When you ask Obama administration officials to explain their foreign policy agenda for 2012, they point first to the defense budget. That's where they want to make a "pivot" in U.S. strategy -- away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward the 21st-century priority of China and the Pacific.
To underline the importance of this rebalancing, President Obama went to the Pentagon last week for the budget announcement. He began by declaring victory in what used to be known as "the long war," offering a string of valedictory phrases: The United States is "turning the page on a decade of war"; "We've succeeded in defending our nation"; "The tide of war is receding."
Rhetoric about new strategies is standard fare, especially in an election year. But these claims should be taken seriously. The Pentagon budget cuts will make a difference, at home and abroad. They mark a genuine shift, one of the most important since 1945.
What will change? First, the administration is cutting ground forces sharply because it doesn't expect any new Iraqs or Afghanistans. Obviously, it's premature to declare victory in Afghanistan when that war is far from over. But the White House thinks it can play the endgame effectively even if it maintains a steady drawdown of troops.
It was easy to miss the impact of Obama's words: He was declaring that the era that began on Sept. 11, 2001, is over. Al-Qaida's top leader is dead and most of its cadres are on the run; secret peace talks are under way with the Taliban. And across the Arab world, the United States is talking with Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist organizations that a few years ago might have been on terrorist lists.
What else will the pivot mean? The Pacific focus inescapably means fewer resources for the traditional Atlantic partnership, symbolized by NATO. U.S. troops will be coming home from Europe, probably in larger numbers than expected.
Obama's pivot turns American power toward China, and Beijing is understandably nervous. U.S. officials keep repeating that this won't mean a policy of "containment," and that the United States accepts a rising China as a 21st-century inevitability. But the Chinese aren't stupid; they know America is moving forces their way.
As the United States changes its defense priorities, the wild cards are Pakistan and Iran, two countries powered by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anti-Americanism. Pakistan, after years of chafing against American tutelage, seems serious about re-evaluating its ties, with its top general making a symbolic "we don't need you" visit recently to the other superpower, China. For once, the United States wasn't chasing after the Pakistanis trying to lecture and plead our way back to the status quo. That's good, but Washington still needs a cooperative relationship with Islamabad, especially in settling the Afghanistan conflict.
As for the Iranians, they seem for the first time in years to be genuinely nervous -- not because of U.S. or Israeli saber-rattling, but because economic sanctions are causing a run on their currency and the beginnings of a financial panic in Tehran. And more sanctions are on the way later this year. At some point, the Iranian regime will actually be in jeopardy -- and it will punch back. That's the scenario the White House must think through carefully with its allies. If the current course continues, a collision with Iran is ahead.
We'll be seeing the details of the Pentagon cuts over the next few weeks, and the whining from Congress (let alone Europe and China) will begin in earnest. Don't think this is a rerun of the usual budget follies. Thursday's Pentagon announcement marked a real change, with big strategic consequences.