It’s The Military Stupid
“It’s the economy, stupid,” is a famous cliché for political shortsightedness. We all know what the economy can do politically both for and against the president. A good economy is likely to re-elect a president with overwhelming numbers and a bad one will most likely mean he will be spending his time raising funds for his presidential library. With the Cold War over and Iraqi forces driven out of Kuwait, President George Herbert Bush thought he could rest on his laurels by treating the 1991 recession with kid gloves. He was wrong. Within 21 months, Bush went from a 91 percent approval rating to losing to a governor from the small state of Arkansas. Barack Obama managed to escape defeat but the campaign gave him and his supporters some anxious moments all because of America’s limping economy.
Americans view economic performance as a close blood relation; foreign policy is more like a distant cousin —- you never worry about inviting them over for the holidays. These respective sentiments are a remnant of America’s isolationist past; a young nation that proudly and firmly repudiated the monarchial and despotic world in stirring and memorable language. It’s an ornament the United States still wears on its sleeve and whose echoes are heard more among Republicans than Democrats.
Even after WWII, American leaders bristled at America taking a more active role in world affairs. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican” was a leading advocate of the “America First” school, which only yielded to a deeper and more pervasive internationalism in the face of the Soviet Union’s unthwarted hegemonic ambitions and the shattering loss of China to communism. In the decades that followed, the U.S. created a wide array of alliances and collective security agreements that not only impeded the communist menace but ultimately caused the Soviet Union to implode.
With the concomitant collapse of Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, many pundits and intellectuals surfed upon a wave of optimism. Francis Fukayama authored a daring essay “The End of History,” arguing that liberal democracies would be the new world order. While Fukuyama’s vision was more nuanced than the media hype that accompanied it, the prospect for the dawning of a new and brighter horizon seemed almost inevitable. The upshot was that the exigencies of foreign policy became less urgent than at any time since the pacific 1920s.
This Utopian vision came crashing to earth with the Twin Towers in downtown New York. Beguiled and shocked by the lair of traps those shadowy enemies had set, the United States waged war in both Iraq and Afghanistan whose outcome is still in doubt. America’s war on terror and the depressingly lingering effects of the nation’s worst recession in 75 years has resulted in absorbing a one-two punch whose impact this nation has not experienced since the twin debacles of Vietnam and Watergate. The upshot is a persistent turn inward and a neglect of America’s military necessities.
I find the laxity regarding our responsibilities for our military especially disquieting in light of the $500 billion cut in defense spending scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 2, when Congress reconvenes. Compounded by last year’s Budget Control Act that imposed a $487 billion defense cut, this latest Draconian measure has the potential to place our military’s needs for modernization and manpower in serious jeopardy. Diverting these resources from the military to enhance the domestic agenda, or even to justify it as a means to cut spending, may be seen as laudatory in some circles but to sacrifice security to achieve these objectives is a dangerously improvident notion.
Indeed, it is the braying of ignorance. Most of these dissenters are faultfinding dilettantes whose censorious diatribes about the military industrial complex are spoon-fed by ideology and not facts. The recent cuts in military spending were not made in the face of declining security threats, as could have been reasonably argued with the culmination of the Cold War. Instead, it comes at a time when al Qaeda is regrouping in Yemen and Syria, when North Korea’s million-man army and nuclear saber rattling continues unabated and the Middle East is a powder keg in close proximity to a lit match. Meanwhile, Iran is undeterred in its headlong rush to produce nuclear weapons and the Obama Administration’s failure to complete a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed a small contingent of American troops as well as counterterrorism experts to remain in that country does not bode well for our short-term much less long-term objectives in a region where most of the world’s oil supply flows.
The bottom line is that our military is too small to meet our global responsibilities and with last year’s cuts translating into 90,000 less troops for the Army and Marines it is becoming even smaller. More disturbing still is the radical reduction of our naval forces to 285 ships on the high seas. In the third presidential debate, President Obama’s reference to the popular board game “Battleship” to underscore the idea that it is quality rather than quantity that matters was the very mistake that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made when the U.S. invaded Iraq by neglecting the former for the latter. Both mass and quality matter in war. The fundamentals in terms of naval strategic thinking have changed very little since the days of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the most important American strategist of the 19th century. Mahan’s classic work The Influence of Seapower upon History, which influenced no less a figure than Theodore Roosevelt held that sea power had the greatest impact in times of war and peace.
Unfortunately, those who never studied military history or strategy believe that by merely voicing an opinion makes them, ipso facto, a geo-political strategist. But amid all the cacophony, the logistics speak for themselves. While America’s naval strength has been waning, China is augmenting theirs. Within a decade, China’s navy will be twice as large as it is today in addition to developing formidable asymmetrical capabilities. Twenty years ago China possessed one ballistic-missile submarine and the U.S. 34. The Chinese will soon increase it to 5, while the U.S. is presently down to 14. In that same period, the Chinese have increased their submarine fleet from 71 to 94 while the U.S. has reduced theirs from 121-71. In terms of surface warships, China has gone from 56 to 78 while the U.S. has radically curtailed theirs from 207 to 114. Make no mistake that China is focusing on American vulnerabilities and are sure to grow more bold and aggressive as U.S. naval strength becomes provocatively weaker.
If this is not a wake-up call from a power ideologically at odds with the U.S. and one that does not disguise it ambitions for dominance in the Pacific and elsewhere, than I’m afraid that nothing will shake us from our dormancy. The time to address this weakness is not tomorrow but today. William F. Buckley Jr. once said that every year the Pentagon should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The hope of a more peaceful and stable world depends in large measure upon America’s military strength and readiness. It would be a costly lesson to relearn.