On the 65th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe in early May, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. His speech was not about America’s unprecedented, massive marshalling of resources, men, and materiel to defeat the forces of fascism that threatened to overwhelm the West. Instead, its underlying message was ultimately one of strategic retreat—signaling his and the Obama administration’s view that the richest country in the world can no longer afford to sustain the military’s current force structure and capabilities.

Channeling his inner President Eisenhower, Gates sought to make this message sound not only reasonable but morally justified by belittling Washington, the town where he has spent most of his career. Pandering to those on the left who always see defense spending as dangerous, he raised anew Eisenhower’s overwrought concern about the creation of a “garrison state” and a “military-industrial complex.” Pandering to those on the right who see the Pentagon as a gigantic sink hole for tax dollars, he dredged up the old saw about the Pentagon being a “Puzzle Palace” and stated that “the attacks of September 11, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending.”

The secretary—along with the Obama administration—wants Americans to believe there is no choice but to cut the defense budget given economic and fiscal realities. Just as there is no crying in baseball, however, there are no inevitabilities in politics. The administration is indeed squeezing defense spending more and more tightly, but that is a product of decisions made and policies chosen. They can and should be revisited.

Speaking of gushers, compare for a moment the size of the Obama stimulus package in 2009—nearly $800 billion—with the more than $300 billion Gates has already cut from the Pentagon’s budget and the planned “flat-lining” of defense expenditures in the years ahead. And while the secretary talks about cutting overhead by getting rid of unnecessary generals and consultants, the administration has been busy hiring tens of thousands of new federal workers. Gates himself wants to add some 30,000 to the Pentagon’s rolls to oversee military acquisitions. Surely, civil servants are not needed more than additional Marines or soldiers, given the back-breaking pace of deployments in recent years and continued overuse of the National Guard and reserves. And who in the administration or congressional leadership is arguing for tough love when it comes to so-called nondiscretionary spending (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and service on the debt)? Right now, those programs cost three times as much as defense, and by the end of a two-term Obama administration they will cost closer to five times as much.

Defense spending has gone up. But never in our history have we fought wars of this magnitude as cheaply. Take, for example, the percentage of the federal budget allocated to defense: In 1994, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pentagon spending amounted to slightly more than 19 percent of the budget; in 2010, it is the same. And if the administration has its way, that figure will drop to 15.6 percent by 2015. Is any other part of the federal budget getting similarly whacked?

The budget increases that have occurred, moreover, are largely tied to fighting the wars. When Bill Clinton left the White House and Dick Cheney told the military that “help [was] on the way,” the defense burden stood at 3 percent of GDP—a post-World War II low. When George W. Bush headed out the door, the figure for the core defense budget was about 3.5 percent. This is an increase, to be sure, but not one to make the military flush after a decade of declining budgets and deferred procurement.

In his speech, Gates stated that the U.S. military has more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft—an impressive number. What he did not mention is that the vast majority of the planes have been flying for years, were designed decades ago, and are supported by a tanker fleet that first entered the force six years before Barack Obama was born. Critically, fewer than 150 of these combat aircraft are top-of-the-line, stealthy F-22s, production of which has been capped at 187. Yet even this number doesn’t quite capture how limited the force is. Consider the F-22s needed for training, the dispersal of the remaining number among various bases, and the reality that for every plane on station there are two or three in queue, and you get a sense of just how few air-dominance planes we might have on hand during a crisis.

Gates also noted that the U.S. battlefleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined. True. But what he didn’t say is that the current number of ships in the fleet, 286, is substantially below the minimum set by several previous studies of what the Navy requires to carry out all the tasks it is charged with around the world. Nor does he mention that this number is shrinking—and will shrink, if the budget stays as is, to levels not seen since the early 20th century. Undoubtedly, the ships of today are far more combat-capable than those of even 15 years ago. Still, numbers matter. Typically, for every ship on station there is one being refurbished after deployment and one undergoing training and work-up prior to deployment. Add to that the fact that the Navy is needed virtually everywhere—protecting the sea lanes, providing support for the wars, gathering intelligence, acting as a missile defense shield, and helping deter the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea—and one quickly comes to appreciate why a much smaller fleet, more widely dispersed, will become a strategic problem.

The tightening of the budget is also going to squeeze the Army. Putting aside the all-important fact that it precludes expanding the active-duty force, a flat or shrinking budget will also affect what equipment soldiers deploy with in future operations. Because the Army has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of its equipment, especially helicopters and vehicles, has been chewed up by wear, tear, and combat. In the past, supplemental appropriations for the war effort helped meet replacement needs; the current administration, however, has halved that funding this year, requiring the Army to begin scrambling to find money in existing and future programs to cover costs.

