The New Mandate on Defense
No, it’s not to spend more—it’s to spend less, and liberals should not flinch from that position.
The argument against military spending as a public works program is surmountable. The more politically potent obstacle to achieving responsible reductions is the extent to which the President and his advisers, while commendably willing to argue for less military spending than he inherited, remain committed to a view of America’s role in the world that requires more spending than necessary.
Obama, like previous Presidents, has been told that on his shoulders rests the defense of freedom in the world. To his credit, he is somewhat more skeptical of this argument than his predecessors. But two pieces of rhetoric illustrate the fact that the President still suffers from a cultural lag by accepting the notion that it is America’s destiny to be the worldwide defender of freedom and order.
First, the President himself has referred to us as the “one indispensable nation” in the world. In practice, that has meant that any country facing difficulty can count on American intervention of some sort. This notion that America is globally indispensable is at the core of the impulse to expand our military budget far beyond our legitimate needs or the needs of allies who are in fact threatened and not capable of protecting themselves. We will have an appropriately sized military budget only when we accept the fact that there are a number of situations in the world in which we should be working to strengthen and encourage other nations so that we can be dispensable. The notion of our indispensability confuses what the military can do and cannot do. I would be morally conflicted myself by putting budgetary constraints on some of these interventions if I thought we could be useful.
We have a superb military. It is very good at doing what a military is best at—stopping bad things from happening. It is not very good at making good things happen in societies that are foreign to us. The best trained and armed young Americans cannot create democracy in Iraq or eliminate corruption in Afghanistan. And they certainly cannot bring harmony to troubled regions elsewhere.
The second rhetorical example of the Administration’s inability to break entirely from a Cold War view of America as necessary for preserving freedom in all of the world comes from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta is one of the outstanding people with whom I have served in government. He was an extremely valuable member of Congress, with strong progressive values and a commitment to implementing them. He did an excellent job, first as Clinton’s budget director and then as his chief of staff, in advancing those values, and he was a very good head of the CIA when he returned to service for Obama.
But upon becoming secretary of defense, he lost the sensible perspective that he once had. In one of his earliest speeches in the new post, he lamented the fact that America had “hollowed out” our military after every war, and he pledged not to do so again after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were brought to an end. Hollowing out the military appears to mean, to some people in the defense sphere, reducing military expenditures when you are no longer fighting a war rather than keeping spending levels at the capacity to devastate a fully armed Soviet Union, wage thermonuclear war, and maintain a significant troop presence in Europe long after there is a need to protect our allies against Stalin and his troops.
The hollowing-out argument is particularly odd coming from Panetta because, in the first iteration of this lament, he included the Cold War as one of the wars whose end brought on a shrinking of the military. The problem is that the Cold War ended just as the Clinton Administration was beginning. And the budget director in the Clinton Administration at the time was Leon Panetta. In other words, when Leon Panetta, secretary of defense in 2011, complains that the Clinton Administration hollowed out our military after the Cold War, he is blaming Leon Panetta, budget director in 1993. As it happens, Budget Director Panetta wins this argument against Defense Secretary Panetta. Proof of that victory lies in what happened next—despite the supposed hollowing out of the military, the Clinton Administration was able to achieve a significant military success in southern Yugoslavia, and the Bush Administration, inheriting the same military from Clinton, had the force to dominate Iraq in a fairly short period of time.
Still the World’s Strongest Military
To be clear, this is not an argument against America continuing to be the strongest nation in the world. I want us to maintain that status. To some of my liberal friends, this may seem xenophobic. But as I look at the other potential candidates for the role, I’m glad that it is our country that holds the title. (If Denmark had the military resources to do it, I would be perfectly content, but choosing among Russia, China, Indonesia, and us, I choose us.)
That said, being the strongest nation in the world can be achieved much less expensively than at current levels. Obama deserves a great deal of credit for ending the war in Iraq, for committing to ending the war in Afghanistan, and for successfully withstanding Republican pressure to spend more on the military. But I believe he underestimates the extent to which the public is willing to support even further reductions, and I believe that he may appear to be overly influenced by being told that as President, he has the duty to continue to lead the indispensable nation.
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