A senior Pentagon official invited North Korea's new leader to the negotiating table Monday after sternly warning other would-be foes that shrinking defense budgets do not equal an American military in decline.
"The ball is in their court" to launch new talks with Washington and four other key nations about its nuclear weapons program, Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy said of the new regime in North Korea, headed by the youthful Kim Jong Un.
Flournoy said the Obama administration's goal since taking office has been to engage North Korean officials in the six-nation negotiations that would be intended to convince Pyongyang to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program. "Our top concern" is nuclear weapons moving in and out of North Korea, Flournoy said. U.S. officials worry those deadly arms might end up in the hands of an unstable regime or a terrorist organization.
Minutes before extending that olive branch to North Korea's new leader, believed to be in his late twenties, Flournoy sent a muscular message to other potential American foes.
Since the Obama administration unveiled its new defense strategy and a slimmed-down 2013 budget blueprint, some U.S. lawmakers and analysts have said the administration is creating a weaker military. Not so, Flournoy said during a military conference in Washington.
"I am here to tell you I strongly disagree," she said. Comparing President Barack Obama, her boss, to President Harry Truman at the start of the Cold War, Flournoy said the current commander in chief's new strategy and budget was built by officials who were thinking "strategically" and "practically."
In a message to those skeptics and would-be foes alike, the outgoing Pentagon policy chief said there will be no "era of long-term U.S. decline." She also promised that Washington is not ceding its "global leadership."
The new defense strategy and budget call for a leaner military, but one with highly trained and agile troops with top-notch equipment. The companion documents shift the military's primary focus from the Middle East to Asia, while also calling for more small bases and new "innovative partnerships" around the globe.
"It is not a question of can we confront more than one [foe] at a time," Flournoy said. "It's how."
That line is preview of one aspect of the brewing fight over the new strategy and smaller budget between the administration and GOP lawmakers. The latter have questioned both, including the casting aside of a planning scenario to aim for a force that can fight and win two big wars at once.
"This new definition of presence is mediocrity at its best," says Virginia Republican Rep. Randy Forbes, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, in a recent interview. The leading GOP presidential candidates have knocked Obama's defense plans, as well.
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.