The Russian intervention in Ukraine is discouraging to all those who wish well for the cause of peace and freedom. It is even more discouraging that the Western democracies seem so helpless in the face of it. Good decisions over time broaden the options in a crisis; bad decisions narrow them, and the bad decisions of the last five years have left the United States with few options now, at least in the short term.
When Barack Obama entered office, he was determined that the United States present a benign face to the world. He began his administration with what came to be known as the “apology tour” in which he sought to wipe the slate clean from what he viewed as America’s past mistakes. He unilaterally canceled the missile-defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. He negotiated the one sided “New Start” nuclear-missile treaty with Russia — one sided, in the sense that it required the United States, but not Russia, to reduce its nuclear arsenal. He extended a hand of reconciliation to Iran, refusing for two years to seek sanctions against its nuclear-weapons program and declining to criticize its rigged elections in 2009. He acted indifferently towards traditional allies like Britain and Israel; he made no effort to recruit new partners for the United States, failing even to negotiate a new status of forces agreement with Iraq that would have allowed American troops to remain in that country in a non-combat role.
These steps were all, in a sense, predictable. The president is a man of the Left. His impulses — which were not necessarily wrong — were to rely more on diplomacy, negotiations, foreign aid, the United Nations, and the other tools of soft power. But the impulses were never collected and cohered into a strategic vision. The president never understood — or if he understood, never explained to Congress and the American people — what in the broadest sense he wanted the United States to accomplish in the post–Cold War world: what interests America needed to protect, what architecture America would establish to protect those interests, what operating principles America needed to defend itself, its allies, its interests, and its values.
He also cut the defense budget, at exactly the wrong time. When President Obama took office, the military was already stressed from eight years of hard fighting. The Navy had fewer ships than at any time since before World War I. The Air Force was smaller than it had been since the inception of the service, with aging and unreliable aircraft. The Army desperately needed to recapitalize its inventory. During its first two years, the administration cut over $300 billion dollars from the defense budget. In the spring of 2011, Secretary Gates proposed modest increases in defense spending through the rest of the decade. Given the needs, it was nowhere near enough funding; but it would at least have allowed the Navy to increase shipbuilding and the Air Force to begin recapitalizing; the Army would have been reduced but probably to a level no lower than the 1990s.
However, in the summer of 2011, the president and Congress cut $500 billion dollars over ten years from the defense budget. They followed that with the conditional sequester, which eventually took effect and cut another $500 billion. The effect, as secretary of defense Leon Panetta predicted at the time, has been “devastating.” For three years, the Department of Defense has been in a kind of chaos that makes long-term planning impossible. It has been adjusting on the fly to repeatedly changing budget numbers imposed upon it with no analysis whatsoever of their impact on national security. It has been unable to protect even day-to-day readiness. It is finishing one war in Afghanistan and trying to maintain enough power and presence to control the rising tide of conflict in the Middle East, while also trying to shift elements of a shrinking force to the Western Pacific.
A great nation with neither power nor strategic purpose is just as vulnerable, and perhaps more so, than a small nation. Great nations have targets on their backs. They can never hunker down and expect the winds of conflict to blow over them. The United States has more friends and partners than most great nations have historically had, but America also has adversaries. Those adversaries – subnational movements like al-Qaeda and its associates, rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran, and authoritarian governments like Russia and China — understand clearly that America is the obstacle to achieving what they have defined as their national interests. They chafe under the restraints of the norm-based international system, which the United States midwifed during the Cold War years, and they know that if they can defeat America, the system will go down with it.
The situation is by no means hopeless. America has a tremendous reservoir of strength to call upon. Currently the United States is spending about 3 percent of its GDP on sustaining the military. If the budget were ramped up to the levels Secretary Gates proposed in 2011, it would still be at a historically low level as a percentage of GDP, but the United States could begin rebuilding its armed forces. The shipbuilding budget could be increased; the Air Force could buy out (instead of cutting) its requirement for the F-35 fighter and design and build a new bomber to replace the old B-52s; the Army could be maintained, if not at its present size, at least at the level thought sufficient in more peaceful times 20 years ago. That would be the necessary foundation of any response not just to the crisis in Ukraine, but to China’s provocations in the Western Pacific and to the rising tide of conflict in the Middle East where friend and foe alike question American will.
The primary purpose of such a buildup would be to deter or control aggression before it threatened America’s vital interests or escalated into a general war. Reality is teaching us yet again that strength is the foundation of peace. Should President Obama propose such a step, he would find support across the political spectrum from people who know that the hour is late, and that America is not prepared for the storms that are coming. Jimmy Carter had his epiphany when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; this could be a similar moment for President Obama.
What is happening in Ukraine is bad enough by itself, but it is even more significant as yet another sign, among many, that screams the danger of our growing weakness. America is simply too far out on the margin of risk. Our leaders have neglected the tools of power and purpose for too long. They have sown the wind; unless they find the will to change course decisively, and soon, their country will reap the whirlwind.