strategic priorities: "We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region".

Europe, the Pentagon says, is better able to look after its own business now, so American commitments in this part of the world are, "evolving".

This is a polite way of saying what Robert Gates, the previous defence secretary said more baldly, that having seen the paltry defence efforts that Europe is willing to make, its time for the US to drawdown.

Subtlety of language

In its new posture, the US will cut hundreds of thousands of soldiers and marines - precisely the people who have done the lion's share of the bleeding in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US will seek other means to deal with such missions, says the document, and, "US forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations".

Here too though the administration is trying to have things two ways. President Barack Obama always wanted to end the Iraq war. For a while he tried to win in Afghanistan, but now wants out of there too.

However the underlying message about US willingness to take on terrorist or non-state groups is still strong.

The Obama administration does not choose the same language about pre-emptive military action that President George W Bush's National Security Strategy espoused, it expresses a similar idea in a more subtle way: "The United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats."

We know this means drone strikes in Yemen or killing Osama Bin Laden in a raid unauthorised by the Pakistani government.

Here too then, the message seems to be that America will pursue similar objectives, but try to achieve them at a lesser cost in lives and treasure.

The proof or otherwise of this approach will be seen in whether the likes of Iran, North Korea, or even China act more boldly than they would have done in time when the US felt more bullish about its defence.