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 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.
The United States was indispensable in 1945 and for many years thereafter, given the weakness of other nations, including our closest allies, and the strength of the Soviet Union. But things have changed. We can no longer afford to be the indispensable nation extending a military umbrella over many allies on whom it is not raining—and who can well afford their own protective gear if it does. Fortunately, there is no longer any need for us to play that role, and that in turn is fortunate because, for a number of reasons, we cannot succeed at the job when we try.
This all means that a major political task going forward for liberals is pushing for further reductions in military spending, an objective that we now know is not only socially and economically necessary but also politically achievable.
Post a Comment