Politics & Policy

Obama’s Defense Cuts

They may be defensible.

It would be unfair to dismiss the administration’s latest assault on the U.S.’s defense capability as the folly and cowardice some commentators are already alleging. Without a worldwide rival of comparable strength threatening all American strategic interests, it is certainly possible to retrench gradually and support regional forces of stability and, preferably, moderation.

President Roosevelt saw that if Nazi Germany were permitted to retain its conquests of 1938–40, and to continue to enjoy the satellization of unoccupied France, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, and much of the Balkans, it would, in a generation or so, have as large a population and industrial capacity as the United States, especially if it tore away and annexed chunks of the Soviet Union as well. Roosevelt responded with the greatest defense buildup in world history; the extension of U.S. territorial waters in the North Atlantic from three to 1,800 miles; orders to attack German ships on detection; the gift, described as a loan, to Britain and Canada, and later the Soviet Union, of any sinews of war they requested; and the enforced expulsion of any German or Italian influence from the Americas.

President Truman saw that the USSR and international Communism were a mortal military and subversive threat to the West, and responded with NATO, the Marshall Plan, and a comprehensive program of containment, from West Berlin to South Korea. Of course, both those strategic responses were successful.

#ad#There is no such threat now. Terrorism is a dreadful nuisance, but it lacks central direction and a great and powerful host country devoted altogether to its conduct, and it is incapable of attracting the intellectual and moral support of more than a few homicidal psychopaths and genocidists.

In these circumstances, full advantage can be taken of steadily more precise and efficient defense technology, and the steady proliferation of more capable secondary powers, eager to preserve and reinforce their independence, in every theater.

The most unambiguous success of the George W. Bush administration was the new relationship with India. President Obama had a very positive trip to the Far East at the end of 2011, and it is clear that China — which will not be able to maintain the fiction of an inexorable economic rise much longer — in attempting to assert its primacy in the Far East, is galvanizing its neighbors, who are uniformly unenthused by such a prospect, to the heightened practice of self-reliance and collective security.

The Chinese have effectively been sent packing by the twitching hermit junta in Burma, and their hegemonic antics in the South China Sea have backfired. In modern times, hostile challenges to the established maritime power have never been successful. The leading naval power is always the country that doesn’t really need a large army to assure its own borders: first Britain and then America. The Turks failed against the maritime Mediterranean West at Lepanto in 1571, 17 years before the Spanish Armada was defeated by the British. Napoleon could never focus on naval matters even at the height of his power, and the Germans drove the British into alliance with England’s ancient rivals, France and Russia, by challenging British naval supremacy before World War I. The German High Seas Fleet then put to sea for only three inconclusive days, at Jutland, in all of that war. The U.S. took the scepter of the seas from Britain as a friendly wartime ally in World War II, and saw off a strenuous naval-construction challenge by the Soviet Union from 1965 to 1990.

The alarms being set off now about the Chinese navy are a little hard to take seriously. An improvised aircraft carrier, plans for catamaran aircraft carriers (an insane concept), and new anti-ship surface-to surface missiles should not overawe the United States Navy. The Chinese are never going to exchange fire with the U.S. Navy anyway, and the idea that they will keep U.S. heavy units out of the South China Sea or the Straits of Formosa with this sort of saber-rattling is eyewash.


China’s neighbors, led by India, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia, are well able to ensure a satisfactory regional correlation of forces, especially as the first appearance of plausible forces of democratization surface in Russia to discourage Putin’s maverick, compulsive trouble-making. His sort of influence-seeking through afflicting the most powerful countries at every opportunity works only when applied according to consistent foreign-policy principles, even if they are spurious, as with Charles de Gaulle’s claim that he would always be with the Anglo-Saxons in a crisis but was a more ardent champion of Europe than they were, and was more even-handed in the Middle East. Gaullism was an aggregation of confidence tricks, but artfully executed by its inventor and far from the ill-considered reactionary aggravations of all neuralgic problems and regions that Putin has pursued.

The Far East and South Asia can manage with minimal American attention; most of Latin America is progressing well and there are no dangerous extra-hemispheric influences, despite Ahmadinejad’s ludicrous trans-cultural minuet with Chávez. There is no threat to Western or Central Europe, and Africa has never really been a strategic theater, or one where extra-territorial interventions yielded much of a dividend (after the slave trade was abolished).

#ad#The Middle and Near East, as always, is more complicated and dangerous. President Obama’s speech in 2009 asserting that all problems any Muslim country had previously had with the United States were now over didn’t have much currency, because it was apparently based on the mad theory that this country had always had a white, bumptiously Christian president, and that as this was no longer the case, the problems would vanish.

Pulling out of Iraq as precipitately as Obama has will probably not be decisive in determining whether there was ever any justification for staying in that country a month longer than required to get rid of Saddam. It was also probably never realistic to expect Afghanistan to be more than the patchwork of tribal brigands and warlords it has always been. The West should probably have just chased down the terrorists, smashed up the North West Territories of Pakistan and Waziristan as much as necessary, and made it clear that any renewed exportation of terrorism from the region to the West would provoke a much more destructive return visit. It is asking a lot of any Allied soldier to risk so much as a stubbed toe for the Karzai regime.

The president at least allowed himself to be dragooned into assisting in the ouster of Qaddafi. But until very recently, Iranian policy, and, despite a very courageous ambassador in Damascus (Robert Ford), Syrian policy, have been disastrous. From Secretary Clinton’s early endorsement of Bashir Assad as a “reformer,” through almost a year of havering and shilly-shallying, the U.S. attitude to the forces of dissent in Syria (and Iran) has been cowardly and self-defeating. The U.S. has preferred Assad to his opponents.

The possibilities of an oil embargo against Iran have brightened the horizon only because the Iranian ayatollahs may just be stupid and desperate enough (as they imprison former President Rafsanjani’s daughter and their currency abruptly loses 40 percent of its value) to provoke internationally approved military action, including against their nuclear program. (It is impossible to discern whether the administration yet realizes that the successful consummation of that program would be an unspeakable catastrophe.) If such a military response is provoked and occurs, it will be the triumph of good fortune over the administration’s ineptitude, though the results could be as benign as if the policy conception and execution had been excellent from the start.

But the fear flourishes, rooted in a knowledge of the administration’s naïveté and half-baked notions of wealth redistribution, that the defense-spending cuts are intended not as a response to strategic realities but as a substitute for entitlement reform. Certainly, trimming the military to feed welfare bloat is one of the litmus tests of a civilization in decline.

Defense is the most effective and valuable form of economic stimulus, especially in high technology, and the country’s most effective form of continuing education, as well as the only source of national security. Resources allocated to national defense should be cut back only for the right reasons. There is definitely room for hope, but this administration’s record, despite the fact that Robert Gates and Leon Panetta are both competent defense secretaries, does not inspire confidence.

 — Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of FreedomRichard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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