The Corner

Re: Linking Defense Cuts to a Strategy of Restraint

Mr. Preble takes exception to my stating that his paper recommends cuts to “military budgets without tying the cuts to any strategic plan.” Unfortunately, the following points are what he presents as if they were a real and helpful strategy:

   • Discourage the occupation of failing states

   • Stop indefinite commitments to healthy ones

   • Reduce military missions

   • Avoid needless conflict

   • Protect our prosperity

This is not a strategy. It is nonsense.

Our military does not exist to occupy failing states, and no one in the defense community has laid out a strategic principle that says we have to search out and occupy failing states. In Iraq and Afghanistan we have become the equivalent of an occupying force. But that was never part of any defined strategy. Rather, it was the result of combat operations undertaken for other reasons, in much the same way as we ended up occupying Germany and Japan after World War II.

Moreover, we don’t commit to defending “healthy” countries just because we are nice guys looking to spend some money. We do so because it is in our interest to do so. If Mr. Preble and his co-author want to end our security guarantees to Germany and Japan, it is incumbent on them to examine the likely consequences. They can start with the effects of Japan and Germany going nuclear as fast as they can, so as to compensate for the loss of the American nuclear umbrella. What does Mr. Preble think their neighbors, especially China and Russia, will do when that happens? This kind of analysis is totally missing from the Cato paper.

As for the call to reduce military missions, what can one say except, what a wonderful idea! In Mr. Preble’s view, this can be accomplished by adopting a “strategy of military restraint.” The United States must resist the temptation to get involved in other nations’ affairs. As the paper puts it, “power tempts the United States to meddle.”

There is no such thing as a “strategy of military restraint.” In reality, this nation is always restrained. Yes, there are times when we have used our military inadvisably, but that was rarely apparent at the time. But even as we did so, we were always far more restrained than we might have been. In fact, the United States could easily have avoided a number of casualties in every conflict since World War II if we had used overwhelming force at the start of these fights. Our own restraint has often made the military’s job much harder than necessary. For instance, if we had used less restraint in Iraq in 2003 and invaded with 250,000 troops, it is doubtful the Iraqi insurgency would have gotten off the ground.

What Mr. Preble needed to do was peer into an uncertain future and try to make sense of what he saw. Once that was done, a true strategic thinker would examine that future against our national interests and try to determine what size military the nation requires to protect those interests. This Mr. Preble singularly fails to do. Rather he tells us that fighting terrorism is cheap, and that North Korea spends a small fraction of what we do on defense. Thanks for that.

He goes on to say that even Russia and China spend far less than we do on their militaries. In fact, such side-by-side spending comparisons are useless unless they are done at purchasing-power parity and all relevant items are included (e.g., personnel costs make up a large part of the U.S. military budget, but are not included in Chinese military spending). This is also something Mr. Preble fails to even attempt.

More seriously, the point is not where China and Russia stand today. Strategists get paid to look deep into the future. China’s economy will double in seven years, and its military budget will double in approximately five years. What is Mr. Preble’s plan for dealing with a China that will be twice as powerful by the time today’s third-graders start high school? Well, according to his paper, his plan to meet this growing challenge is to scrap three aircraft carriers, six air wings, and more than a third of our infantry.

There is a term for this: preemptive surrender.

The harder one looks at Mr. Preble’s paper, the less sense it makes. For instance, on the subject of threats from Syria and North Korea, it states, “With the exception of North Korean missiles, they lack the capability to attack the United States.” I would say the potential to annihilate Los Angeles is one heck of an exception. At one point, Mr. Preble states that the nation’s future success depends on our technological superiority, and that is why his budget recommends “heavy spending on research and development.” That was on page 3. But on page 7 we learn that he wants to cut research and development by $73 billion. In another instance, Mr. Preble makes much of the fact that one of our “best weapons” against terrorists is intelligence. He then proceeds to cut $112 billion from the intelligence budget.

If Mr. Preble is willing to take a meat cleaver to military programs he believes are important, what hope is there for the actual combat forces that protect us? Short answer: none at all. Mr. Preble treats us to a long list of cuts: destroyers, planes, submarines, aircraft carriers, soldiers, marines, missiles, nuclear weapons. The list goes on and on. In truth, some of these cuts might be the proper thing to do. No one is saying that budget cuts are unnecessary or that the military force structure does not have to change. These changes, however, have to be based on something more than a hope that the status quo will go on indefinitely.

Mr. Preble needs to raise his sights. His paper offers nothing new. His “strategy of restraint” is just another name for a strategy of retreat. As I said in my original article, America’s decline is not preordained. It is a choice. Mr. Preble has made his choice: retreat, decline, and reducing the military to a rump force incapable of meeting the crises sure to arise in the future.


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