On Thursday, January 5, President Barack Obama announced a new, leaner US defense strategy. DW spoke with America expert Johannes Thimm about how severe the envisioned budget cuts will actually be.
Johannes Thimm is an America expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
Deutsche Welle: The most spectacular-sounding announcement from Obama's Thursday press conference on the new defense strategy was that the US was giving up the idea of being able to fight two wars simultaneously. How important is this really?
Johannes Thimm: I'd argue that people are making more out of it than it really is. The guideline of being able to wage two large-scale ground wars at once was a theoretical one. It was there to advocate the idea that the US has the most powerful military in the world and is active all over the world. The Defense Strategic Guidance is a very general document. We'll have to wait for the budget to see where the cuts are actually being made. What I would stress is that the US is still responsible for almost half of global defense expenditures, meaning it spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. And that includes a lot of US allies. The US will still be able to intervene in several situations simultaneously. What it may mean is that the US won't be able to wage two large-scale ground wars at once. But then you have to ask yourself: How likely is that prospect?
The US emphasis is turning toward Asia, and Obama mentioned China explicitly, saying the US needed to be able to combat “asymmetrical means” of conflict. What might he have meant by that?
My guess is that he's referring either to cyber-attacks, since there’s been a lot of cyber espionage from Chinese sources, or to China's program of developing torpedoes capable of attacking aircraft carriers and large battleships. Asymmetrical might also mean that China is unable to defeat the US in a conventional naval war but could hinder the US from carrying out naval patrols in the South China Sea.
The US will be scaling back its presence in Europe. Does that mean more military responsibility for European nations? And did the campaign against Colonel Kadhafi in Libya provide an example for how that might work?
The main drawdown in Europe is with respect to the number of ground forces stationed there. This is not something new. It's been coming for some time. The general idea is that the US will focus on areas of potential crises. That will continue to be the Middle East, and there will be more attention paid to Asia with the rise of China. There's no real threat from Europe. Things are generally pretty stable. And the operation in Libya may have been a possible model for future cooperation between the US and its NATO allies, where the US hopes its European partners will take on a greater role in stability operations.
What's motivating the announcement of this policy right now?
You have to keep in mind the whole background to this is the huge US deficit and the desire to cut government spending. About a year ago, Obama asked the Pentagon to come up with a plan to save around $450 billion (352 billion euros) over the next ten years compared to what they were planning to spend. The base US defense budget has grown by more than 80 percent over the past ten years, and that doesn’t include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were funded by supplemental budgets. So really, the cuts being discussed now are ones to be made from a very high level of expenditure. Adjusted for inflation and in absolute dollar terms, the US defense budget is higher than it’s ever been, including the era of the Cold War. And these are not cuts to the present level of spending but from projected growth.
Critics in the US have said this tantamount to an American retreat from the world.
I believe that’s exaggerated. I think these criticisms come from people who are motivated by institutional interests. The military itself, of course, doesn't want to cut anything unless it has to. Then there are defense contractors. They want to sell as many of the weapons they build as possible. So there are powerful vested interests that want to keep spending as much as possible on defense, and they're sounding the alarm now about the proposed cuts. But historically, the current expenditures are very high. And compared to the rest of the world, they're really, really high. I would say there's a lot of room for maneuver. We're talking about cuts of around eight percent of what was projected. I would argue that to say the US is withdrawing from the world because of an eight-percent cut to projections, starting from a very high base level, is outrageous.
I'd also point out that the Budget Control Act of 2011 established a super-committee to deal with the budget crisis. This law says that if the super-committee fails to reach agreement, which is the case right now, then there will be a trillion dollars of automatic across-the-board cuts in 2013, half of which will come out of the Pentagon budget. If you include interest, that would mean another $492 billion on top of what's being discussed now. If those cuts come into effect, they are going to be much more drastic than what's being discussed now.
2012 is an election year in the US. What role is that playing, especially in how the policy was presented with Obama going to the Pentagon?
Clearly, Obama wants to show that he's on top of the issue and to prevent attacks from the Republicans that he's weak on defense. The fact that he went over to the Pentagon and that the officials repeatedly stressed his involvement in the decision-making process about where to make cuts is intended to show that he's in command. I think he's not very vulnerable on this front. His foreign policy has been more successful than his domestic initiatives. The fact that the US was able to kill Osama bin Laden and the success of the Libya intervention are going to make it pretty hard to attack him on foreign policy and defense. But the way the announcement was presented is intended to stress that he's a good commander-in-chief.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Michael Knigge