The Great Reversal: Obama’s Military Buildup

When Jimmy Carter came into office, he was determined to reverse the growth in defense spending that had been bequeathed to his administration by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In particular, he tried to make good on his campaign promise by rescinding funds for a new aircraft carrier. Congress overturned his recission, but Carter persisted with his efforts to limit defense spending, in line with his view that the United States had other international security priorities, such as intensifying its pursuit of détente, achieving a further reduction of its nuclear arsenal as part of a SALT II agreement and limiting its foreign military sales to allies and friends.

It took the overthrow of the Shah and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to force Carter and his close circle of advisors to concede that Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security advisor, and Harold Brown, his secretary of defense, had been justified in calling for a harder line against the Soviets and a much more robust defense budget. Accordingly, by the time he left office, Carter had approved an increase in defense spending that would have been unimaginable just two years earlier, and that provided the foundation for the massive buildup that took place under Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger.

When Barack Obama took office, he was determined to reverse the growth in defense spending that had been bequeathed to his administration by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and that had been somewhat modified by Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates. In particular, Obama tried to make good on his promise to end the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and to bring all troops home from both countries. He also extended a hand of friendship to America’s actual and potential adversaries, including a “reset” with Russia, closer ties with the Muslim world, good relations with China and a new relationship with Iran. For these promises, outlined in the most soaring rhetoric, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize virtually months after he took office.

Obama was able to make good on his promise to halt the growth in defense spending, in part through Robert Gates’s second round of program reductions, but more so through the mechanism of the sequester, devised by his aides with a view to forcing Congress to reduce defense spending as it sought to limit spending on domestic programs. In addition, Obama’s increasing reliance on drones and special operating forces became a justification for the administration’s contention that major wars that called for Bush-era major force programs and personnel end strengths were a thing of the past. Finally, Obama’s new nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia seemed to point to a lesser need for modernizing America’s expensive nuclear arsenal.

It has taken Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its invasion of Ukraine and its violation of the…

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