WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office have been marked by several major initiatives on national security issues – including new strategies for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a defense department budget designed to transform the way the world’s most powerful military operates.
On Wednesday, Pentagon officials ticked off what they see as the major accomplishments of the last 100 days – new plans for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the launch of a major review of defense policies and operations, and efforts to improve the care given to wounded troops, and provided better support and equipment to forces in the field, among other initiatives.
The list does not even include efforts to address regional issues such as piracy off the African coast, China’s fast-moving military modernization program, European missile defense, nuclear arms talks with Russia and concerns about the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
Among the most far-reaching decisions is President Obama’s proposed defense budget for next year, which cuts some major weapons and aircraft programs, and places a clear emphasis on the counterinsurgency warfare the United States finds itself involved in now.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates presented the budget on April 6. “We must re-balance this department’s programs in order to institutionalize and finance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today, and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead, while at the same time providing a hedge against other risks and contingencies,” he said.
Gates is using his stature as the only defense secretary in U.S. history to be asked to stay on from one administration to the next. He says his budget plan is based on the country’s needs, and has indicated that any criticism is likely be politically motivated.
But analysts like Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute say there is plenty of legitimate criticism to make. “I’m very much disturbed by the announced cuts in the defense budget and in defense programs that inevitably will lead to a diminution of the capability of American military forces over the course of time,” he said.
Donnelly says while Secretary Gates speaks of balancing risks, what he really is doing is increasing risks. “To balance risk, but at a greater total level of risk, is ultimately a big step backward. So to be equally unable to respond to conventional warfare – and we have seen the stresses and the struggles of the force to respond to the challenges of irregular warfare over the last couple of years – doesn’t strike me as much of an improvement whatsoever,” he said.
Donnelly is also concerned that the defense department is being asked to cut costs, while other government departments are being allowed to spend more on domestic programs.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution shares that concern, but says alarms being rung by some critics are exaggerated, as are claims that the Obama-Gates defense plan is revolutionary. “Despite the fact that Mr. Gates has proposed a number of generally well thought through proposals, I still would put this in the category of evolution, not revolution. And that’s just fine by me,” he said.
Both O’Hanlon and Donnelly note that there could be major changes in the administration’s defense plan now that Congress is preparing to debate it.
The two analysts agree that the next several hundred days will be as important as President Obama’s first hundred days.
O’Hanlon says now it is time to take the big ideas the president has articulated – the war strategies and the budget, for example – and do the hard work of implementing them.
“There are a lot of specific, concrete, substantive changes that now need to be implemented on the ground. And the initial period of just getting the big picture right and changing the tone of American foreign policy is now going to have to be replaced by the period of tactical execution and of rolling up one’s sleeves and getting down to work in a more detailed way,” he said.
Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman summed it up this way. “It’s been a busy 100 days by anybody’s account. And I suspect that the next hundred is going to be just as busy,” he said.
With two wars, a security crisis in Pakistan, a pending budget fight in Congress and a variety defense issues worldwide, that may be an understatement.