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Obama’s New Old Defense Strategy

When President Obama unveiled his military budget earlier this year, it was clear that he was essentially putting a new defense strategy on the table. The Pentagon’s plan called for the ranks of the active-duty Army to be reduced from 570,000 to 490,000 troops over five years. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, was supposed to shrink from 202,000 to 182,000. At the same time, drones were a high priority in the budget—not surprising, given that Obama has ordered about five times as many drone attacks as his predecessor. According to Robert Haddick, writing at Foreign Policy, “the Pentagon intends to keep its ability to maintain continuous drone surveillance over 65 spots on the globe, with the capability to surge that to 85 if necessary.”

For some observers, including Haddick, Obama’s approach called to mind no one so much as Donald Rumsfeld. Obama’s proposals have “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,” wrote Steve Clemons of The Atlantic back in January. Writing in The Washington Times recently, Mackubin Thomas Owens was even more blunt. “Is Donald Rumsfeld secretly advising the Obama Pentagon on force-planning issues?” he asked. “If the president’s recently proposed force structure is any indication, the answer is yes.”

Like the Obama administration today, Bush’s first secretary of defense pushed for a military that was nimble, highly mobile, high-tech, and smaller—one that left a light footprint, relying on Special Forces more and on conventional forces less. In his memoir, Dov Zakheim, who served as Rumsfeld’s under secretary of defense, provided a succinct summary of the plan: The Afghan war “highlighted the importance of space-based support, advanced computer processing, flexible and responsive command and control, unmanned aerial vehicles, precision guided munitions, and aircraft carriers and long-range bombers. ... At the same time, the military action in Afghanistan seemed to militate against large conglomerations of land forces.”

But Rumsfeld ultimately failed to remake the military in this image. There were two main reasons. One was the displeasure of the defense industry and many officials within the Pentagon at seeing traditional, big-ticket weapons— which had long been used to fight land wars—replaced with high-tech gear. The second factor was the invasion of Iraq. In 1990–1991, it had taken the United States five months to build up 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia before it was ready to attack Iraq. When Rumsfeld began preparing for a second war against Saddam Hussein, the existing plans recommended a force of similar scale—400,000 to 500,000 troops. Rumsfeld rejected the recommendation and ordered his advisers to draft a plan that relied on a much smaller force. In the end, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 with about 200,000 troops. Rushing toward Baghdad, it took the troops less than one month to topple Hussein’s regime. But, as the occupation began to devolve into civil war, it became clear to most observers that the invasion force had only been large enough to win the war, not the peace. When it came to nation building—in Iraq and later in Afghanistan as well—Rumsfeld’s vision was deemed entirely inadequate.

The question now is: Will this latest attempt to remake the military succeed where Rumsfeld failed? There are some reasons to think it might. The overwhelming angst in the country about the deficit could help Obama to justify curtailing traditional weapons systems and downsizing the Army. In the past, conservatives typically opposed military cuts; now, however, some members of the Tea Party support trimming military spending.

Meanwhile, our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq may have changed views in the country about some of Rumsfeld’s ideas. For one, nation building—the primary thing that a high-tech, small military can’t do—has fallen out of favor with both Democrats and Republicans. For another, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have enhanced the reputation of the Special Forces. The rest of the military has never liked these “irregulars,” who are said to lack discipline and who are viewed as arrogant. John Prados and Ray Stubbe have found that, as far back as the Vietnam war, “[t]he Marines tended to view the Green Berets as an undisciplined rabble.” In Afghanistan and Iraq, however, it was clear that conventional forces were at a great disadvantage in fighting terrorists and insurgency, while the Special Forces were particularly suited to the task. According to former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West, for an eight-month period in 2011, more than half of Taliban fighters killed in Afghanistan were killed by Special Forces and helicopter gunships. “Put another way,” he writes, “10 percent of the force contributed 60 percent of the lethality.”

All of this does not mean that resistance to the vision once championed by Rumsfeld and now put forward by Obama will suddenly melt away. Conventional forces in the military will resist cuts to their ranks, and, thanks to the power of defense lobbyists, we are likely to continue producing more expensive fighters and larger ships than we need. Still, this time around, some of Donald Rumsfeld’s ideas about the military are likely to find more followers than they did ten years ago.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at George Washington University and author of Security First. This article appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of the magazine.