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Obama Unveils Downsized, Refocused Defense Strategy

  • RFE/RL

U.S. President Barack Obama (center) announces the new strategy at the Pentagon.

U.S. President Barack Obama (center) announces the new strategy at the Pentagon.

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama has unveiled a new strategy for the Defense Department that downsizes the U.S. military, pivots away from costly ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and shifts focus to a rising China.

Speaking at the Pentagon – in an appearance thought to be a first for a U.S. president -- Obama said the plan he helped forge would balance the need to "keep our military the finest the world has ever known" with the need to address the staggering budget shortfall in Washington.

He said the plan would make the military "leaner" but "agile" and establish clear defense priorities.

"I called for this comprehensive defense review to clarify our strategic interests in a fast-changing world, and to guide our defense priorities and spending over the coming decade, because the size and structure of our military and defense budget have to be driven by a strategy, not the other way around," Obama said.

"Moreover, we have to remember the lessons of history," he added. "We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past, after World War II, after Vietnam, when our military was left ill-prepared for the future."

In a break from the U.S. defense posture of the post-9/11 decade, the new strategy will see the military lose its ability to fight two protracted ground wars at once.

Instead, it will be required to fight and win one war, thwart the military advances of an enemy in another part of the world, and maintain its capacity to conduct counterterrorism and humanitarian missions.

'Turning The Page'

With U.S. troops out of Iraq and the military presence receding in Afghanistan, Obama said the Pentagon must reflect that "we're turning the page on a decade of war."

"As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the end of long-term nation-building with large military footprints, we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces," he said. "We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction, and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access."

Obama also made clear that the Pentagon is no longer exempt from government belt-tightening.

The new strategy does not specify which defense programs will be affected as the department faces potential spending cuts over the next 10 years of $450 billion to $1 trillion -- the largest reductions since the end of the Cold War.

Details are expected to emerge next month, when the White House releases its proposed 2013 budget.

Speaking alongside Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta conceded that not everyone will be happy with the new measures.

"Savings must be achieved in a balanced manner, with everything on the table, including politically sensitive areas that will likely provoke opposition from parts of the Congress, from industry, and from advocacy groups," he said. "That's the nature of making hard choices."

Strengthening In Asia-Pacific

The new Pentagon strategy is also aimed at increasing the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where China's military capabilities are on the rise.

Early evidence of that shift in focus came in November, when Obama unveiled plans to station a contingent of U.S. Marines in northern Australia.

At the Pentagon, Obama said the cutbacks would not affect U.S. contributions to NATO or what he called U.S. "vigilance" in the Middle East at a time of political upheaval and increasing tensions with Iran.

"We’ll be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region," Obama said. "We’re going to continue investing in our critical partnerships and alliances, including NATO, which has demonstrated time and again, most recently in Libya, that it’s a force multiplier. We’re going to stay vigilant, especially in the Middle East."

And he sent a clear signal that even with the spending cuts, American forces will remain the strongest in the world. The U.S. defense budget, he noted, will continue "to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined."

written by Richard Solash, with agency reports

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