The congressional “Super Committee” by most accounts is working feverishly to get some sort of deal that would avoid triggering an automatic $1.2 trillion set of cuts across government accounts. The committee’s work has been done mostly in secret — though some are reporting that the Republicans on the committee have dug in their heels against any form of tax increases.
But what has reached me through a senior national security official is that the level of likely defense cuts that would be part of a potential deal is approximately $465 billion. I don’t know whether that figure is a 10-year cut target, or 12-year, as there are two calendars floating.
Earlier this year, President Obama called for $350 billion in defense cuts over ten years — but also used a figure of $400 billion in defense cuts through 2023, or 12 years.
A senior Obama national security official made the sensible comment to me that the President knows he has very hard choices ahead and that the cutting edge of global affairs will not be in the Middle East but will be in Asia. He said that the defense portfolio and commitments had to be rebalanced — that too much of America’s capacity and focus was in the Middle East/South Asia.
The official said that with the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq and a clear and steady drawdown of US forces planned for Afghanistan — most likely leaving a nominal force that would preempt anyone in Afghanistan from overthrowing the government and which would continue support and training of Afghan forces — created a major opportunity for defense rebalancing.
Interestingly, the senior White House official said that the decision had been made by the President not to cut any force levels or defense commitments in Asia. The official made it clear that the President and his team would be continuing to build out and reaffirm America’s presence and alliances in the Asia-Pacific scene both in economic and security dimensions and that some of this would be reflected in remarks the President would make at the APEC Leaders Summit in Honolulu November 10-11.
Bottom line. The White House is expecting slightly bigger defense cuts than the President proposed. A lot of the savings will come from extracting US forces from costly, low return wars in the Middle East — and that while other defense accounts may be under pressure and will be reduced, the Asia defense portfolio will remain where it is now, if not more robust.
It is interesting to note that former Obama Senate staffer and national security confidant to the President, Mark Lippert, has just been nominated by President Obama to serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs.
— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons