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Cordesman Offers Obama Realism Check

President-elect Obama and his national security team can forget about trying to craft any new grand strategy or think conceptually about defense priorities as they are about to get two wars and a defense spending crisis dumped in their laps, writes Anthony Cordesman, the respected analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, DC. From day one, Obama and his defense secretary designate must make immediate decisions on troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, specifically: whether to hasten the draw down from Iraq to free up troops to send to Afghanistan.

Cordesman says it’s high time the neo-cons get out of town and reality come back. To the ever pragmatic Cordesman, “getting real” means finishing the wars the U.S. is already fighting and focusing on strategic interests instead of trying to transform the world on the basis of “ideological extremism.” Adding some discipline to Pentagon spending wouldn’t hurt either. “The U.S. had pragmatic, reality-based Administrations for half a century following World War II, and had extraordinary success. It is time to return to that realism.”

Cordesman has some choice words on conditions at the Pentagon: “While Secretary Gates has salvaged something from the Rumsfeld mess, he has not resolved a planning, budget and management disaster that permeates every aspect of DoD.” The military’s procurement effort is “grossly mismanaged,” strategy bears little reality to spending priorities and defense costs are out of control. Cordesman said restoring sanity to the budget and procurement plan is a critical priority for whoever Obama chooses as SecDef. That means making the hard trade-offs now, in other words, either trimming or axing programs altogether.

Ignore the “mountains of well meant” transition papers churned out by the Washington think-tankerati, he advises, as they rarely spell out the tough choices needed. Obama and his team must focus on the “now and the near term.” The “now” is the cost containment crisis in defense spending, a product, Cordesman says, of the complete absence of strategic direction from on high over the past eight years. Instead, the JCS and the services produce “meaningless” strategy documents and engage in “vacuous exercises” drafting the periodic QDRs that do little more than kick the decision can to the next administration. Well, it’s now the next administration and they get the gift of an underfunded future year defense program and a host of inter-service resource fights to try and resolve.

Then, of course, there is a long list of external challenges just waiting to be addressed. Apart from the obvious Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan and a possible nuclear armed Iran, the next national security team will be operating in a world where U.S. relative power is in decline. Cordesman says the U.S. must accept that it cannot prevent the rise of regional peers such as Russia and China, and must learn to live with them. “The question is how realistic the new Obama presidency will be compared to the lack of realism in the Bush Administration,” he writes.

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