None of the above means that there are not efficiencies to be found in the way the Pentagon does business, or that there is no need to get a handle on military health care and personnel costs. A good portion of the rising cost per serviceman, however, is connected to the realities of an all-volunteer force now in its fourth decade. In short, there is no magic reform wand that is going to make the Pentagon whole and healthy given the prevailing mismatch between defense dollars and American global strategy. Making the Pentagon 5 percent more efficient—a target any student of public administration would say is about as optimistic as one could be—will lessen but not solve this problem.

The challenge is to preserve the global international order built and guaranteed by the United States. Though Americans seem habitually averse to thinking strategically, we have actually behaved in a broadly consistent manner since the end of World War II, including the uncertain period following the Cold War. As President Obama put it in his Nobel lecture, “The plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Now, however, the prospect of additional reductions in the size and capacity of U.S. military forces calls the “strength of our arms” into question: Will America continue to underwrite the great-power peace and the surge in human freedom and prosperity that it has secured?

The strategic success of the United States rests on achieving three things: the defense of the homeland, including all of North America and the Caribbean Basin; safe access to and the ability to exploit the “global commons,” including the seas, the skies, space, and cyberspace; and a favorable balance of power across Eurasia. For all this to work as a “system,” each piece must be in working order.

It took the attacks of September 11, 2001, to remind us not only that defense of the homeland comes first, but also that it requires the will and capacity to take the fight to the enemy. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants may be getting long in the tooth, and their goal of driving the United States out of Muslim lands may be growing less probable by the day, but Sunni extremism will be with us for some time to come, as the Fort Hood shootings and the failed Times Square attack made evident. No matter how difficult a task, preventing al Qaeda and its allies from finding new nests in weak or sympathetic states is necessary if we are to protect America. Other tools of statecraft are important to this fight, but without sufficient military capability to take the fight to al Qaeda and its allies and project hard power in tough environs, these other tools will not carry the day.

The security of the commons—an awkward but nonetheless useful term—has long been regarded as an essential element in American strategy. But the protection of the realms outside the sovereign territory and waters of states is not just a strategic end in itself. It is the linchpin in America’s capacity to keep the great-power peace and, in times of conflict, to dominate particular parts of the ocean, the sky, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum.

This is not a task that can be passed off to others or assured by treaties. To draw an analogy from city life, families and businesses need to know that police are present in order to feel confident that the streets are safe for routine activity; but they also need the police to be able to physically control the streets in emergencies or during spasms of illegal behavior. Compare life in most American cities with that in many northern Mexican towns, and the high cost of losing control of the urban commons becomes obvious. So, too, the international commons—be it the sea lanes to and from the Middle East or the atmosphere and cyberspace on which we depend for secure and instantaneous communication with our forces anywhere in the world. We would be foolish to take the peace of the commons for granted, along with the benefits we and others derive from it. Once we lose it, it will be extremely costly to regain.

The balance of geopolitical power among the states across the Eurasian landmass has always been a strategic interest of the United States. This was true even before the 20th century and the rise of America as a great power; Benjamin Franklin’s ability to play the French off against the British tipped the scales in the American Revolution. And in the last century, Americans paid an enormous price in blood and treasure to turn back German and Soviet bids for dominance in Europe and Imperial Japan’s attempt to build an exclusive East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The current peace in Europe, fortunately, looks relatively durable. Russia’s attempt to exert influence in the Caucasus and the “near abroad” is a security problem but one that should be manageable with a modicum of defense effort on our part and assistance to allies sitting on Russia’s borders. That said, it does require some level of hard power both to deter Putin and his mafia from assuming they have free rein to intimidate surrounding countries and to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe that we have their backs.

But while Europe now is largely “whole and free” and far less of a security problem than it was in the 20th century, the “greater Middle East” has become a fundamental strategic concern of the United States. Initial attempts to address this concern by developing strategic partnerships with the shah of Iran or the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia produced no stable result. And so we have moved from an over-the-horizon posture to one of more direct involvement. The fact is, America’s problems with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq began well before 2003, and our interest in Mesopotamia will endure long after any “combat” troops leave. The prospect of an Iranian nuclear capability, frightening enough in itself, is perhaps more profoundly dangerous as a challenge to the stability of an inherently volatile region. Even if Iran is containable—even in the unlikely event that possession of nuclear weapons makes Tehran less prone than it is now to interfere in other nations—the response to an Iranian nuclear threat will most likely be to multiply the number of nukes across the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promise to extend American deterrence to the Gulf Arab states and others may be strategically sound if we fail to stop Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal, but it is a commitment that will require even more involvement in the region—involvement backed by significant military power.

