Every four years, the U.S. Department of Defense issues a vision statement that outlines U.S. defense priorities and the ways it intends to meet them. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) provides a window on the thinking of the administration that writes it. The new QDR, released Feb. 1 by President Barack Obama’s administration, in many ways demonstrates continuity with its predecessor more than change, although it does present two important departures. Most significant is the recognition that realization of U.S. strategic objectives depends on active collaboration with other agencies of the U.S. government as well as allies and partners abroad.
Administrations may change but national interests endure. By that yardstick, the coming to power of the Obama administration should have minimal impact on the defense policy of the United States. And indeed, the new QDR looks remarkably similar to earlier versions. The document notes that “the United States is a nation at war.” In addition to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S., “its allies and partners remain engaged in a broader war — a multifaceted political, military and moral struggle — against al-Qaida and its allies around the world.”
The U.S. military has four primary objectives — all of which look familiar. The Department of Defense must: prevail in today’s wars; prevent and deter conflicts; prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies; and preserve and enhance the All Volunteer Force. Significantly, the new QDR continues the previous administration’s emphasis on the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And all the while, the military must meet those objectives amid a rapidly changing international system.
For Asian audiences, the continuing emphasis on a forward presence and robust power-projection capabilities is reassurance that the U.S. commitment to the region will remain strong. Japan is applauded as a critical and capable partner, and the two nations are working together to implement their agreed-upon “road map” to the realignment of forces.
The QDR embraces the prevailing framework for engaging China, noting that the U.S. “welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater global role,” while noting that “lack of transparency and the nature of China’s military development and decision-making processes raise legitimate questions about its future conduct and intentions within Asia and beyond.” In short, the hedge continues.
But there are important elements of change in the document as well. First, there is no mention in the new QDR of “the Long War,” the ideological and strategic framework that structured the previous QDR. While the U.S. is “a nation at war,” this is a pointed contrast to the protracted struggle against a foe — not unlike the Cold War — that characterized the thinking of the Bush administration. According to that logic, there was a single integrated struggle against “dispersed, global terrorist networks that exploit Islam to advance radical political aims.” This helped justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but like the containment doctrine, set no limits on U.S. military engagement. Wisely, this framework has been abandoned.
Second, previous QDRs embraced a “two war” standard: The U.S. military had to be capable of fighting and winning two major regional wars at the same time. The new report makes no mention of this standard. Instead, this requirement was replaced by the demand for the capability of fighting in separate, simultaneous crises.
Some critics complain that the new QDR is a missed opportunity. For them, the new review is a workmanlike report that lacks vision. To some degree the new QDR is a reaction to “the vision” of the last such effort, which left the U.S. military overextended and badly in need of repair. For the authors of the 2010 review, the focus rightly belongs on fixing current ills rather than describing some grand future vision. That explains the attention given to “taking care of our people,” a subject that received only cursory attention (at best) in the previous QDR. It also reflects the very nature of the QDR itself, a huge, sprawling document, written over the course of a year with more than 700 contributors.
There are other important documents to come. The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) will be released shortly — it was due this month but its release has been pushed back — and it will explain how the Obama administration will meet its objectives of defending itself and its allies, deterring attacks against both, and realizing the president’s vision of a nuclear free world. Similarly, the administration has yet to release a National Security Strategy that will provide the framework within which the QDR and the NPR will fit. Those three documents will establish the pillars of U.S. foreign and defense policy under the Obama administration and provide a score card with which to evaluate its future efforts — and how well they distinguish this administration from its predecessor.
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