Obama’s Pacific commitment

The president says U.S. defense cuts will not -- "repeat, will not" -- reduce its presence in the Pacific.

Secretary Panetta already delivered a version of this message to U.S. Asian allies on his Pacific trip earlier this year, but President Obama repeated it Thursday in Australia, just for good measure:

“Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia Pacific,” he told Australia’s parliament in Canberra.

The president evidently did not need a “comprehensive strategic review” to guide him in the direction the U.S. should pursue as it winds down from Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, his unequivocal commitment here goes a long way toward ending the political-strategy stalemate between the Pentagon and Congress — at least for the rest of the Obama administration.

Background and explanation: Congress effectively neutralized DoD’s onetime “strategic” document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, by creating its own QDR review (yes, a review review) that second-guessed and faulted it. But 535 members of Congress could not convincingly offer anything in its place. So absent guidance from any third major player in town, aka the White House, the never-ending battles over “strategy” pitted an irresistible force against an immovable object, with the standard Beltway result: Gridlock.

Now, however, the president has weighed in. He has made a choice — a logical, obvious, even predictable choice — but made it nonetheless. Obama has committed the U.S. to an active, long-term, hard and soft-power role in Asia, and, so long as he remains in office, the marbles will fall according to the way he’s set up the board. Although he and top defense officials will certainly take care to continue saying, “there are threats all over the place, got to be ready for anything,” etc, the formal WestPac direction could well unfreeze America’s post-9/11 strategic paralysis.

After the years and years of D.C. Asia-philes complaining about how U.S. has ignored the WestPac as it focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and counter-insurgency, it’s kind of bizarre to watch their dreams coming true in real time. Obama’s trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia is getting the most headlines, but don’t forget that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also is out there, too: She reaffirmed American friendship with The Philippines (which is getting its second retired U.S. Coast Guard cutter next year) and then went on to do the same with Thailand. Just imagine how it all looks from Beijing.

The rest of the world has to catch up to all this, however — starting with Washington itself. As recently as Wednesday, DoD’s twin titans of public affairs, Press Secretary George Little and Navy Capt. John Kirby, would not bite on reporters’ questions about whether DoD would safeguard WestPac-related, counter-“anti-access” programs in its pending budgets and reviews.

Well, there might not even be a Defense Department next year, the spokesmen said. No decisions made. Too soon to tell. Everything on table. Taking close look at everything. Hard choices.

That kind of tactic will continue to play out, but given the marker Obama has laid down, it’s going to lose much of whatever juice it still retains. The president says the U.S. is locked into the WestPac, so that means aircraft carriers, ships, fighters, bombers, missiles, troops, etc. Obama’s promise also means tomorrow’s potential reductions in budget growth will definitely have to come from other places, necessitating the strategic bets everyone keeps asking for.

That could drive the Army to run, not walk, to join the Air-Sea Battle Office to which it’s been invited, and for its staff to begin churning out PowerPoints about the value of land power in the Asia context. (“There’s a lot of water in the Western Pacific, but there are also a lot of countries, and a lot of armies,” Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has said.)

It could also spell the beginning of the end of the big U.S. military presence in Europe, which commanders say is valuable but may soon look like a luxury. Obama and Panetta both have said American troops are staying where they are in Asia, but they’ve made no such promises about the Continent.

What do you think?