The U.S. Navy plans to re-fit a decommissioned amphibious transport dock, called the U.S.S. Ponce, as a “mothership” for special operations forces, helicopters, and small high-speed boats. The Ponce is to serve as a new offshore staging ground for small-scale operations in the Middle East.
The arrival of the Ponce in the Red Sea will coincide with a shift toward a leaner, better-trained military; the Pentagon has planned nearly half a trillion dollars in spending cuts over the next decade. Overall troop strength will decline by nearly 100,000, returning to levels slightly higher than in 2000. Our troop presence in Europe will be cut in half. Ships will be retired and orders of the new F-35 fighter reduced.
No sane Republican presidential candidate will fail to leap upon the Pentagon budget cuts as evidence of President Obama’s insouciance/incompetence/malevolence (the diagnosis varies: is he a socialist menace? A golf-addicted dilettante? An underqualified community organizer?). They have ample incentive to do so. Much of Obama’s remaining job approval lies in the foreign policy bucket, ready to be siphoned. Apparently inverted is the conventional wisdom that Democratic presidents are soft on foreign policy (with only both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya, and a few other adventures to their credit) and strong on economic issues.
Yet even after a year of doctrinaire only-cuts-will-do politics from Republicans, the argument will be made with a straight face: By allowing the Pentagon to cut its budget, Obama is retreating from the world. He’s appeasing China. He’s letting Iran run amok.
This presumes a link between budget reduction and foreign policy passivity. Programs can’t be effective without big budgets: there’s a conservative idea.
Voters have at least some sense of what philosophy (if not what policies) they will be supporting where economic issues are concerned. Regarding our actions overseas, however, they cannot be so confident. Ridiculing Obama’s supposed softness toward terror suspects will not get far with the general electorate, for whom the phrase “drone strike” has become a banality and the bin Laden raid a Call-of-Duty fantasy. On this score it is Obama’s base, not those who would unseat him, to whom he must explain himself.
Obama has been tough on Iran, and prioritized the Pacific as the naval theatre of the future. Attacking his handling of the Arab Spring remains risky; with the jury still out, that complex and still-unfolding episode is treacherous territory for criticism, which ranged from the tentative to the incoherent early in the campaign and has since petered out. Indeed, candidates now seem to have opted not to challenge the President’s non-Iran Middle East policies directly but instead to issue bizarre proncouncements that might earn them a few extra votes from the far right (“Palestinians are an invented people”/“Turkey is ruled by Islamic terrorists”).
The dispatch of the refitted Ponce to the Middle East represents a more efficient, modern military for a post-Soviet, post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-profligacy era. The rhetoric of the president’s challengers—insipid, tired, unimaginative—likewise needs retooling.