Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, said it best, "When waves of change appear, you can duck under the wave, stand fast against the wave, or, better yet, surf the wave." Today, the same tsunami-like wave of debt that threatens to sweep away American economic prosperity is headed for America's defense establishment. President Barack Obama signaled as much with his April 13 budget address, in which he warned: "Just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense."
By Douglas Macgregor
Obama gave no specifics, promising instead to work with the Pentagon to "conduct a fundamental review of America's missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world." But given the poor track record such reviews have -- both Quadrennial Defense Reviews and Roles and Missions Commissions -- and Obama's failure to even address the need to reduce defense spending, the president's words don't deserve to be taken seriously at all. Meanwhile, the Republican failure to take on defense spending -- the 800-pound gorilla in the room -- means the political discourse that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his colleagues seek may degenerate into pointless shouting matches with Capitol Hill's Democrats.
But the message for Republicans and Democrats alike should be that cutting defense doesn't mean going defenseless. It means reducing America's commitments overseas -- the latter-day version of "imperial overstretch" -- and changing the way the United States thinks about warfare. There's a way to do this, one that will allow for deep spending cuts, but in a manner that will preserve and enhance the U.S. military's competitive advantages while improving American national security.
Dealing with defense is admittedly a huge challenge. If directly questioned, the military brass will insist that given the missions they are obligated to undertake (along with a host of classified war plans they could be ordered to execute), reduced spending will put the Armed Forces and by implication the American people at grave risk. Then there's the chorus: a host of defense think tanks inside the Beltway that point out that the opportunity costs associated with cuts in spending and force structure are either unknown or too high; that unless specific alternative military options or tradeoffs are identified up front, capability gaps will emerge with potentially serious consequences for U.S. national security. These arguments are not entirely without merit. But they hardly justify keeping defense spending at current levels.
For one thing, there is no existential military threat to the United States or to its vital strategic interests. The nuclear arsenals in Russia and China could be used against the United States and its forces, but Russian and Chinese leaders have no incentive to contemplate suicide in a nuclear confrontation with the United States. Russia's diminished million-man armed forces are hard-pressed to modernize, let alone secure their own country, which borders 14 other states. For all its rhetoric, Russia's military focus is on restive Muslim populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia, not on NATO.
As for China, its top concern is not military confrontation with the United States, but domestic growing pains, especially the potential for its 1.3 billion people to overwhelm the Communist Party's internal political structures. China's internal focus on modernization and stability militates against external aggression, and this condition is unlikely to change for a very long time. Despite China's ability to steal or buy sophisticated technology, the military establishment cannot quickly or easily translate these technologies into new capabilities, and Beijing knows it.
Other possible threats are even less threatening. The North Korean regime, the poster child for the failure of state socialism, is on the road to extinction. In recent months, China has taken steps to secure its border with North Korea to ensure that millions of starving Koreans cannot rush north into China when the inevitable collapse occurs. Iran is a long way from possessing a nuclear weapon it can deliver, and its general-purpose forces are incapable of action beyond Iran's borders. Lastly, the world's leading scientific-industrial states -- most of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the leading English-speaking powers, Britain, Australia, and Canada -- are close U.S. allies. All of their economies can and do support powerful military establishments.
What about the possibility that U.S. forces will be needed once again in the broader Middle East? Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and other parts of the Islamic world demonstrate that while many of the societies in the Middle East and North Africa are broken and their people are angry about it, these problems have nothing to do with the United States. The complex cultural problems plaguing the region, from state failure to persistent social pathologies to trouble adapting to modernity, will not be solved through U.S. military occupation and counterinsurgency operations aimed at exporting democracy at gunpoint. The million dollars a year it costs to keep one U.S. soldier or Marine on station in Iraq or Afghanistan makes no sense when, for a fraction of the cost, the U.S. government could easily protect America's borders from the wave of criminality, terrorism, and illegal immigration washing in from Mexico and Latin America.