A line in the sand on American leadership

Article Highlights

  • The U.S. military is too small and under-resourced to carry out the nation’s defense strategy

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  • As American military power declines, so too will its diplomatic influence and economic wealth

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  • As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel put it this week, “The world is exploding all over."

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A bipartisan group of defense heavyweights has issued a stark warning for presidential candidates of both parties. As the National Defense Panel report outlines, American internationalism has produced such incredible and unprecedented gains that anyone calling for less than robust engagement overseas must shoulder the burden of proof.

The panel was led by senior statesmen from both political parties, as well as an array of retired military leaders. It was co-chaired by President Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Central Command boss Army General John Abizaid. It also featured former Obama administration Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, as well as her counterpart from the Bush administration, Ambassador Eric Edelman, and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent.

Given the breadth of experience on the panel, the report draws a clear line in the sand for the debate over U.S. national security policy. Following the commission’s findings, the starting point of a national debate about national security must be that the U.S. military is too small and under-resourced to carry out the nation’s defense strategy. Sooner or later, this growing problem will directly impact Americans. As former Sens. Jon Kyl and Joseph Lieberman have argued, defense cuts “don’t only harm national security, they will weaken the economy.” This is a sobering assessment for politicians on both sides of the aisle.

The bold and unanimous proclamations of this group are significant because they articulate a clear consensus view on the imperative for American internationalism and the power required to uphold and underpin the security and prosperity it provides. In the words of the panel, “Since World War II, no matter which party has controlled the White House or Congress, America’s global military capability and commitment has been the strategic foundation undergirding our global leadership.”

Rebuilding America’s defense capabilities will take time, money and political capital, but aggressive action at home to restore our power and abroad to reclaim the mantle of global leadership is now the clear bipartisan mandate. Voters should run from any candidate offering anything less.

The connection between hard power capabilities, in particular, and American global leadership with its commensurate economic prosperity here at home is a consistent theme of the report. As the panel outlines, “The effectiveness of America’s other tools for global influence, such as diplomacy and economic engagement, are critically intertwined with and dependent upon the perceived strength, presence and commitment of U.S. armed forces.” In other words, as American military power declines, so too will its diplomatic influence and economic wealth.

The panel is also clear on how a strengthened American military could better uphold the global order. The report strongly endorses America’s traditional military posture of worldwide engagement, arguing that “forward presence through forward-based and forward-operating rotational forces is also an important part of U.S. strategy, especially in peacetime.” This constant requirement, regardless of conflict, is increasingly needed for the U.S. military to provide effective and credible deterrence on foreign shores. For instance, given recent Russian aggression, the commission calls for an increased American military presence in Eastern Europe. This type of reassurance is critical for local allies and helps deter future additional conflict.

Beyond increasing forward presence, the panel also finds that the U.S. military is too small, cautioning that “even a highly superior force cannot sustain a sufficient global presence and deter conflicts in different theaters at the same time if the size of the overall force structure is not adequate.” The panel calls for a larger Navy, noting that current budgets have the fleet on a path to 260 ships, and recommends a fleet size of somewhere between 323 and 346 ships. The commission also calls for substantial additional Air Force aircraft of varying types and opposes further reductions to the active duty Army and Marine Corps.

Maintaining forces of this size is not without cost, yet that cost is dwarfed by those America paid historically when unaddressed conflicts grew into all-out war. As the panel writes, “[O]ur policy of active global engagement has been so beneficial and is so ingrained that those who would retreat from it have a heavy burden of proof to present an alternative that would better serve the security interests and wellbeing of the United States of America.”

As the midterm elections loom, voters should keep in mind not only the price of American power, but the costs of American disengagement. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel put it this week, “The world is exploding all over.” If America’s military decline continues, this trend will only grow worse, putting an already stalled economy on even shakier ground and threatening our security at home and our interests abroad.

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