Obama Begins to Dismantle $1 Trillion War Machine
Policy + Politics

Obama Begins to Dismantle $1 Trillion War Machine

REUTERS/Larry Downing

President Barack Obama outlined a plan to scale back the massive war machine created in the last decade, making clear that large wars are a thing of the past while focusing on the use of drones and small forces to protect the American homeland

Thursday’s speech at the National War College, which was twice interrupted by a Code Pink heckler, marks a dramatic change in how the country will wage war in the future. Obama dismissed the “large war” tactics employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the United States now faces threats from small groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and individuals like the ones who committed the Boston Marathon attack.


“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” Obama said. “Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”


Make no mistake: Obama’s speech was about slashing budgets as much as it was confronting new threats. The entire speech shone a bright light on the Pentagon’s evolving budgetary environment budget mandates. Sequestration and budget cuts of $600 billion during the next decade are expected to radically change the Pentagon while trimming a budget that had grown out of control since the war in Afghanistan began. Obama’s new strategy reflects this reality. 

Obama acknowledged this early on in his speech, saying the United States “has spent well over a trillion dollars on war, exploding our deficits and constraining our ability to nation build here at home.” The speech will serve as the latest salvo in a budget fight that has been brewing between the White House and the Pentagon brass for months. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel heightened the debate in an April speech at the same venue, telling DOD personnel that the cuts were coming and would affect all branches of the military.

“The president today presented a comprehensive vision for how we will continue to protect the nation from terrorism, especially from al Qaeda and its affiliates, while remaining true to our values and laws,” Hagel said in a statement of support following Obama’s speech. “I have directed the Department of Defense to work closely with our interagency partners and allies to implement the President's guidance.”

But Obama upped the anti in the fight for the Pentagon’s future. He made clear that changes to the Pentagon  go beyond the back office. He officially declared the war on terror over, removing the justification for uncontrolled Pentagon expenditures in the last decade.


“We must define our effort not as a boundless 'Global War on Terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” he said. “So that's the current threat: Lethal yet less capable al-Qaida affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them.”

In practice, this means fewer troops, fewer new weapons, fewer naval vessels and fewer airplanes. The president even used money as a primary justification for closing Guantanamo Bay.

“During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people –almost $1 million per prisoner,” he said. “And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep [the prison] open at a time when we are cutting investments in education and research here at home.”

The tactics the president did endorse, including the continued use of drones, Special Forces and small troop deployments, cost much less than traditional DOD activities.

So far, Hagel has managed to squelch any official dissent from within the Pentagon ranks. But the consequences of Obama’s shift are likely to accelerate a process that John B. Johns, deputy assistant secretary of defense for maintenance policy and programs, said the Pentagon is unprepared for.

“We did not see the writing on the wall,” Johns said at a recent defense industry conference. “As a community, we thought money would continue to flow to us as long as we were in Afghanistan. I believe many people thought that, and many people inside the building were saying that.”