January 22, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Armed Forces

2009: Missed Opportunities to Protect the United States

After months of delay, President Obama now plans to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, before beginning a U.S. withdrawal in summer 2011.

In announcing his decision, Obama reminded us this war is not optional. While a welcome statement, the approach sends mixed messages that raise questions about America’s long-term commitment to success.

The reinforcements fell far short of General Stanley McChrystal’s “medium risk” recommendation (40,000 troops) and are dangerously shy of the war commander’s preferred 60,000 to 80,000 additional forces, which would ensure the “maximum chance of success.”

Worse, the President’s pronouncement that the U.S. will start withdrawing troops next summer has unnerved our allies and given the Taliban an unnecessary boost. The timeframe is unrealistically brief for U.S. forces to fully accomplish their mission. Instead of acting as a decisive commander-in-chief firmly committed to victory -- a word never uttered during the speech at West Point -- President Obama came across an uncertain leader eager to split the differences within a divided administration.

The Afghanistan announcement was just one in a series of decisions that may well have weakened American ability to respond to both current national security challenges and those on the horizon.

The administration’s year-long failed “engagement” experiment has given Iran ample opportunity to expand its nuclear efforts, test increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles, crush opposition protests, threaten the destruction of Israel, provide increasingly lethal rockets for its terrorist allies Hezbollah and Hamas, and continue its support for anti-American militias that try to kill U.S. forces in Iraq.

Even after the Iranian regime made a mockery of U.S. diplomatic efforts by building another secret uranium enrichment facility and ignoring Obama’s year-end nuclear deadline, the White House is still clinging to wishful thinking about the possibility of reaching a diplomatic settlement. The President has abandoned his own deadline and will persist with diplomatic efforts.

Meanwhile, the White House opposes congressional sanctions that might offend Tehran and has basically ruled out the use of force. This creates a dangerous situation in which Israel, facing an existential threat from Iran, may be forced to launch a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The administration’s negotiations with Russia over arms control and Iranian sanctions similarly went nowhere, yet the President appears eager to sacrifice important U.S. interests -- including missile defense, nuclear modernization and conventional strike systems -- in the hopes of a deal.

The long-term picture is just as dire. The administration has ignored crucial and overdue military modernization. The president’s budget severely cuts defense spending in real terms in the years ahead.

This will undermine the military’s ability to maintain its technological edge for the next generation and prevent an already-stressed force from meeting its growing operational requirements. The President’s intentional underinvestment in defense is astounding when compared to the unprecedented explosion in domestic spending in 2009 alone.

In a watershed year, the administration dramatically reshaped the future of America’s military. In the years ahead, it’s prepared to shed capabilities our leaders and citizens take for granted. Those capabilities include strategic defense; control of the seas; air superiority; space control; projecting power to distant regions; and information dominance throughout cyberspace. More worrisome, this is happening without any careful reevaluation of America’s global mission or foreign policy guidance.

The far-reaching implications of presidential decisions can last for decades. Today’s armed forces mostly employ equipment built under President Reagan. The military’s major platforms today include tactical aircraft that are more than 20 years old; Army combat vehicles and cargo helicopters with an average age of nearly 20 years; Navy cruisers also 20 years old; maritime surveillance aircraft almost 25 years old; bombers and transport aircraft nearly 21, and tanker aircraft a record 45 years old.

President Obama has made an urgent situation worse by cutting missile-defense funding by almost 15 percent and cancelling the “third site” program to field long-range missile-defense interceptors and radar in eastern Europe. He has stopped buying fifth-generation air superiority fighters and indefinitely delayed the Navy’s next-generation cruiser. Obama slashed the Army’s ground combat vehicle program, chose not to buy a next-generation bomber and tried to cancel the C-17 cargo airlifter program despite troop increases in Afghanistan.

China and Russia have acquired large numbers of carrier-killer missiles against which the U.S. Navy has no effective defense other than new cruisers. Army modernization is a decade overdue. And airlift is crucial to moving troops and equipment safely around the globe. Neglecting these capabilities will make it more difficult for us to respond to foreseeable threats in the future.

Last year exposed the limits of soft power. The administration has sacrificed important foreign policy and military advantages, decisions that will prove much more costly than a proper up front investment in our military would have.


Mackenzie M. Eaglen is Senior Policy Analyst for National Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Mackenzie Eaglen Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in Human Events