Armed Forces Journal

A Defense Policy Vision


Barack Obama might ultimately rival Lincoln, JFK and Reagan as among the greatest communicators to hold the office of president. He is also the commander in chief of a nation now fighting three or four wars (depending on whether you count Libya and Pakistan as half or whole operations). From his days as a state senator to his time in the Oval Office, he has spoken with energy and eloquence about the issues that surround military deployments, articulating in detail in perhaps greater detail than any other president his sense of when and where force ought to be used in the nation’s interest (now being called the “Obama doctrine”).

However, there is one thing that Obama has never delivered a major speech on, either during his prior political campaigns or as commander in chief: defense policy.

Obama’s voice on this question has been unheard largely because of the continuation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates for the last four years. Gates will go down as a “Hall of Famer,” whose tenure shines all the more brightly when compared with his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. Obama’s nomination for Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, has served his nation in the halls of Congress, the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and the Central Intelligence Agency. Notably, other than proven budget-cutting savvy, Panetta doesn’t bring a clear background or an established constituency at the Pentagon in the area of defense policy. (Panetta thrived at the CIA despite a similar challenge, so no one should underestimate this consummate Washington power player, especially as he now comes in with the political capital of having at least part of Osama bin Laden’s scalp on his belt.)

Perhaps the greatest thing that Obama can therefore do for his new defense secretary is to kill two proverbial birds with one rhetorical stone. He should do what any good boss does for a new employee: Set clear targets of action that he should undertake to reach success. Obama should do so by stating these goals in a defined and public manner, through a major defense policy speech.

There are some who maintain that a civilian president should concern himself only with the questions that surround the use of force, rather than the military institution that delivers on those decisions. Equally, there are others in Obama’s own party who assert that a young, Democratic president should avoid discussing the “hard” area of traditional defense issues. But as another young Democratic president noted in 1961, the year that Obama was born, such notions could not be more wrong. Facing renewed great power competition and the rise of insurgencies around the world, John F. Kennedy delivered a speech in which he said, “In my role as commander in chief of the American armed forces, and with my concern over the security of this nation now and in the future, no single question of policy has concerned me more since entering upon these responsibilities than the adequacy of our present and planned military forces to accomplish our major national security objectives.

Obama’s speech would not merely fill the gap in the commander in chief’s oratory portfolio. It would help his new defense secretary by providing clear direction (especially to those in the Pentagon bureaucracy and Congress, whom Panetta will have to lead, cajole and lobby) on the key areas in defense policy that must be directly faced.