‘Rebalance-to-Asia' Strategy Is Safe, For Now

By Sandra I. Erwin
In the months leading up to the automatic budget cuts that fell on the Defense Department March 1, military officials stood firm in their belief that the coming spending reductions would jeopardize thePentagon’s plans to shift resources and attention from Iraq and Afghanistan to Asia-Pacific.
These warnings, followed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s March 15 directive to review the strategy, cast a cloud over the so-called “pivot to Asia.” Part of the conversation in Washington’s defense circles these days is whether the pivot is “real … and durable,” said John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  
It fell on Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter to reassure a large audience at CSIS April 8 that the pivot is not in immediate jeopardy. His message came with a big caveat, however. The Pentagon intends to stick with the strategy, Carter said, but plans could change if sequester is not overturned in the near future.
The Pentagon already is taking steps to absorb a $41 billion budget cut by Sept. 30. But if the full extent of sequester — reductions of $50 billion per year over the next decade — is carried out, the strategy would be unaffordable, Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 12. During that hearing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, put it more bluntly: “If sequestration occurs, it will severely limit our ability to implement our defense strategy.” Later in the hearing, Dempsey insisted, sequestration not only puts the strategy at risk, but will “make it infeasible.”
If the Pentagon loses $50 billion every year for the next 10 years, Carter told lawmakers, “That turns a readiness crisis into a change of strategy. … We would have to go back and redo our national defense strategy if we had those cuts.”
In his CSIS address, Carter struck a less pessimistic tone by reaffirming the Pentagon’s commitment to the Asia strategy. He also downplayed the military’s role in the rebalancing plan, which he characterized as “mostly a political and economic concept, not a military one.”
Carter pressed the point that the Defense Department is not backing away from the strategy, even in the face of budget cuts. “There are those who have concerns about, and perhaps some who have hope for, a theory that our rebalance will not be lasting, or that it's not sustainable,” he said. Contrary to those skeptical views, he added, “The rebalance will continue, and in fact, gain momentum.”
As to whether the sequester will change these facts in a significant way, he said, “It won't.” But he cautioned that his forecast assumes sequester will be a temporary, short-term problem. “We continue to review and revise our plans for executing the fiscal year '13 budget in the face of sequester,” Carter said. “Sequester is an artificial and self- inflicted political problem, not a structural one.”
Carter said he hoped the “turmoil and gridlock will end, and the U.S. can get back to what you might call a normal budget process.” He persisted that the “U.S. defense rebalance to Asia-Pacific is not in jeopardy.” Although, he cautioned, “There is obviously considerable uncertainty about where an overall budget agreement which is needed to end the current turmoil will lead.”
Carter is leading the review that Hagel mandated on “strategic choices” in the context of reduced budgets. The current strategy could be at risk, he suggested, depending on whether Congress and the Obama administration can reach a deficit reduction deal that cancels sequester cuts.
The results of the review, he said, “will frame the secretary's guidance for the fiscal year 2015 budget and will ultimately be the foundation for the quadrennial defense review due to Congress in February of 2014.”
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy, War Planning, Government Policy, International

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