February 2, 2012

President Barack Obama’s new national defense strategy represents “a move in the right direction and a chance to do more of what we should have done after the Cold War and before the second war against Iraq,” according to Richard K. Betts, the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies.

Betts, who directs the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs, spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations on Jan. 10 about the Pentagon’s revamped defense policy that sets out to strategically cut defense spending by more than $480 billion over the next 10 years. Obama announced the Defense Strategic Review at the Pentagon five days earlier.

The president’s defense budget was described in more detail by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said U.S. forces will be smaller and leaner, more agile and flexible, and capable of deploying quickly through the use of innovative technology. He described a greater focus on the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region and the elimination of the long-standing doctrine that the U.S. military should be capable of waging two wars at the same time.

“It’s a move toward a more modest definition of national security that doesn’t confuse it with the more ambitious missions of shaping world order that got us into trouble in the last dozen years,” Betts said. “By keeping a lot of emphasis on counterterrorism, which involves comparatively small-ticket expenditures, and focusing on the Pacific, where the long-term significant potential threats exist … it’s a chance to move at least more in a direction of a mobilization strategy of focusing on readiness to get ready.”

Betts said he thinks the Pentagon’s proposed cuts are “about right”—especially if the U.S. can shift more of its defense burden to its allies—but “maybe not quite as large as might be desirable.”

Betts, who also directs the international security policy concentration at the School of International and Public Affairs, said that the main problem he has had with defense policy during the past 20 years is the failure to appreciate the difference between the challenges of the 20th century—“the century of total war”—and those the U.S. faced after the Cold War.

The “excessive attention” to dealing with “minor” challenges today, such as peacekeeping missions, detracts from the resources available in the future, “when we may face big ones again, such as a more difficult China.” Betts views the Iraq war as a “totally self-inflicted wound, an unnecessary war,” when “the Bush administration confused counterterrorism with war against Saddam Hussein.”

Calling the Afghanistan conflict a “legitimate war” of self-defense, Betts said that tragically it has been difficult to resolve. “We’ll never know whether the premature shift of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq in the run-up to the war in 2002 made a difference or not,” he said.

“Maybe we would have wound up with the same difficulties we’ve had in recent years. But we need to distinguish which elements of response to major terrorist incidents are appropriate and which are expensive and not necessarily connected.”