"America Can No Longer Afford to Be the World's Policeman."
It's a choice. The other objection, of course, is that the last decade of war has drained not only Americans' emotional reserves but their country's treasury, giving America little choice but to retrench. Recognizing the "limits of our power" has been one of the resurgent themes of the post-Bush years. But where has it left the country? Leading from behind -- an absurd notion that itself must be left behind. After all, neither France, whose presidents have led on both Libya and Syria, nor the U.N. Security Council can solve the thorny problems we now face. As Reagan put it, "Leadership is a great burden. We grow weary of it at times.... But if we are not to shoulder the burdens of leadership in the free world, then who will?"
The truth is the United States spends remarkably little on defense. The Pentagon's budget now represents about 4 percent of GDP, close to the lowest proportion in modern history. It is eminently affordable. Yet the country is on track to cut more than $1 trillion in military spending over the next decade. The lion's share of spending is not on operations or weapons systems, as some believe; nearly 50 percent of spending goes to veterans' benefits and uniformed and civilian personnel. So what can be cut? A better question is: What would America like to stop doing?
If the country chooses to subcontract the Pacific to China, it can begin to slash the Navy. If it decides that neither lift nor air power is key to fighting in Afghanistan or farther-flung reaches of the globe, then who needs the Air Force? And if, as then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested, the United States never fights another land war in Asia, then why have much of an Army?
Americans have benefited tremendously from their involvement abroad. The United States has produced a broader peace at a decreasing cost to the country. Think of it this way: In the first 50 years of the 20th century, more than half a million Americans died in two world wars. In the second 50 years, the number was 95,000 because of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. And after Vietnam? Not even 1,000. In the two wars of the 21st century, Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have lost just over 6,500 service members. Continental war in Europe is today almost inconceivable. Eastern Europe is free. Trade has skyrocketed because of, among other things, peace on the high seas -- largely due to the U.S. Navy.
The United States has a powerhouse economy and military might second to none for the moment. Both are at risk because of untrammeled debt and entitlement spending -- not defense expenditures. The country can choose to usher out the era of American power, but it will be a choice. And it will be a choice that is not easily undone. There will simply not be enough money to rebuild the military if it's allowed to decay.
Republicans are still deciding where they stand on the question. Among those who understand budgets, few believe military expenditures are contributing to America's economic woes. But far too many don't understand and haven't troubled themselves to do so. Are there savings around the margins? Of course. Senator Coburn is right when he says the Army doesn't need its own brand of beef jerky. But sustained and serious savings can only come from genuine cuts to the muscle of U.S. military might. Honest libertarians like those at the Cato Institute admit freely that they wish to cut defense in order to constrain U.S. foreign policy. Others hide behind the budget to cover their isolationist impulse. But the vast mass simply doesn't know. It's time for the Republican Party to remind the country what it gets for the money it spends and what it will mean for the country when it stops.
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