The calls for cutting defense spending are reaching a fevered pitch in Washington. An unlikely concatenation of individuals and groups from libertarian Congressman Ron Paul and his Tea Party-backed son, Senator-elect Rand Paul, to hard left Representative Barney Frank and now the seemingly centrist co-chairs of the deficit commission, Erskine Bowles and Senator Alan Simpson, have proposed cutting defense in the context of redefining America’s 21st century global role.
Unfortunately, chairmen Bowles and Simpson went so far as to propose specific levels of defense spending reductions and particular programs to be cut without addressing the issue of America’s future security requirements. Each of the above named individuals takes it as a matter of ground truth that America’s role in the future will have to be defined down and that somehow such a redefinition and scaling back of U.S. military capabilities will not have profoundly negative consequences for this country, the global commons and the Free World. So, unless we are willing to put the cart before the horse, let’s address the question of America’s 21st century global role before we agree on how deeply and in what areas to reduce defense spending.
For decades, the central animating principle of U.S. security policy has been the central role America played in maintaining global stability. The Obama Administration clearly subscribed to this view of an American-centric world order. Its vision of America’s role in the 21st century world is of a leading force for stability and security. According to the 2010 National Security Strategy, “Our country possesses the attributes that have supported our leadership for decades — sturdy alliances, an unmatched military, the world’s largest economy, a strong and evolving democracy, and a dynamic citizenry. Going forward, there should be no doubt: the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security.”
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review went even farther to connect U.S. strength and involvement in the world to the security and stability of the international order: “Furthermore, as a global power, the strength and influence of the United States are deeply entwined with the fate of the broader international system — a system of alliances, partnerships and multinational institutions that our nation has helped build and sustain for more than sixty years. The U.S. military must therefore be prepared to support broad national goals of supporting stability in key regions, providing assistance to nations in need, and promoting the common good.”
What alternative vision do the defense “downsizers” provide for America’s role in the 21st century? In fact, they don’t offer an alternative. They simply assert that America should do less, be less involved in the world and pay less attention to others, including long-standing allies with whom we have shed blood on countless battlefields. The Paul/Franks/Bowles/Simpson collective do not dispute the Obama Administration’s assertion that the U.S. is the central pillar upon which the existing international order rests. Nor do they bother to explain what they think will happen to the international order as the U.S. downsizes its military, fails to invest in cutting edge capabilities and leaves allies in critical regions of the world such as the Middle East and East Asia to their own devices. Perhaps they believe that China can be relied on to protect American interests in the Far East or that Iran will guarantee access to Persian Gulf oil even as it seeks to establish hegemony in the region and pursues the destruction of Israel? We do not know because these individuals advocate defense spending cuts without bothering to consider the consequences of their actions for U.S. security and that of the world.
The consequences of their unwillingness to define an alternative role for the U.S. in the 21st century is most telling when it comes to the programmatic recommendations made by the defense downsizers. They propose a grab bag of programmatic moves without a reference to critical missions the military must perform and the role of those weapons systems in ensuring that the military has the needed technological edge. It is easy to recommend cutting back the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and buying more F-16s when your “vision” of the requirements for U.S. military power does not include the need for air superiority. Similarly, for a military that must increasingly project power in an expeditionary manner from afar, systems such as the V-22, Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and Maritime Prepositioning Force are vital. Or do the critics believe the nation will never need to send men, planes and ships in harms war? Again, we just don’t know.