Defense Is Not Optional
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, wars aren’t caused by America’s being too strong.

Aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74)


Jim Talent

Recently, Neal Freeman wrote an article for NRO on Bill Buckley’s famous maxim that, in election campaigns, conservatives should support the “rightwardmost viable” candidate. Mr. Freeman focused on the meaning of the word “viable” in that formulation. That was a useful exercise, but it’s also helpful to consider what Mr. Buckley understood by the term “rightwardmost,” especially as it relates to the national defense.

We can assume that Mr. Buckley used “rightwardmost” as a synonym for “most conservative.” In a Townhall interview near the end of his life, he described conservatism this way: “Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.”

One of those truths is the essential weakness of human nature. Conservatives believe that human beings — while capable of great things if sufficiently steeped in the values of an enlightened society — are by their nature weak and corruptible. That’s the reason conservatives are suspicious of government; government represents the harnessing of state power to the weaknesses of human nature.

For the equal but opposite reason, conservatives also believe that government is necessary as a restraint on the worst tendencies of human beings. Government must therefore exercise a police power, properly checked and balanced to prevent abuse. It must also provide for the national defense by maintaining military forces that are effective but also systematically constrained so that they do not become an agent of oppression.

The idea that government should be limited in its role and constrained in the exercise of power, but vigorous in its proper functions, is at the heart of conservatism, and of the Constitution as well. In Federalist #51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The Constitution, of which Madison was the primary author, assigns the function of national defense to the central government. In fact, the text of the Constitution makes clear that national defense is the primary, exclusive, and mandatory function of the federal government.

  • Of the 17 enumerated powers granted Congress in Article I, more than a third relate to defense. Congress is granted the full range of authority necessary to organize the defense of the United States as it was then understood.
  • Article II establishes the presidency and sets forth the general executive powers of his office, such as the appointment power. The only substantive functions of government specifically assigned to the president relate to national security and foreign policy, and the first such responsibility granted him is his authority as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”
  • Under the Constitution, national defense is exclusively the function of the federal government. Article I, Section 10, specifically prohibits the states, except with the consent of Congress, from keeping troops or warships in time of peace, and from engaging in war, the only exception being that a state may act on its own if actually invaded.
  • National defense is the only mandatory function of the federal government. Most of the powers granted to Congress are permissive in nature. But the Constitution requires the federal government to protect the nation. Article IV, Section 4, states that the “United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government and shall protect each of them against invasion.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, even if the federal government chose to exercise no other power, it must, under the Constitution, provide for the common defense.

One of the ironies of modern times is that the bigger the federal government has become, the less effectively it has exercised its primary responsibility. Over the last two decades, the government has systematically cut the size of the military and failed to recapitalize its inventory, while increasing its missions. In 2011, with no consideration whatsoever of the impact on national security, the government cut defense spending by almost $500 billion and followed that with another $500 billion sequester of funding. All this was done in defiance of the recommendations of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates (who was no profligate when it came to defense budgets; he ruthlessly cut a number of modernization programs in 2009–10) and the bipartisan Perry-Hadley Commission on defense, which specifically warned in 2011 that the U.S. military was facing a “train wreck” unless the size of the Navy was increased and all four of the services were recapitalized.

As a result, the military is becoming a hollow force. The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since before World War I; the Air Force is smaller, and its aircraft older, than at any time since the inception of the service in 1947; the Army and Marines are stressed, badly in need of new vehicles and helicopters, and — even if the sequester does not occur — scheduled for a substantial reduction in their end strength. The Pentagon is so broke that it recently had to delay deployment of a carrier to the Persian Gulf.