Politics & Policy

Two Steps for Our Common Security

Marines conduct ROE drills at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, January 2014. (Corporal James Mast)
The White House must restore trust in the military, and Congress should increase defense spending.

Mr. Obama enters the last quarter of his presidency with the Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress. This guarantees friction at a time when a bellicose Russia has shattered stability in central Europe and when we are fighting a haphazard war in the Middle East. There are two steps that the president and the Congress could take to enhance our national security, reduce risk, and improve the relationship between the two branches of government.

First, repair the distrust between the White House and our military. Two successive secretaries of defense — the moderate Republican Robert Gates and the staunch Democrat Leon Panetta — issued the same public critique: The White House staff has usurped too much power in national-security matters and manifests a distrust of the military. Our common security has been badly served by this development.

The solution is obvious. Mr. Obama should appoint as his national-security adviser a centrist with an impeccable professional reputation and a long-standing relationship with the military. There are many well-qualified candidates. Our intent is not to place any particular name forward. Rather, it is to point to previous examples, including retired general Brent Scowcroft during George H. W. Bush’s term and retired ambassador Frank Carlucci during President Reagan’s second term.

Why is a change needed now? To put it bluntly, Mr. Obama needs someone skillful to mold policy to fit military realities. In Afghanistan, the administration has promised to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2016. No experienced commander believes it is wise to pull out completely. The risk is simply too great.

Indeed, because we did pull out of Iraq, that country fell apart, and we were compelled to go back in. But we have done so in a haphazard way. The president’s promise that no American will engage in ground combat is too extreme. Our warriors are both professional and volunteers. They want to fight for us. Yes, the vast bulk of fighters against the Islamists should be Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. But consider what happened in Afghanistan in November of 2001. A handful of our Special Forces teams, some on horseback, called down America’s awesome aerial firepower upon the Taliban and al-Qaeda, enabling local forces to take over. Similarly, we should not tie one arm behind our back in Iraq. A few small American teams protected by our powerful air support would provide a vast psychological and physical leverage.

A new, credible national-security adviser would provide the president with a staff mechanism to repair relations with our generals and to gradually modify policy to take account of military realities. That is a two-year patch on a larger problem that is long term and involves both the White House and the Congress. Simply put, we treat national security as a free good — and we cannot afford national security to become a playground of politics, rather than of sound strategic policy.

Putting aside the periods when we were fighting wars, since the end of World War II, we have spent annually more than 4 percent of our gross domestic product on defense. Recently, however, with ever-climbing deficits, Congress and the executive have agreed to steadily reduce defense. For fiscal year 2015, the request for defense is 3.2 percent of GDP — and projected to drop to 2.3 percent over the next decade. We are cutting our defense budget in half.

It’s time to take a deep breath. Human nature, as manifested by Vadimir Putin in Europe, the Islamists in the Middle East, and the global cyber-thefts by China, is not twice as benevolent as in the past. Wars, plagues, hurricanes, and losses by the Chicago Cubs keep recurring. No sensible person would cut in half the insurance on his house or possessions. Why are we cutting in half our insurance on our common house, called America? It makes no sense.

Without thinking, we are placing our children at risk in a future in which our aircraft, ships, and ground-combat divisions will not be adequate for the task. We should not be lurching from one administration to another, from one Congress to another. Now is the appropriate time for the Congress to step forward. The solution is to have a full debate in the Congress, with the intent of agreeing upon a constant insurance policy of 4 percent of GDP. As well, we need to institute an audit of defense spending to ensure it is consistent with defense priorities of the war fighter — not the growth of a defense bureaucracy.

In sum, here are two small steps that can make a large difference. First, a new national-security adviser can bridge the unhealthy distrust and discounting of military advice that now characterizes the White House. Retaining a presence in Afghanistan and allowing Special Forces teams to call in air against the Islamists in Iraq are practical modifications that a savvy adviser could install. Second, the Congress must stanch the steady loss in defense funding. The mechanism is a resolution establishing 4 percent of GDP as the floor for our national-security insurance. Our military cannot be used as a bill payer for Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility.

— Allen West is a former member of Congress and retired Army lieutenant colonel who served as a battalion commander in Iraq and is the incoming CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas. Bing West is a former assistant secretary of defense who has written six books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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