• December 18, 2014

Ukraine crisis reminds U.S. that Europe still matters

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Posted: Monday, March 3, 2014 11:14 pm

WASHINGTON — While headline claims of a Cold War resurgence are surely overstated, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine reminds Pentagon policymakers that their plans to shift U.S. military focus away from Europe may have to be tweaked.

Also subject to modification is the ongoing “Asia-Pacific pivot” to respond to China’s growing military power.

Previously announced Pentagon spending cuts will still be included in the budget President Barack Obama sends Congress today. But they now face an even harder sell on Capitol Hill, where home-state interests and election-year politics often prevail along with a bipartisan predilection for bombast.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, blamed Obama for having already cut projected Pentagon funding by $487 billion over 10 years.

“His disarming of America over the past five years limits our options in Ukraine today,” Inhofe said in a statement Monday.

Congress, however, played a significant role in reducing defense spending from its 2011 peak of $739 billion, a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to its current annual level of $613 billion.

The military funding cuts from Obama and lawmakers came in response to rising federal debt, the end of U.S. combat engagement in Iraq and the wind-down of American involvement in Afghanistan.

The budget Obama will send Congress today, in fact, seeks to restore $26 billion in deeper Pentagon spending reductions Congress approved in a December deal by large bipartisan majorities, according to a briefing last week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

That budget accord, which funds the federal government through September 2015, replaced even steeper military funding decreases lawmakers imposed through a system of forced cuts called sequestration.

After more than 12 years of war, Americans are divided over how much money the Pentagon should get from Congress. Thirty-seven percent of Americans said the United States spends too much on defense, 28 percent believe it spends too little and 35 percent think current levels are about right, according to a Gallup poll released last week.

Defense analysts Monday described as extremely unlikely a direct U.S. military response to Russia’s effective takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, a region of southern Ukraine with a majority ethnic Russian population.

Moreover, Russia helped American foreign policy initiatives. After Congress rejected Obama’s appeal to authorize an airstrike against Syria in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin helped prod Syrian President Bashar Assad to agree to destroy his chemical weapons. More recently, Moscow helped broker an agreement requiring Iran to stop developing nuclear arms, in exchange for an easing of Western economic sanctions.

Despite Obama’s attempt to restore some Pentagon funding, his budget will still slash the U.S. Army from 520,000 to as few as 440,000 active-duty troops — its smallest size since before World War II — and also shrink other military services.

Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine, unless it spreads to envelope the rest of the former Soviet republic, won’t by itself reverse the downward trend in U.S. defense spending. But the aggression could affect where future reductions are applied.

With the post-9/11 focus on fighting terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of U.S. troops in Europe sank from 312,000 in 1988 at the end of President Ronald Reagan’s tenure to 69,000 in 2000 as President Bill Clinton prepared to leave office.

There are now fewer than 66,000 American troops in Europe, most of them in Germany, Italy and Britain, and Hagel indicated last week that more reductions are in store.

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