The eleventh hour for the US may have finally arrived in the form of the fiscal cliff. In the aftermath of the elections, the American political system is involved in the kind of introspection and deliberation that should have been initiated earlier. Raising taxes and cutting entitlement programs was one part of the debate during the elections, the other half had to do with the defense spending. The war on terror that was launched in the aftermath of 9/11 greatly expanded the powers and spending of the defense and security establishment. Now that Osama is dead, many are questioning if these expenditures and special war authorizations should continue, especially when some believe the real challenge lies in the pacific.
The matter is unlikely to be resolved easily and mixed messages are emanating from with in the Obama administration. Speaking in Britain on December 1st, Obama ally, and Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson, for the first time initiated a debate about the state that would represent the end of the war against Al Qaeda (AQ). On the other hand, while speaking at the Center for a New American Security on November 20th, the US Secretary of Defense presented an argument for why the war on terror should continue.
The Extremist Threat
It was the first important speech delivered by an administration official since Obama got reelected. In this address, he laid out the broad outline for the future US defense posture. Not only that, he presented a genuine assessment of the existing and emerging challenges related to the war against terror. Moreover, the speech provides a critical glimpse of how US is evaluating its performance in disrupting, dismantling and defeating AQ.
Leon Panetta pointed out that although US is limiting its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan that did not mean the threat to its national security posed by AQ had vanished. He added that as compared to previous wars the US has been involved in, the present conflict is of a different nature and would require a long sustained effort. However, recognizing the politically charged environment that surrounds the fiscal debate, he went on to qualify and explain how the full potential of AQ has been degraded.
Panetta especially noted that the AQ’s capability to wage large-scale attacks on the US is no longer there, and its top leadership has been decimated. Nonetheless, he surprisingly admitted that AQ virus has now spread to Somalia and North Africa and it is attempting to exploit the Arab Spring. PoliTact has particularly made this argument all along; while success may have been achieved in the AfPak region, AQ and its affiliate are now spread all over the Islamic world. Furthermore, the hardcore tactics adopted by the western powers have furthered its recruitment efforts and have dangerously shifted the public discourse in favor of Islamists. These dynamics is visibly playing out in the present Egyptian crisis.
The Future Environment And Strategy
To counter this risk, Panetta assured full American support to the governments that are emerging from the Arab revolt. He went on to add that US Special Forces are already conducting joint operations with these countries to contain the extremists. At the same time, he emphasized that the region is going through a major transition, which needs to be influenced and managed by international actors. This was the clearest indication that US and NATO were not about to let the region run its natural evolution with Islamists potentially taking over power. In other words, we can expect more foreign military interventions, as liberal and moderate Islamists are increasingly unable to hold the ground or deliver on western interests.
Mr. Panetta himself posed the intriguing question: while the enemy has been weakened, he pondered what it would take to finish AQ. The defense secretary made it known that AQ is always on the look out for new and remote safe havens. Therefore, to counteract this, US will maintain pressure on Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia to prevent it from reconstituting there. He elaborated that this would entail enhancing the capabilities of the allies. As the US moves to a lighter foot print tactics, its own Special Forces are slated to grow to 72,000 strong by 2017, to be accompanied by a mushrooming in numbers of drones.
Another important step towards finishing off AQ, he added, was to prevent it from getting new recruits. And, for this purpose, the full force of American diplomacy and international development tools would be used. However, the continued heavy-handed kinetic approaches are eroding American perception as a benign force of change, to more of a bully.
No one would disagree with what Mr. Panetta had to say after all this argument was not presented for the first time. And, this is exactly the problem he is confronted with. He explained his deepest worry was that there is no longer any constituency in Congress to continue the fight for the long haul. In other words, and as Panetta put it: faced with the economic realities, there is a shortage of a political will to do what needs to be done to protect the US interests. He emphasized what really alarmed him was if the American system and political leaders will live up to the challenges they are confronted with.
Mr. Panetta’s speech presented a complex message. He seemed to be saying that longest war the US has ever been involved in, was over, but then it was not. Moreover, he added, American soldiers were coming home because the goals were achieved, but the threat was not eliminated. He went to state how the present conflict was different from all the previous ones. In his opinion, the nation does not have to choose between national or fiscal security.
In essence, Leon Panetta was grappling with a challenge of formulating a defense strategy by being cognizant of not only the emerging threats but also the economic realities and political landscape. For the first time, the American public and government are beginning to feel what imperial overstretch looks like. A choice may have to be made if fiscal security is also part and parcel of ensuring national security.