COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Barack Obama should stay on track with his plan for a 10-year reduction in military spending of about $500 billion. We are winding down two wars, so troop cutbacks are normal. We recently ended a combat role in Iraq, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta now says we will do the same in Afghanistan by late 2013.
Plowing the money savings back into equipment renovation, as some are suggesting, is wrong-headed. The federal government is struggling to reduce the federal deficit, and the military is an obvious area for savings, as was understood by the legislators who worked out last year’s spending reduction package.
The real problem is that President Obama is treading too lightly with troop reduction. He would be well advised to take a page from the playbook of Republican presidential contender Ron Paul, who says we do not need to station troops around the world.
But President Obama is increasing our overseas deployments. In January, he announced the results of a Defense Strategic Review, calling for more troops in the Far East. “We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific,” he said, “and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region.”
Why the Far East? Why is it “critical”?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said for several years that the United States has a strategic interest in the South China Sea, where China is contending with Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and others over rights to waters that may hide important oil deposits. Why we should have a horse in that race is not entirely clear. Involving ourselves in the South China Sea disputes may put us in the middle of sticky situations.
But President Obama is inserting troops in new places. He is negotiating with Singapore to station U.S. Navy warships at the Changi naval base there. He is putting troops — actual ground troops — as many as 2,500, into northern Australia.
Explaining the planned Australia deployment, Obama said, “It is appropriate for us to make sure ... that the security architecture for the region is updated for the 21st century and this initiative is going to allow us to do that.”
Why we need a “security architecture” in Australia is anyone’s guess. But within months U.S. troops and aircraft will operate out of the port of Darwin on Australia’s northern coast. Ominously, China sees the move as a hostile act directed against it.
All this is on top of a current huge military presence in Asia. We have thousands of troops in Japan, South Korea and Guam.
Vietnam and Thailand are reportedly on President Obama’s radar screen for future deployments. But his latest destination is the Philippines. The Philippines apparently is seeking protection from China, though it is unclear how U.S. deployment will protect them, or exactly from what.
“We’re not the only one doing this,” said a senior Philippines official involved in the negotiations who did not want to be named, referring to the other countries in the region. “We all want to see a peaceful and stable region. Nobody wants to have to face China or confront China.” The Philippines wants the U.S. Navy to station vessels near the South China Sea.
In the Philippines, beyond stationing naval vessels, we may wind up deploying ground forces and staging troop exercises.
What we are getting ourselves into, no one can predict. Two decades ago we had to dismantle huge bases we had in the Philippines because of local protest. A long-standing insurgency in the Philippines would not welcome Uncle Sam. As GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul points out, bases provide anti-U.S. elements with easy targets close to home.
President Obama has the right idea with military cutbacks. He just doesn’t take the idea seriously enough.
• Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University.