When a party is in the minority on Capitol Hill what it thinks about national security can make for interesting, even amusing, fodder for news stories but doesn’t matter much. This is particularly the case on matters of national security where the Constitution and recent practices grant the executive branch tremendous deference, even primacy. When you control both chambers, this all changes.
Now the Republican majority has to decide what it thinks about national security. It is still important but no longer sufficient to be supportive of the troops and in favor of improved care for veterans. The Republicans characterized this election as a referendum on the policies of the Obama Administration. Okay, so what does their victory mean with respect to national security?
The new Republican majority in Congress has about three months to decide what they think about an almost mind boggling array of issues ranging from defense spending levels to the conflict with the Islamic State, refurbishment of the U.S. strategic nuclear force posture, defending Europe from Russian aggression, the pivot to Asia-Pacific and securing the nation against cyber attack. The Republicans do not need a fully fleshed out national security strategy but they do need to come up with a set of governing principles.
Here is my proposed set of governing principles on defense for the new Republican majority in Congress:
1. Remove the boot of sequestration from the Pentagon’s neck. The military has already given enough in the effort to restore fiscal sanity in Washington. This administration and the current Congress continues to ask the military to do more with less. If sequestration comes into full force in FY 2016 it will break the military. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell warned in another context, “you break it, you own it.” The new Congress does not want to be responsible in any way for breaking the military come 2016. Sequestration was the President’s idea originally and it needs to be rejected, at least insofar as it impacts the defense budget.
More broadly, while reining in runaway government spending is of vital importance to the future of the Republic, everything should not be on the table when it comes to deficit reduction and balancing the budget, most particularly the security of the American people. The idea that defense spending somehow harms the strength of the economy is ridiculous on its face.
2. Adopt the principle of peace through strength. The United States and its friends face a host of really bad actors in the world. Military strength does not invite conflict. Rather, it deters threats to this nation’s security. The West won the Cold War because no potential adversary thought the balance of military power favored them.
The last six years have witnessed the decline of the U.S. military both quantitatively and qualitatively. Our adversaries can count too. They will know when our military is too weak to take on troubles in multiple places and that is when they will act. It is time to halt the drawdown of military forces, particularly in the U.S. Army. As a nation dependent on foreign trade, with allies around the world, it is imperative that the size of the Navy be increased with particular attention to submarine and amphibious forces.
Senior Pentagon officials from the Secretary of Defense on down have been sounding warnings that the U.S. is losing its technological edge to prospective adversaries. If the military is to remain strong it is imperative that investments in critical technologies be increased. Areas for particular consideration include: electronic warfare, cyber defense, nuclear weapons, directed energy, unmanned vehicles and secure access to space.
3. Decide if the United States is at war with Islamic extremism or just particular groups of terrorists. The new Congress will be asked to sign on to the administration’s campaign to contain/degrade/defeat the Islamic State or to an even bigger fight as advocated by the likes of Senators McCain and Graham. But it is not clear that this should be the locus of our efforts to combat militant Islamic extremism. Moreover, like with the Cold War fight against Soviet Communism, this struggle will not be won without a strong political and informational campaign against the ideology that motivates militant Islamists. The Republican Congress must demand a fully-fleshed out strategy from the administration before signing on to this particular conflict.
4. Allies must be told to put up or shut up. The idea that France would still be considering the sale of Mistral amphibious warfare ships to Russia in the wake of Crimea and eastern Ukraine is ludicrous. So too are continuing cuts to defense spending by NATO members. Nations that refuse to meet their minimum obligation to multilateral alliances or bilateral security arrangements cannot be classified as true allies.
5. Treat industry as a partner in forging a strong defense and not as an adversary. Republicans have been united in their drive to get government to stop treating business as an adversary and to implement pro-growth policies. The new majority needs to apply this same logic to the defense sector. The overgrowth of regulations, audits and reporting requirements needs to be severely pruned back. Wherever possible best commercial practices, including in accounting standards, need to be applied to defense contracts.
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