01/12/2012 09:55 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Obama's Defense Budget: Where's the Strategy?

Americans are engaged in their quadrennial exercise in political free play we call the presidential election. Actually, very few are direct participants -- most are passive observers. Mitt Romney is proclaimed by all the media to have almost sewn up the Republican nomination based on the votes of less than 1% of the Republicans who went to the polls in 2008. Mr. Obama will be re-nominated without the country's Democrats having any choice whatsoever.

While this spectacle competes for our attention with reality television, the world continues to spin on its axis. The news from out there is not good. An autocratic Iraq has turned its back on its would-be American ally. Afghanistan remains a bloody stalemate that leaves no hope of Washington reaching its audacious goals. Meanwhile, a Pakistan that is crucial to our finding our way out of that morass is in a disarray aggravated, if not entirely caused, by ham-handed American interventions in yet another Islamic country averse to our dictation. Against this backdrop of misjudgment and failure, the Obama administration is sounding the war drums on Iran ever louder under Republican assault for being too soft. Yet the White House cannot explain why the possible uncontrollable hostilities that may result are justified in terms of national interests. It is time for a serious foreign policy debate but none is forthcoming despite the avalanche of words pouring forth from politicians and pundits in this campaigning season.

There is much noise being made about proposed cuts in the defense budget. Those proposed by President Obama do little more than nibble around the edges. Predictably, these modest steps have raised the hackles on all armchair warriors who are still bent on American military dominion around the globe. Neither the White House nor Republicans, however, address the basic questions of where our national security lies, alternative strategies for satisfying it, and how to make the inescapable trade-offs in a world wherein resources are finite and others do not accommodate our grandiose ambitions.

Most of the discussion to date accepts the widespread notion that the envisaged cuts in the military budget shift the odds heavily against the United States' launching military operations and intervening abroad. That conclusion is less than persuasive -- for a number of reasons. The reduction in forces will only reduce capabilities marginally. That is one. Let us recall that at the height of our deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, little more than 1/3 of our troops were engaged. The imperatives of rotation, logistical support the whole length of the pipeline, and related costs double that figure. But the point is that even cuts larger than those envisaged would leave the U.S. military with enough capability to do everything its done over the past ten years. So our ability to undertake similar misadventures is, and will remain, pretty much intact.

Short of a reborn Red Army menacing Europe or the Chinese rampaging through Southeast Asia, we will have more than enough means for risky, and possibly counter-productive missions. Witness our saber-rattling vis a vis Iran. Then there is the unsettling truth that capability limitations rarely if ever in American history inhibited the United States from committing itself to war. That's two. I believe this holds for the Civil War, the two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam. If there is perceived need to fight, our leaders will presume that the nation's resources could be mobilized to ensure success.

The key issues are ones of threat assessment, not marginal adjustments in our huge outlays for defense and intelligence. The latter is a diversionary exercise that distracts from the compelling task of figuring out what our security objectives are. Budgeting is a lot less challenging intellectually and politically than is devising strategy. After our triumph in the Cold War followed by the post-9/11 terrorism hysteria, we have done no serious strategizing. We may have forgotten how. It is well nigh time to begin some remedial work in this domain.

As the kids say, let's get real -- and get on with the compelling business of debating the core questions of what America is and what we can reasonably achieve in the world.