President Barack Obama, accompanied by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta,… (Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP )
As President Obama stood on the podium in the Pentagon briefing room Thursday to outline the nation’s defense priorities, the military stood with him. Their primary audience was a few miles across the Potomac River — in Congress.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose beloved Army will face a significant troop reduction under Obama’s plan, was at the president’s side. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos, whose service will also shrink, stood just behind him. And over Obama’s right shoulder loomed Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the former commander in Iraq who is now chief of staff of the Army.
“Many of us met repeatedly — asking tough questions, challenging our assumptions, making hard choices,” Obama said. “And we’ve come together today around an approach that will keep our nation safe and our military the finest in the world.”
For a president denounced by Republican rivals as a weak and irresponsible commander in chief, the show of military support represented a political windfall for Obama as he begins campaigning in earnest for a second term.
But it also marked an evolution in Obama’s practice of Washington politics. It is evidence that, after being outmaneuvered by congressional Republicans several times, he does not intend to make the same mistakes in an election year.
By enlisting the military’s help in defining its strategic priorities, Obama has sought to ensure that he has the military’s support when his defense budget goes before Congress, including the committees led by some of his toughest Republican critics. Military leaders, in turn, now have reason to believe that Obama will not agree to more cuts.
The eight-page strategy document outlines the country’s changing military priorities after a decade of war and enshrines as policy the drone killings and other methods that Obama has relied on during his term. More than any speech he has delivered, the review places Obama’s distinctive mark on the direction of the military.
The document — and the process that created it — also sends an unmistakable message to Congress as the threat of automatic budget cuts looms: Obama and the military leadership agree on the size, scope and mission of the armed forces in a new age of austerity. The White House wasted no time in turning the spotlight on Congress, using polite language that amounted to a dare.
“The challenge will be on Capitol Hill,” said Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser. “It will be challenging to maintain the unified nature of the strategy through the congressional budget process.”
Under the Budget Control Act, signed by Obama in August as part of a hard-won deal with Congress to lift the borrowing limit, the Pentagon budget must be reduced by about $487 billion in the next decade, a roughly 8 percent decrease.
But under a process known as sequestration, that figure could double if Obama and Congress fail by the end of the year to cut an additional $1.2 trillion in government spending in the next decade.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and military commanders have warned in apocalyptic terms that such reductions would gut the armed forces. Obama has cast himself as a fully committed ally, behaving as if the worst-case scenario does not exist.
“The executive branch is totally ignoring sequestration,” said a senior administration official concerned about the military’s predicament who was not authorized to speak for attribution. “We are making no preparations at all.”
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill criticized Obama’s set of strategic priorities, suggesting that defense spending cuts, even those required by last year’s budget act, are unnecessary.
In a statement, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said “an honest and valid strategy for national defense can’t be founded on the premise that we must do more with less or less with less.” McKeon, who voted for the Budget Control Act last year, said Obama’s view is “founded on hope and a hollow force.”
A strategic rationale
Over four months in the fall, Obama held a half-dozen meetings with uniformed military commanders, service secretaries and the National Security Council. The sessions featured Obama as professor in chief, the hybrid role that has become the hallmark of his behind-closed-doors leadership style.
The objective was to ensure that the expected cuts would remain consistent with the country’s changing national security priorities, and to build a strategic rationale to defend those choices as a package on Capitol Hill.
“It will provide a benchmark for understanding the impact of changes” to the defense budget, Dempsey said in an e-mail, referring to the review. “Without a strategic benchmark, it would be impossible to assess the impact of future cuts.”