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Obama military strategy: Is it bipartisan enough?

President Obama needed a security strategy before asking for big budget cuts in defense. His plan from the Pentagon calls for America to take more risks, create a lean force, and focus on Asia. But he'll need buy-in from Congress to make it stick.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / January 5, 2012

U.S. Navy deck crew members work beside the China's national flag on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in Hong Kong Dec. 27, 2011. The carrier arrived in Hong Kong for a three-day routine port call.

AP Photo/Kin Cheung

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After three years in office, President Obama has settled on a new strategy for national security to justify big cuts in military spending. In short, the commander in chief is asking Americans to accept greater risks from potential foes and to use the budget savings from a leaner force to strengthen the home economy.

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Under his proposals, future wars – especially on land – may take more time to ramp up and to finish. The United States will need to rely more on other countries. And the Navy and Air Force will be beefed up in Asia and the Middle East to back up America’s compelling interests in those regions.

That’s the big picture, at least. The actual details to achieve it will come in late January when Mr. Obama proposes a budget to Congress, which will make the final decision.

Fortunately, the administration has kept key lawmakers in the loop as the Pentagon drew up the strategy. For more than a century, a once-isolationist America has struggled to define its role in the world with each new challenge, such as 9/11. A national consensus on security is essential to budget decisions as big and consequential as this one.

The bitter political fight over the Iraq war, for instance, only eroded the past bipartisan cohesion on defense. When Obama become president, he first had to clear the decks on that war and set a closing date for the US role in Afghanistan. Only then could he initiate a new vision.

The nation’s budget crisis only adds to the need for a new strategy. Advanced technologies now allow for leaner forces with quicker results. The types of threats shift even faster these days, requiring security agencies to be ever learning, ever nimble.

In fact, Pentagon officials say the new strategy is not set in stone. Take for example their call for no longer keeping a large Army for long land wars or for stabilizing another nation. The Pentagon wants to maintain the know-how and capability to still do that – just not with active troops and equipment at the ready. The Army will thus be downsized.

Similar reductions occurred after the Vietnam War and cold war. Both efforts led to some mistakes, but also a few needed shifts, such as a volunteer force.

Not every president gets it right on security strategy. Congress will need to find the holes in this one. The basic debate is one over values and interests, such as defending oil routes, preventing wholesale massacres, advancing democracy, and protecting trade partners in Asia.

Obama and Congress must set military spending based on a bipartisan strategy, not on what the national budget will allow. The federal government’s primary role is defense of the country. This president promises not to let the military be “ill prepared.” He puts a plan on paper. But the long march to make it real still runs through Congress.

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