The crisis in Libya provides a useful reminder that the world’s demand for American power is rising. This is clearly the case in the Muslim world, which was in turmoil long before the current “Arab spring.” As Senator Richard Lugar recently fretted, “Libya might not be the last of these cases.” Just so.
No one can predict with any precision when or where the “next case” might be. But it is folly to presume—and for our government to plan—that there won’t be further conflicts, that revolutionary change will be, as the president has put it, “organic,” that what happens overseas stays overseas.
The Obama administration came to power believing that it could better manage the national security “portfolio” by divesting the United States of “underperforming” assets—that is, Bush’s wars—in the greater Middle East. The Obama administration wanted to reinvest the proceeds at home, and advance a more limited foreign policy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly summarized the argument at West Point last month: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” No surprise that Gates has been leery of the intervention in Libya.
Yet Obama has now started, not just inherited, a Middle East war. Perhaps he can take the obvious and logical step and prepare for the likelihood of next cases. As Secretary Gates also said to the cadets, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record is perfect: We have never once gotten it right.”
To get it right, first recognize the primacy of military power in international politics. In the present crisis, the Obama administration, though slow off the mark, did in fact achieve about as much as diplomacy could be expected to achieve. Getting a useful U.N. resolution at all beat the odds. The administration has also created a credible international coalition. The proof of the effort, however, will be in the willingness and ability to use force to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power.
As these recent events attest, there is no substitute for having sufficient U.S. military forces to be able to conduct multiple campaigns in the region while continuing to operate throughout the world. It’s not clear we have this capability now. After all, it appeared the Bush administration could only adequately fight one of its wars at a time.
And what we do have, we are in the process of cutting. What this will leave us with is simply not enough. The House Armed Services Committee’s March 18 “Views and Estimates” letter put it plainly to Rep. Paul Ryan: “This [House Budget] committee should not jeopardize the security of the nation by accepting across-the-board cuts to national defense without regard to the inherent strategic risks.”
To quote from the bipartisan defense commission, headed by former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and former Defense Secretary William Perry: “As the last 20 years have shown, America does not have the option of abandoning a leadership role in support of its national interests. . . . Failure to anticipate and manage the conflicts that threaten those interests . . . will not make those conflicts go away. . . . It will simply lead to an increasingly unstable and unfriendly global climate and, eventually, to conflicts America cannot ignore.”
In short, the world hasn’t stopped, and we can’t get off. To the contrary: Across the Middle East, the pace of events is accelerating. Our president now understands we have no choice but to become more deeply involved. It’s the right and necessary thing to do. Which is why cutting defense is the last thing America should now be doing.