Obama’s Secret Surge
During the 2008 election, Barack Obama emerged as the consummate anti-war candidate. He wanted to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, funnel resources to the home front, and generally remedy the nation’s reputation as a global bully. Now, as the 2012 elections ramp up, he continues to carve a softer stance on foreign policy, telling voters that “the tides of war are receding.” But how much has actually changed? Neither disillusioned Democrats nor triumphant Republicans have had much data to go on. Until now.
In an exclusive analysis, Newsweek combed through a decade of military deployment history, and found only a faint line between the Bush and Obama presidencies. The number of American troops abroad has dropped less than 1 percent under President Obama, buoyed by what appears to be a sharp rise in the number of clandestine assignments, and curious growth in the number of personnel at Guantanamo Bay. None of the robust deployment trends begun under Bush have significantly abated. And since World War II, only President Bush has scattered a greater proportion of American might overseas: 39.5, 42.8, and 39.1 percent of American troops were abroad between 2006 and 2008, compared to Obama’s 39.3 percent in 2009 and 38.2 percent as of December 2010, the most recent date for which worldwide data is available.* Even with an aggressive—or, to some minds, reckless—drawdown in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, it would take nearly another 300,000 tickets home before the military was as united at home as they were on September 10, 2001.
These are just some of the surprises buried in the military’s own personnel data. While official deployment details are strictly classified, the government’s Defense Manpower Data Center—which bills itself “the authoritative source” for all Department of Defense personnel data—publishes quarterly snapshots of where the troops are, and in what numbers. In 2004 and 2005, the economist Tim Kane used DMDC data to track foreign assignments, publishing two first of their kind deployment reports through the Heritage Foundation. In consultation with Kane, and based on previously unpublished updates to his work, Newsweek has expanded this analysis—adding categories and extending the data through 2010.
The result is an unprecedented picture of America’s international adventures, past and present, based on the most reliable public information. The Department of Defense has not contested Newsweek’s formula for counting total foreign assignments: a country-by-country sum of how many troops the DMDC says are in each country, plus the number of people categorized as “foreign afloat,” and “undistributed,” which includes secret and other uncategorized foreign assignments. Major Monica Matoush, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, says that DMDC data “delivers reasonable accuracy,” but she cautions—somewhat paradoxically—that it “is not designed to do manpower or foreign policy analysis.” A senior Defense Department official offers a more straightforward perspective, calling the DMDC data “the best way, on an unclassified level, to do this.”
Obama’s Secret Surge