Gates has repeatedly and correctly referred to non-military tools of national influence — what he calls “smart” or “soft” power — that should be used in dealing with some of these dangers. Techniques include communicating effectively about American intentions, helping failing states build economic and political institutions, engaging in consistent public diplomacy, building alliances, improving interagency cooperation, and constructive engagement. But many of these tools will not work except in partnership with the armed forces; it is impossible, for example (as America has found in Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan) to build democracy in the absence of security. And the foundation for all of the smart-power options, many of which I support, is the world’s confidence in the willingness and ability of the United States, as the animating force in a free-world consensus, to swiftly and effectively defeat, contain, or deter violent threats to its security, its vital interests, or its allies. Security, and the stability it yields, is the foundation for all positive development, whether that is the effective use of foreign aid or the steady movement toward representative forms of government across the globe.
The position in which America finds itself was not only foreseeable, but was foreseen. Beginning in 1993, a small group of congressmen on the Armed Services Committee began warning that America was not modernizing its forces. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) and Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) are still sounding the alarm today. But with the exception of Newt Gingrich, who as speaker fought for funding increases, the warnings have gone unheeded. The unexamined assumption of those who had the ultimate authority was that America could not afford to fund its military adequately.
That assumption was never valid; after the recent orgy of government spending, it is laughable. In the last few months, according to CBO estimates, the Obama administration has obligated the American people to $10 trillion in additional debt over the next ten years. For a small fraction of that money, America’s servicemen and women could have been given the modern equipment they need to protect their country. Yet none of the money was spent to sustain America’s military capabilities — an act of negligence that history will neither understand nor forgive, and one that is doubly incomprehensible given the Obama administration’s stated desire to stimulate the economy through government spending.
How can the administration possibly claim Keynesian justification for throwing money at every government agency except the military? No one could credibly argue that doubling the budget of the Department of Energy creates jobs, but buying ships or planes built by American workers in American industry does not.
The last three presidents of the United States, including President Obama, have been elected on domestic-policy platforms. President Obama is hampered not only by inexperience but by ideology; as a man of the Left, he has an inherent distrust of the necessity and credibility of American power. Fortunately, crisis is an effective teacher; over time the responsibilities of the presidency will begin to trump Obama’s ideological preconceptions in his own mind. But America does not have time to wait while the president slowly climbs the learning curve.
If Gates and his assistants have any loyalty to their commander-in-chief, they will tell him the truth: The failures of his predecessors have left him no choice but to seek a double-digit increase in the defense budget and use the money to modernize America’s military inventory. On this issue at least, Barack Obama must for his own sake find a way to act like Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, his foreign policy is finished. Reality, which is beginning to bite all over the world, will devour him, and us.
– Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He has served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993–2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002–07). He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four years, chairman of the committee’s Seapower Subcommittee.