"This new definition of presence is mediocrity at its best," says Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. "Would you feel safer if there are people trying to break into your house and you have security people outside, or with just a security camera—because that's their definition. ... What's more powerful: Seeing an aircraft carrier out there, or a sign saying we're going to have an exercise in a few months?"
Forbes said defense-minded House Republican lawmakers intend to make the Obama administration's new definition of military presence a major campaign issue. "We are going to take this to the American people with the hope that by the time we get to November, the American people are going to ask: 'Just what kind of military and defense should we have?'"
The GOP lawmaker and other hawkish Republicans, including the GOP presidential candidates, are betting American voters will side with their vision of a larger U.S. military than the one Obama envisions. (Democratic congressional sources are quick to note that Obama is the president who killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, turned the tide in Afghanistan, dismantled al Qaeda's leadership structure and helped remove Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.)
Forbes said he has personally delivered his message to the remaining GOP presidential candidates' national security advisers. "Based on their responses, they are very, very concerned about direction we're heading," Forbes said.
Eaglen sees a preemptive move in the administration's shift aimed at countering congressional critics. "Changing the definition more subtly from tangibles to more qualified activities is the perfect solution to a budget that will cut U.S. presence abroad, our overseas infrastructure, the number of those in uniform, and what they're able to do around the world each day," she said. "By changing how Congress traditionally measures presence from hard to soft, the military can claim an apples-to-oranges comparison in response to any concerns that we're drawing down too steeply, leaving allies in a lurch, or abandoning traditional security agreements and commitments."
Details on just how the Pentagon and White House will alter the military's presence around the globe remain unclear. A Pentagon spokesman declined comment today, saying more clarity is coming Thursday when Panetta previews the Defense Department's 2013 budget plan. To that end, analysts say it is too soon to pinpoint just how much the department might save under a new global basing plan.
"The budgetary implications very unclear," Leatherman says, "Reducing the number of troops in Europe could make things less expensive there. But in Africa and Latin America, where we haven't had big a presence, it could end up costing more. That has the potential to balance out any savings."