Presidents have discovered that the surest way to make history is by playing against type. The paradigmatic example occurred in 1972 when anti-communist Richard Nixon decided to go to Red China. Liberal Democrat Bill Clinton is remembered for helping to “end welfare as we know it” some two decades later. We should all hope that Barack Obama too will recognize the need for a role reversal by deciding early on that — despite his campaign promises and past predilections — he must strengthen our national security posture, rather than savage it.To be sure, this would be a breathtaking departure given the commitments Mr. Obama recently made on the hustings. For example, he undertook to: reduce defense spending (inspiring one of his congressional allies, Rep. Barney Frank, to offer an opening bid of a 25% cut); abolish nuclear weapons; and end funding for “unproven” missile defenses. He also pledged to repeal the law that prohibits homosexuals from serving in the military. And he promised to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months, irrespective of conditions on the ground.
It is no exaggeration to say that the cumulative effect of these commitments would be devastating to our security. The U.S. military has been waging two wars for most of the past seven years. Even though the defense budget has grown dramatically over that period, necessary modernization of the armed services has been substantially deferred in favor of meeting the immediate requirements to fund combat and support operations and maintenance. Under these circumstances, even modest cuts in military spending, let alone those contemplated by Mr. Frank, risk another “hollowing-out” of the armed forces of a kind not seen since another “progressive” Democrat, Jimmy Carter, occupied the White House in the late 1970s.
A failure to address the deteriorating condition of our nuclear deterrent and its supporting human and industrial infrastructure — to say nothing of pursuing a deliberate policy of eliminating these pillars of our national security posture — would be reckless. Like it or not, we live in a world in which all of the other declared nuclear powers (and a few undeclared ones) are busily upgrading their arsenals. The combination of such armaments with ever-expanding capabilities to deliver them via ballistic missiles makes U.S. anti-missile systems, even less-than-perfect ones, more needed than ever,.
For the foregoing reasons, among others, the nation’s all-volunteer military is already under considerable stress. Changing the basis on which those volunteers enlisted — namely, that they would not have to live and work in settings of forced intimacy with people of the same sex who might find them attractive — would have a traumatic effect on recruitment, retention and morale. In time of war, it would not be merely reckless but the height of folly to jeopardize the good order and discipline of the armed forces.
Speaking of war, we are in the process of winning the one in Iraq. In the years to come, Mr. Obama may be able to withdraw U.S. forces from there in a way that does not imperil that victory. But to do so, he will, as a practical matter, have to be flexible and guided by conditions on the ground — not an artificial timetable. The repercussions of getting the Iraqi end-game wrong will extend far beyond that nation, Iran and the rest of the Middle East. Potential adversaries from Russia and China to North Korea and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela will become emboldened and more dangerous should we be defeated in Iraq, especially if that defeat is seen as part of a more comprehensive collapse of American power and will.
As it happens, there is another compelling reason for investing in a stronger defense posture, rather than weakening it. As a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Reagan, Martin Feldstein, noted in the Wall Street Journal last week, government spending through the national and homeland security agencies can contribute powerfully to economic revitalization. He estimates that, for example, an increase of $20 billion in defense procurement and research and of $10 billion in operations and maintenance could translate into an additional 300,000 jobs.
I have long believed that it is a mistake to use the defense budget as a jobs program. We should buy military hardware because it is needed for our security, not to boost employment. That said, where increased employment follows from making necessary investments in our armed forces’ capabilities to fight today’s wars – and, no less important, tomorrow’s – it would be absurd not to include the Pentagon in an economic stimulus package. The same basic principle should apply to the homeland security and intelligence organizations, as well.
During the campaign, the now-Vice President-elect, Joe Biden, warned that the world would test his running mate early in his presidency. That is almost certainly true, even though we cannot be sure what form that test will take or from which quarter. Mr. Obama is far more likely to pass that test – on his own behalf, and ours – if he confounds expectations by “going to Defense” as Nixon went to China: Resetting the force with necessary modernizations, as well as maintenance; increasing the robustness of our nuclear deterrent and missile defenses; preserving the good order and discipline of the military; and winning in Iraq.