Michael Sandberg/ US Navy
Earlier this year, Barack Obama told military commanders and Pentagon civilian leaders that his goal was to “reduce US military activity around the world.” That’s what he said. But what he meant was that he intends to constrain US foreign policy by shrinking military capacity and capabilities so that the United States cannot engage in military activities around the world.
Under Obama, the number of missions heaped on those in uniform has not declined. Indeed, that number has not gone down under any president of either political party since the end of the Cold War. From Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo to Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, our forces keep getting busier.
Should we engage in these missions or shouldn’t we? This might be a worthy debate if the American people were somehow involved, but they’re constantly told otherwise: We can keep cutting the military’s budget but still magically retain a force that is second to none. At some point, getting more and spending less not only rings hollow but actually produces a hollow force.
Notwithstanding, many continue making similar claims. Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress released a new report proposing roughly $1 trillion dollars in new defense cuts over the next decade.
CAP’s basic argument is that military spending should be diluted proportionately to other elements of national power, such as diplomacy, development, and homeland security. The report categorizes military spending as offensive, drawing a contrast with diplomatic and development spending, which it calls preventative.
But this distinction is overly simplistic and misleading. American military might is rarely employed for offensive purposes. Rather, our forces spend most of their time deterring and preventing conflict through multinational exercises with allies, training foreign militaries, and being present over time to build relationships and trust.
The CAP report tries to address this by briefly discussing “environment shaping,” but argues that forward-deployed forces are an inefficient economic investment because it encourages free riding by allies that would otherwise invest in their own defense and defensive arms purchases by enemies could increase. Rather, the argument goes, the United States should become an offshore balancer, only surging into vital regions when events threaten to get out of hand.
This is the thinking that cements the alliance of America’s isolationist Libertarians and progressives. But Libertarians are more honest because they are clear that their goal is an America in retreat.
Both fail to appreciate that our presence in vital regions like the Asia-Pacific inhibits, not encourages, conflict. It’s true that under the American security umbrella there’s probably some free riding by allies. But for every dollar spent on a professional force, advanced technologies, training, or weapons, there are invisible savings gained in blood and treasure by not having to fight unnecessary wars. Or are they really suggesting we allow Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan – for instance – to succumb to Chinese predations?
There’s no question that diplomacy and foreign aid contribute important components to the preventative mission. But the military deterrent is a key element in that mix. And we have a vital stake in the peaceful resolution of disputes that may otherwise suck us into dangerous international conflicts.
America tried to be an offshore balancer twice before, and the result both times was a World War. We saved pennies and lost pounds and tens of thousands of lives in the bargain.
If we’re going to have a military, those in it need something to sail, something to fly, something to drive. Breaking contracts to buy those things to “save” money isn’t free. Flying and driving half century old equipment has its own implications. But the costs of a weak deterrent and an incapacitated military are greater still. Is defense expensive? You bet. Peace costs a great deal. Is fighting a war even more expensive? By any standard – in dollars and in blood – so much more.