Obama’s Team Could Learn from Rumsfeld on Defense Department Shifts

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obama new defense budget strategy 2012.jpg
photo courtesy:  White House

While budget details of President Obama’s just unveiled new defense strategy remain scant and vague and the President feels the need to continue hawking his combo of budgetary constraint and military hawkishness, stating that his forthcoming budgets would still be larger than those of the preceding Bush administration.  Obama last week stated:

Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but
the fact of the matter is this. It will still grow. In fact, the defense
budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush
administration. And I firmly believe, and I think the American people
understand that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure
with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next
10 countries combined.

Nonetheless, the President and his team are indicating serious shifts in America’s strategic picture.  A rebalancing is underway — troops, resources, and attention shifting away from the Middle East and South Asia with a reconfiguration of assets and slight beefing up in Asia — not just of personnel and naval and air capacity but time on the Presidential attention clock. 

China Vice President Xi Jingping, widely estimated to be the successor later this year to Hu Jintao as China’s next generation President, will visit Washington, DC in February — and the message, communicated by new China handler-in-chief Joe Biden, will be constructive but hard-headed, interest-driven mutual US-China engagement in which the US will communicate that it’s legs in the region aren’t weakening with China’s rise — but rather getting stronger and providing an ongoing platform for the peace and stability that have benefited much of the region including, as one senior White House national security official told me, CHINA.

mearsheimer_john.jpgTo some degree, one might call this element of President Obama’s new strategy the “Mearsheimer Imperative” — responding at long last perhaps unconsciously to University of Chicago uber realist John Mearsheimer‘s call for US focus on China’s inevitable, “offensive realist” ambitions to become “the Godzilla” of the Asia Pacific region — working to push the US out of the regional picture.  In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan has written an incisive and daring profile of Mearsheimer that blasts through the surface noise criticisms of Mearsheimer’s recent work focusing on Israel’s disruption of America’s strategic behavior and choices. (will post link when available — next Tuesday morning 8 am)

But rebalancing slices of the White House’s attention pie are but one part of the strategic shift.  It’s also clear that the era of large-manned occupations of other countries, the wholesale adoption of and rebuilding of states, or COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy, is over.  One element of COIN that grew in the fold of the doctrine was the integration of highly sophisticated information, communications, and geospatial intelligence — informed by feeds of massive data as well as from on the ground intel from small units working in the field — to the battle field and drone targeting.  When America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, its capacities in standing up a “smart army” and “smart soldiers”, fighting units integrated into real time intelligence frameworks, far outstripped any other nation.  But in the ten plus years since, America’s capacities in the intelligence arena as well as the ability to deliver decisive blows to enemies (albeit frequently at intolerably high costs to innocent civilian lives) from relatively remote distances has upended the need and rationale for large scale troop deployments.

Just as the controversial drone has quietly and quickly replaced the manned bomber as the platform of choice for surgical bombing of targets — the information and computing revolution and military capacity that has grown out of it — in part developed in concert with COIN-innovator General David Petraeus‘ support — has made COIN and a big chunk of the US Army less relevant to prosecuting contemporary conflicts.  Petraeus, now Director of Central Intelligence, is helping to usher in new strategies and management for the further consolidation of intelligence to conflict missions.  In some ways, Petraeus was a founding father of COIN, and is now helping to oversee the dismantlement of COIN and ushering in a new successor strategy that is potentially, leaner, smarter, and more nimble — and potentially substantially less costly than COIN.

061108_rumsfeld_hmed_10a.grid-6x2.jpgThis gets me to former defense secretary twice over Donald Rumsfeld — a complicated and controversial personality in the defense and national security arena.  But the overall package that Obama seems to be promulgating in this era of hard choices has played out briefly if unsuccessfully before — and that was when President George W. Bush called Rumsfeld back to service in early 2001 to reshape and modernize the Pentagon.  The Fiscal Times‘ Bradley Graham has written an insightful flashback piece about the arm-wrestling over strategy and defense budgets in that pre-9/11 period when Rumsfeld was skirmishing against the Pentagon’s generals and working to compel efficiencies and new ways of conducting wars. 

While Rumsfeld argues that he was not part of the information-technology intoxicated “revolution in military affairs” crowd, he did become a flag-waver for the deep integration of next generation IT and communications into the broad defense platform — arguing that this would turbo-charge America’s capacity to command theaters of conflict.  After having heard Rumsfeld on a number of occasions at RAND Corporation meetings in the 1980s, I don’t buy his claim not to have seen not only the efficiencies that could come from IT tech leaps but the upticks in real, bottom line military power because of them.

My argument here — despite the controversies over Rumsfeld’s management style and some would argue his disregard for the legal framework for national security decisionmaking after 9/11 — is that Rumsfeld worked through more than any of his other then colleagues what would be required to transform a large footprint, Army-heavy, clunky, globally sprawling military machine into something that shed a lot of that weight — and whose priorities, deployments, and budgets were driven by new factors rather than by some equation of inertia spiced up by safe, risk-averse incrementalism.

I feel like I’m somewhat mimicking Robert Kaplan defense of John Mearsheimer’s value to America’s strategic course in suggesting that Donald Rumsfeld, derided by many, also has quite significant insights into the struggles that the Pentagon and White House are working through now. 

I haven’t spoken to Rumsfeld about this subject recently — but about six months ago at a meeting he and his staff invited me to with Henry Kissinger, I did raise with him my sense that the hard choices the Obama administration would face budgetarily would force a return to the issues he wrestled with in early 2001 and I got no push-back from the former Defense Secretary.

Leon Panetta has continued to talk somewhat obliquely about “n
umbers
” when trying to defend defense and military capacities of the country.  He did this at the recent Halifax International Security Forum — and has largely continued to do it when responding to Congress or public questions about his concerns that budget cuts not cut deeply into the muscle of America’s national security machinery.

What Panetta could learn, and I mean this in a constructive way, from Donald Rumsfeld is the capacity to think and speak out loud about what forces might look like in a reconfigured Pentagon dealing with a very different terrain of conflict than the types of wars and conflict the Pentagon was organized to deal with during the last many decades.

The military has been having this sort of discussion about strategy and mission needs behind closed doors — not much transparency — and this is something that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey has said was a good thing.  I respectfully disagree. 

Rumsfeld’s public ruminations about what might be possible in achieving efficiencies and dealing with a tough budgetary environment were leading the nation in my view to do some of the “rebalancing” back in early 2001 that would have been healthy for the country.  Robert Kagan, writing in July 2001, strongly disagreed with my perspective, but his piece gives a sense of the times before 9/11 that roughly feel like the budgetary and hard choice debates unfolding today. 

A return to Rumsfeld’s efforts to strangle some parts of the Pentagon while conceptualizing new ways to achieve security would be a constructive discussion for the Obama team to consider.  

Obama, Leon Panetta, Tom Donilon, Ashton Carter, David Petraeus, General Dempsey and others on the Obama national security team may find that such public discourse could very well help Americans see something that might be true — that greater security deliverables are possible with reform and change, even amidst budget cuts. 

Maybe it’s time to invite Donald Rumsfeld to be invited to join the respective advisory boards tasked with thinking through new blueprints for a reformed and rewired military strategy.  Controversial, of course — but also a smart thing to do, even in an election year.

– Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons

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