New defense strategy guidance: Hardly a strategic pivot

By Kevin Ryan

(Brigadier General, US Army, Retired, and Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School)

Don’t get me wrong – I am pleased that the executive branch and defense establishment have developed a fresh expression of our national defense goals and strategy from the top down, as it should be. But let’s stop calling this new guidance a “strategic pivot” or a spectacular break from the past.

The new strategic defense guidance, announced at a Pentagon press conference on January 5th by the President, is primarily an apologia for having a smaller active duty Army and Marine Corps and a clear declaration that we have suspended our interest in conflicts the size of Afghanistan or larger.  The guidance projects that our main areas of interest will be the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region.  In the Middle East we’ll be “countering violent extremists and destabilizing threats” and in the Asia Pacific we’ll “maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely.”

Those goals are no different from what we are attempting to do now.  They are the same goals.  The main change that the guidance brings us is that we will not be sending large armed forces anywhere.  “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”  [emphasis added in the guidance]  That’s the news.

What the guidance is really saying is that America is exhausted from the current wars and, in a twist of the WWI song, “we won’t be back til it’s over over there.”

Hotspots like Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea can all rest easy for the next few years.  Partners like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Japan, and South Korea should take notice that the US is drawing inward.  States that are near-peer competitors like China and Russia should be reassured that America is putting its rifles in the arms room.   This pronouncement may do more in support of the president’s Nobel Peace Prize than anything else he has done.

Since I didn’t think our defense goals were wrong before, and this new guidance essentially carries those goals forward, I actually don’t have any major objection to its substance.  On the whole, this new guidance document is an improvement over previous defense reviews.  It cost less and was done more quickly.

President Obama discusses new strategic defense guidance plan at a news conference on Jan. 5, flanked by military and Pentagon leaders including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Deputy Secretary Ashton B. Carter, the former director of the Belfer Center. (AP Photo)

There are only two problems I foresee with this new strategy and, they are the same problems that existed with previous strategies.  In fact they are perpetual problems.  One is the failure to stay within our limited resources and the other is the tendency to plan in a vacuum.  Those two errors plagued our plans for war in Iraq and Afghanistan and, I believe they may be present in the current plan.

It’s well and good to say today that we will retain a smaller Army and Marine Corps but, if tomorrow our political leaders decide to enter a conflict bigger than we projected, we’ll pay in human treasure as we scramble to ramp up our forces.  Most observers would agree that is what happened over the past decade.  We must be on guard against this mistake in the future.

Secondly, in preparing for post-war Iraq and Afghanistan uniformed and civilian defense planners liberally assigned tasks and responsibilities to diplomats and developers who were never fully part of the planning process.  The new guidance seems to repeat this error: “Meeting these challenges cannot be the work of the military alone which is why we have strengthened all the tools of American power, including diplomacy and development, intelligence, and homeland security.”  I wonder if those other tools of American power feel that they have been sufficiently “strengthened” by increase funding and personnel to assume the duties the defense establishment has assigned them.  And I wonder if they feel adequately vested in the new defense strategy, since nowhere in the guidance is there any mention by the president or secretary of coordination with those agencies.   I have my doubts.

Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan is Executive Director for Research at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His last duty assignment in the Army was Deputy Director, Army Strategy, Plans, and Policy

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