Editorial Board

Filling in the Details of the Obama Doctrine

What, exactly, is the Obama Doctrine, and how is it doing?

Three events in the past week -- the NATO summit in Chicago, President Barack Obama’s commencement speech at the Air Force Academy and congressional action on the 2013 defense spending bill -- gave new insight into the strengths, weaknesses and challenges facing the global defense framework first outlined in the administration’s National Security Strategy of 2010.

First, the good news. The NATO conference was largely a success in terms of its main goal: reaching agreement on a plan to withdraw the bulk of allied forces from Afghanistan in 2014. The administration has turned what could have become a mad dash for the exits by the Europeans into a brisk, organized march to the door. The struggle now is for financing. Given Europe’s economic situation, the Obama administration failed to get sufficiently generous commitments from allies to chip in for the $4.1 billion that will be needed annually to keep Afghan forces viable after Western troops leave.

Equally important but less-noticed events in Chicago showed progress on one of the most welcome innovations of the Obama vision: fighting global terrorism and other threats through stronger alliances.

The NATO partners agreed on nearly two dozen initiatives designed to provide military capabilities that none of the European nations could afford on their own. These include a new training center for helicopter pilots and ground crews in the Czech Republic, a joint stockpile of NATO’s munitions, and a new initiative involving robots to clear land mines. Most significantly, citing “surveillance and reconnaissance shortfalls” during the Libya operation, 14 nations agreed to purchase five of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk drone aircraft, which will be operated out of Italy. That’s a win-win for NATO and U.S. manufacturing.

Another tenet of the Obama Doctrine also got a boost in Chicago: The alliance reaffirmed as a shared goal the president’s call for a world without nuclear weapons. Count us skeptical. Although we think the U.S. arsenal could easily be reduced, with a new emphasis on air- and submarine-borne tactical weapons rather than high-yield intercontinental strategic missiles, a global scenario in which the U.S. would be well served by giving up its nuclear dominance is hard to imagine.

That said, we support the White House’s revised plan for a Europe-based missile defense system to guard against Iran. That effort moved ahead with the turnover to NATO control of the U.S.’s Turkey-based radar defense system, which is the front line of the missile shield.

Obama’s to the Air Force graduates in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Wednesday highlighted the unformed nature of the Obama Doctrine’s much-hyped pivot to Asia. “We’re setting the agenda,” he told the graduates, “in the region that will shape our long-term security and prosperity like no other -- the Asia Pacific.” What is that agenda?

Not that one expects a detailed explanation of a complex military strategy in a commencement speech. But, in word and deed, the administration has given little insight into what the pivot entails. It has served up a few tepid military and diplomatic initiatives in the Pacific region: 2,500 Marines headed to Australia, a tentative opening to Myanmar, a pact with Japan to remove troops from Okinawa. The centerpiece of the military strategy to contain China -- the Air-Sea Battle concept initiated by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last summer -- remains a mystery. Challenged to explain it, Pentagon officials are reduced to gobbledygook, calling it a “focusing lens” that will lead to greater “inter-service interoperability.” That’s not much of a sales pitch to the public or to Congress, which has to pay for it.

Half of that Congress, meanwhile, seems not much interested in another of the president’s stated principles: to “spend taxpayer dollars wisely.” The House passed a bloated 2013 defense reauthorization bill that tacked more than $4 billion in spending on top of what the Pentagon had requested. The changes included slowing cuts in the size of the Marines and Army, keeping afloat three cruisers the Navy no longer wants, and spending $100 million to plan a missile defense system to protect the East Coast from nonexistent threats.

Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, of the House Armed Services Committee, says the additional spending is necessary to keep the military from becoming a paper tiger, but Panetta got the better of him in saying that the House is simply trying to “protect particular constituencies.”

Let’s hope the Senate, which will now debate its version of the spending package, bears in mind that the failure of the so-called budget supercommittee means we may have to find savings of as much as $1 trillion from expected budget levels by 2021. Otherwise, Obama should make good on his veto threat.

The administration, in fact, could go further with the budget knife by eliminating the V-22 Osprey aircraft, the next-generation Ford class aircraft carrier and the F-35 Lightning II fighter -- at $1.5 trillion, the largest Pentagon procurement program ever. Given planned personnel cuts, base closings are a necessity. So are benefit reforms such as higher contributions from retirees to the Tricare Prime health insurance program (which, unfortunately, the Senate Armed Services Committee balked at on Thursday).

In terms of keeping the U.S. safe and prosperous over the long haul, Obama could make no greater contribution now than standing tough with Congress over Pentagon cuts and finding new ways to do more with less.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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