The Corner

Decline Is a Choice. A Bad One.

Last year, when President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, I said, “The president wants a Republican war hero to preside over the gutting of American defenses. Hagel will be his cover.” Even as I said it, I was hoping it wasn’t true. But it is true, I’m afraid.

For details, see this Associated Press report: “Hagel says US military must shrink to face new era.” Uh-huh. Be wary of that word “must.”

In recent years, many of us have said, “Decline is a choice” — and it is. If Americans want to withdraw from the world, or relinquish global leadership, that is their prerogative. It’s a free country. But let them do so with their eyes open. Let them have the facts.

I believe we will decline to our sorrow — not just to the world’s (which is obvious), but to our own. We have been here before, to varying degrees. I wrote about some of this in an essay called “Defense Is Different: A lesson learned, unlearned, relearned, painfully.”

All of my life, I have heard the same words from defense-cutters, and -gutters: “lean and mean,” “smart and agile.” Our defenses can be lean and mean, yessirree. Our military is fat and bloated, an oaf who can’t really fight. Put the oaf on a diet, boost his IQ, and behold the fighting machine!

I heard this “lean and mean” crap from Gary Hart and the “Atari Democrats,” way back in the mid-1980s. They didn’t want a better military, in my opinion. They just wanted a smaller, less able one. The “lean and mean,” “smart and agile” talk was just a version of “boob bait for Bubbas.”

Sometimes less is more, sure. And sometimes less is less — as often in the military arena.

Another cry you hear is, “Cost overruns! Fat-cat contractors! Sweetheart deals! Our military brass doesn’t want this stuff, only the cronies who manufacture it do!” I suggest being wary of that line, too. The issue can be complicated. Manufacturers have their interests, of course, but sometimes they know what they’re talking about. And sometimes they can say things that military leaders, with their political constraints, can’t.

As for waste, fraud, and abuse — that is baked in, unfortunately. You try to minimize it. You police it vigorously. Defense is a big program, or series of programs. And it is a core function of government — the federal government. Boise shouldn’t have to defend itself, and you can’t stop incoming missiles with small-government theory.

Once upon a time, though briefly, after World War II, there was something like a consensus on foreign policy and defense. JFK and Nixon tried to out-hawk each other. Then the Democratic party changed — got McGovernized. The Republicans were the party of defense and national security. In fact, the Republicans were utterly united on this.

Our political landscape is much different now. The Democrats, gone, of course. But much of the Republican party is gone, too — Paulized, or indifferent. An understanding of defense is shrinking faster than the defense budget. Everybody cheered for “sequestration.” Edward Snowden is regarded in some rightish quarters as a hero.

Speak up for defense, and you may well be told, “Why don’t you go back to your real country, Israel?” Or, “How many more American boys do you intend to kill?” Actually, the likelihood that they’ll be killed is greater with a weak America.

By soberer heads, you may be told, “We just can’t afford it, as we once could.” Yes, we can (to coin a phrase). Spending is a matter of priorities — as with a family or individual, so with a country. Don’t pretend that a choice is an obligation.

Americans are “war-weary,” goes the line. And that is perfectly understandable. But wait’ll they see how “weary” they are when the Defense Department is the size they want, or the size they think they want it, or the size they think they have to have it. The world doesn’t up and decide to leave you alone. “Gee, the Americans are down on defense now, I think I’ll ease up on them.”

I’m afraid there is no way to warn people. They will just have to learn through painful experience, as before. Every generation has to learn it anew, apparently. But wouldn’t they save themselves a lot of trouble if they bothered to glance over their shoulder, just a second, at history?

Perhaps my fears and alarms are misplaced. Believe me, I hope they are. People say that, rhetorically, but, honestly, I mean it.

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