In his speech yesterday on the U.S. government's debt problem, President Barack Obama called on the Defense Department to make a bigger contribution to the solution. The president said,
Over the last two years, Secretary Bob Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again. We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but we're going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world. I intend to work with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs on this review, and I will make specific decisions about spending after it's complete.
When the President of the United States announces a major cut in defense spending and "a fundamental review ... of our role in a changing world" in consecutive sentences, other heads of government around the world will certainly take notice. They will then make adjustments to their own security strategies, adjustments which are bound to produce cascading consequences.
In a press release from yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee conveniently listed six occasions over the past year when Gates explicitly warned against making arbitrary cuts to the defense budget without considering the potential strategic consequences. According to VOA, Gates was notified on Tuesday, without prior consultation, that Obama would call for a $400 billion defense chop the next day. Gates's press secretary immediately tossed a brush-back pitch at the White House; his press release from the Pentagon repeated Gates's previous warning:
[T]he secretary has been clear that further significant defense cuts cannot be accomplished without reducing forces structure and military capabilities," Morrell continued. "The comprehensive review of missions, capabilities and America's role in the world will identify alternatives for the president's consideration."
Accomplishing the president's goal, Morrell added, will "must be about managing risks associated with future threats and national security challenges and identifying missions that the country is —to forego."
Over the past two years, Gates has already terminated a long list of weapons programs, wrung out $178 billion in management efficiencies, and agreed to significant headcount reductions in the Army and Marine Corps as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. Obama has asked Gates to "do that again." But Gates won't be able to "do that again" without substantial cuts to the force structure - the law of diminishing marginal returns regarding "easy" savings has now set in.
Cutting force structure unavoidably means diminishing America's global security presence. Just as a body suffering from hypothermia abandons the extremities to maintain temperature in the core organs, both Obama and Gates seem to recognize that a shrunken U.S. military will have to pull back to protect top priorities such as the Indo-Pacific region, while leaving partners elsewhere in the world to manage for themselves as best as they can. The result will be regional arms races, increased nuclear and missile proliferation, and the establishment of new outposts around the world by America's rising rivals.
With his speech yesterday, Obama implied that he is —to accept these consequences. With his speeches over the past year, Gates has stated that he is not. What remains to be seen is what Gates will do next. In the little time he has remaining in office, Gates will no doubt attempt to school Obama about the risks and consequences the president seems —to create. Should Gates ultimately turn on Obama, it would be politically devastating for the president. That is another risk Obama seems —to take.