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Tom Engelhardt: Superpower Adrift in an Alien World

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Here's the ad for this moment in Washington (as I imagine it): Militarized superpower adrift and anxious in alien world.  Needs advice.  Will pay.  Pls respond qkly.  PO Box 1776-2012, Washington, DC.

Here's the way it actually went down in Washington last week: a triumphant performance by a commander-in-chief who wants you to know that he's at the top of his game.

When it came to rolling out a new 10-year plan for the future of the U.S. military, the leaks to the media began early and the message was clear.  One man is in charge of your future safety and security.  His name is Barack Obama.  And -- not to worry -- he has things in hand.

Unlike the typical president, so the reports went, he held six (count 'em: six!) meetings with top Pentagon officials, the Joint Chiefs, the service heads, and his military commanders to plan out the next decade of American war making.  And he was no civilian bystander at those meetings either.  On a planet where no other power has more than two aircraft carriers in service, he personally nixed a Pentagon suggestion that the country's aircraft carrier battle groups be reduced from 11 to 10, lest China think our power-projection capabilities were weakening in Asia. 

His secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, spared no words when it came to the president's role, praising his "vision and guidance and leadership" (as would Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey).  Panetta described Obama's involvement thusly: "[T]his has been an unprecedented process, to have the president of the United States participate in discussions involving the development of a defense strategy, and to spend time with our service chiefs and spend time with our combatant commanders to get their views."

In other words, Obama taking ownership of the rollout of "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," a 16-page document summarizing a review of America's strategic interests, defense priorities, and military spending.  Its public unveiling was to reflect the steady hand of a commander-in-chief destined to be in charge of American security for years to come.

The president even made a "rare visit" to the Pentagon.  There, he was hailed as the first occupant of the Oval Office ever to make comments, no less present a new "more realistic" strategic guidance document, from its press office.  All of this, in turn, was billed as introducing "major change" into the country's military stance, leading to (shades of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) a "leaner, meaner" force, slimmed down and recalibrated for economic tough times and a global "moment of transition."

As political theater, it couldn't have been smarter.  For a president, vulnerable like all Democrats to charges of national security weakness in an election year, it was a chance for great photo ops and headlines.  And it left his Republican opponents (Ron Paul, of course, excepted) in the dust, sputtering, fuming, and complaining that he was "leading from behind" and "imperiling" the nation.

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Even better, in an election season which has mesmerized the media, not a single reporter or pundit seemed to notice that, whatever the new Pentagon plan might mean for the U.S. military globally, it was great domestic politics for a president whose second term was in peril.

Another "Mission Accomplished" Moment?

The actual Pentagon planning document, released the day of the president's Pentagon appearance, might as well have been written in cuneiform script or hieroglyphics.  Just about any military future might have been read into or out of its purposely foggy, not to say impenetrable, pages.  That, too, seemed politically canny, offering the president a militarized version of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too-ism.

While the document only referred to the Pentagon budget-cutting process that had been making headlines for weeks in the most oblique manner, the briefings offered by the president, the secretary of defense, and other top officials highlighted those "cuts": $487 billion over the next decade. It was the sort of thing that should have made any deficit hawk's heart flutter.  Yet somehow -- a bow to defense hawks? -- the same budget, already humongous from an unprecedented 12 straight years of expansion, was, Obama assured his audience, actually slated to keep on growing.

Like a magician pulling the proverbial rabbit from the hat, the president described the situation this way: "Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership.  In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration."

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This magic trick was only possible because those headlined cuts were to come largely from the Pentagon's "projected defense spending."  You'll get the idea if you imagine an obese foodie announcing that he's going to "diet" by cutting back on his dreams of future feasts, even as he modestly increases his actual caloric intake.

Surrounded by Panetta, Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs, and the service secretaries, the president had so much more to offer.  Those nasty, unwinnable, nation-building- counterinsurgency wars "with large military footprints" were now a thing of the past.  On them, the tide was, as he so poetically put it, receding.  Yes, there would be losers -- Army and Marine Corps troop strength was slated to drop by perhaps 80,000 to 100,000 in the coming decade -- but weren't they already the losers of wars no one wanted?

Listening to his presentation and those to follow, you could have been pardoned for imagining that we were already practically out of Afghanistan and looking to a time when everything military would be just cool as hell.  In that future, there would be nothing but neat, high-tech military operations (and war toys) to the horizon.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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