Declaring that the U.S. military and the nation it defends are at a “moment of transition,” President Barack Obama has unveiled a dramatic scaling-back of the military’s role, reach and resources—complete with troop reductions, force redeployments and a promise to refocus on economic challenges. Or as he indelicately put it last year, “time to focus on nation-building at home.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls it a “strategic turning point.” Indeed it is. We are left to wonder just what the United States is turning toward—or into.
In his remarks at the Pentagon last week, Obama called America “the greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known.” He’s right about that, but what he doesn’t seem to understand—as evidenced by his sweeping strategic review and retrenchment—is that being a global force for freedom and security is not preordained or written in the stars. Rather, it is a role that requires treasure and effort and sacrifice.
The American people may be ready to give up this thankless job, but that seems doubtful. At the very least, the president needs to make sure they understand what these changes will mean. As Robert Gates warned before he left the Pentagon, perhaps aware of what Obama was planning:
If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military…people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country, as well as for the variety of military operations we have around the world, if lower priority missions are scaled back or eliminated…The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people—accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades—want their country to play in the world.
In other words, there’s a price to maintaining a peerless power-projecting military, but there’s also a price to not doing so.
Speaking of price tags, the reason the president unveiled his plan for a “leaner” military, at least ostensibly, is that Congress, concerned about unprecedented debt and deficits, mandated massive reductions in defense spending—some $500 billion in reductions as compared with what had been projected.
“Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow,” Obama explained, “but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow.” In other words, the president is saying defense spending will grow at a slower rate. That’s a fair point: Slower growth should not be considered a cut. But why don’t the president and his political brethren apply the same logic to social programs? If these aren’t really cuts the president is proposing for the Pentagon, then it’s not really a cut when a reform-minded congressman proposes to slow the rate of growth in, say, Medicare or Social Security or the EPA.
Of course, the reality is that the Armed Forces are not to blame for this budget-deficit mess. We could eliminate the entire defense budget—$662 billion this year—and turn the Pentagon into a mega-mall, and we would still face a budget deficit of $700 billion. (The current deficit is in the $1.3-trillion range.)
The heart of the problem is runaway spending on Social Security, Medicare, stimulus boondoggles and the like. Yet Social Security and other entitlements are simply not as important as national security. After all, our founding document calls on the government to “provide for the common defense” in the very first sentence; then grants Congress the power to declare war, “raise and support armies…provide and maintain a navy…make rules for calling forth the militia…provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia”; authorizes the president to serve as “commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states”; discusses war, treason and America’s enemies in Article III; and emphasizes the importance of a “well-regulated militia” to the “security of a free state” in the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, the Constitution says nothing about retirement pensions, stimulus programs or health care. The Founders understood that if their new government didn’t provide for the common defense, it wouldn’t be able to provide anything else—and the American people wouldn’t be able to live free, let alone pursue happiness.
But back to the president’s plan for a smaller military. Today’s U.S. military, as the president explained, has “decimated al Qaeda’s leadership…delivered justice to Osama bin Laden…put that terrorist network on the path to defeat…made important progress in Afghanistan…joined allies and partners to protect the Libyan people as they ended the regime of Muammar Qaddafi”—all while defending Europe and the Pacific and the homeland.
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