Obama takes 2012 risk by ending Pentagon's two-war strategy

The new defense strategy President Obama unveiled Thursday is built around casting aside Cold War-era thinking, but it may start a new political war with Republicans.

The new strategy ends the "two-war planning construct" that for decades has been the central element of Pentagon strategy: that the U.S. military should be capable of fighting two large-scale land wars at the same time.

Pentagon officials say times have changed and the U.S. no longer faces a peer military on par with the once-mighty Soviet force. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey went so far as to call the two-war construct "an anchor" that was holding back Pentagon planners.

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The change is also driven by a new age of austerity hitting the nation. As $350 billion in scheduled cuts are made over the next decade, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the military "will be smaller and leaner.” (The Pentagon says those cuts will result in a $480 billion cut to planned spending.)

Yet in ending the policy, Obama is taking a significant political risk in an election year with strong headwinds against his bid for a second term in office. Foreign policy and defense have been strong points for Obama, but Republicans pounced on the new strategy, arguing it would leave the United States weaker.

“This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America,” said House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who called the shift from the two-war strategy a “major departure” that changes a longstanding commitment of both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“In order to justify massive cuts to our military, he has revoked the guarantee that America will support our allies, defend our interests and defy our opponents,” McKeon said of Obama.

The two-war framework guided military planning and budgeting through the Korean and Vietnam wars and as recently as the George W. Bush and Obama administrations' wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military leaders, however, offered strong support for the change during a Thursday press conference in which Obama made a rare appearance at the Pentagon.

Senior Pentagon officials said the new planning construct will work better for the kind of leaner, more agile force that the Obama strategy states will be needed to quickly respond to a number of situations and conflicts.

“Its great strength will be that it is more agile, flexible, ready to deploy, innovative and technologically advanced," Panetta said.

The strategy also is carefully worded and stops short of declaring that U.S. troops will never again be conducting heavy fighting on soil in two nations.

The military "must be capable of deterring and defeating aggression ... in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere," the strategy states.

Still, that nuance is unlikely to assuage Republican critics worried about the Defense budget and Obama’s handling for war. The new strategy also riles congressional Republican hawks by cutting the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), considered a potential GOP vice presidential candidate by many political observers, said the new strategy "directly signals to our friends and adversaries America's diminished ability to project power on a global scale and defend our interests during a very uncertain time.”

The 12-page strategy argues that the U.S. military can effectively fight al Qaeda even with reduced funding.

It states that as the Afghanistan war winds down, the U.S. operation against al Qaeda will "become more widely distributed." It also will be designed to include "a mix of direct action and security force assistance," meaning the U.S. will help allies combat the extremist network.

It makes clear much of America’s heavy military might will be shifted from the Middle East to Asia, where China is rising and Obama administration officials are betting much of the 21st century’s history will be penned.

“We will keep our armed forces the best-trained, best-led, best-equipped fighting force in history,” Obama writes in the strategy.

Republicans vigorously disagree with that contention.

“This laundry list of vague 'priorities' is not a strategy for superiority; it is instead a menu for mediocrity,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). “While we agree with the President that it is indeed time to shift our national security focus toward the Asia-Pacific, it is difficult to effectively project power in the region while at the same both Congress and the president are actively dismantling the greatest military the world has ever known.”