And now our strategic horizon has expanded to include South Asia. The war in Afghanistan has morphed into a broader concern about “AfPak,” reflecting the fact that the problems of Pakistan are potentially of greater consequence than who rules in Kabul.

But the largest strategic conundrum of the post-Cold War era is the rise of China. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, and that is a human triumph and a success of the American-led international system. But while Beijing has an interest in sustaining this system, its zero-sum view of geopolitics and the pattern of its military modernization call into question its own longer-term goals, with consequences for America’s leadership position in a part of the world that directly affects this country’s future prosperity. No one desires to turn China into an enemy. But if history is any guide, failing to make clear to Beijing and the other Asian capitals that the United States has every intention of maintaining its military preeminence in the region will invite the kind of arms race and power politics among states that can only increase instability in the region, to the benefit of none.

Seen from this perspective, it should come as no surprise that the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 report, reflecting the broad consensus across the U.S. intelligence community, concluded that the demand for American security guarantees would only rise in the future. What the Obama administration is creating is a gap between resources and strategy so significant that it will be impossible for the United States to meet those demands.

The just-released Obama National Security Strategy reflects a drift toward a quite different approach, however. While it asserts that “there should be no doubt: the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security,” it proceeds immediately to sigh, “We must recognize that no one nation—however powerful—can meet global challenges alone.”

To be sure, the strategy states that there remains a need for U.S. leadership. But the tools it emphasizes—engagement, collective action, and partnerships—are emphasized as befitting a world in which mutual interests among states define the international scene. Given less attention is the traditional understanding that competition between democratic states and autocracies is the reality underlying our security requirements.

Similarly, the document notes the need to maintain America’s “military superiority,” yet it avoids linking that primacy to maintaining, or where possible expanding, “a balance of power that favors freedom”—a Bush administration phrase, but one fully consonant with America’s grand strategy since the end of World War II. Frankly, ensuring America’s role as the globe’s leading military power is not an especially difficult goal to reach, given the declining defense budgets of most allies and the significant lead the United States has had over countries like Russia and China. However, being Number One in military capabilities is not the same thing as being preeminent globally and capable of deterring competitors, policing the international commons, and decisively defeating those who would go to war against us.

Although there are any number of sentences to be found in the National Security Strategy that point toward policy continuities with past administrations, the document’s emphasis on the utility of soft power, on domestic renewal, and on issues unrelated to traditional national security concerns suggests a turning away from what have been the essential elements of America’s longstanding approach to security matters. No one in the administration will admit as much, but the body language of how the administration is treating the likes of Iran, its lack of attention to our allies, and its unwillingness to even mention the word “China” as being of possible security concern all point toward a policy of strategic retrenchment. The administration’s plans for defense spending give credence to this shift.

But rather than have an honest debate over grand strategy, the administration is pursuing its vision by consigning the discussion of the defense budget to the narrow band of our country’s financial health, as though our economic problems could be solved by reining in our supposed “imperial overstretch.” But that is false. Defense spending is not the reason America’s fiscal house is in disorder, and cutting defense could only be at best a marginal palliative.

Undermining America’s ability to be the primary guarantor of global security, moreover, will create the conditions for greater competition among states and a more chaotic international environment. And it will inevitably lead the United States, for want of military capacity, to put off addressing security challenges until they became more difficult and costly to deal with.

Gates’s speech at the Eisenhower Library was off the mark in many respects. The United States never became the “garrison state” many feared at the start of the Cold War, and even in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the re-balancing of civil liberties and security has been minimal. Nor is the “military-industrial complex” a real problem. Defense companies now amount to less than 2 percent of Standard & Poor’s total market capitalization for the country’s 500 largest companies—hardly the dark and dangerous behemoth many on the left imagine.

But Gates was right in one respect: The nation is at a critical juncture when it comes to defense resources. The problem is the administration’s response. If Obama and his team prevail, they will have created a spending dynamic that puts the United States on the same road as the countries of Europe, where domestic welfare crowds out all but minimal spending for defense. America’s role in the world will decline, not because we have tried to do too much abroad, but because we have chosen to do too much at home. For less than a nickel on the dollar of U.S. GDP, we can maintain our preeminence in the world and, with prudent taxing and spending at home, revive America’s economy as well. This shouldn’t be an either/or choice. It hasn’t been in the past, and America and the world have been the better for it.

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Gary Schmitt is director of AEI’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies.

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