Feature

A Conservative Defense Agenda

Reconciling great power responsibilities with economic stagnation.

By From the October 2012 issue

The first duty of the sovereign, therefore, that of defending the society from the violence and injustice of other independent societies, grows gradually more and more expensive, as the society advances in civilization.

—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

THE GROWING COST OF DEFENSE that Adam Smith foresaw 236 years ago now poses a familiar challenge for American conservatives. The “guns versus butter” debate goes back at least to the Lyndon Johnson era. But then our economy was strong, and our enemy—the Soviet Union—was visible, personified by its odious leaders, and a clear threat.

But now our economy is weak, made so by President Obama’s hyper-expansion of government and debt. It has apparently lost its ability to grow, and without growth there cannot be recovery or prosperity. President Obama’s military build-down has already imposed massive cuts on the Pentagon’s budget, resulting in a significant reduction in our current and future military capabilities. The fiscal realities—with which Congress refuses to deal—make more cuts inevitable.

Our economic weakness comes at a time when the world is highly unstable and when most of our allies refuse to spend what is necessary to provide for our mutual defense. And defense is more expensive than ever, because many of the threats we face are cheap for our adversaries to mount but enormously expensive for us to counter. A state can buy an effective cyberwar capability for very little, but the price to defend against it is enormous. It costs a lot less to launch an ICBM than it does to intercept one before it can deliver its warhead.

Combined with the wrongheaded diplomacy of the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Obama’s military build-down has made us poorer in our ability to defend ourselves and affect world events than we have been at any time since before the Cold War.

We are abandoning our role as a superpower, and we are already unable to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, affect the postwar future of Afghanistan, or even stabilize the most minor of potential conflicts, such as the revived British-Argentinian dispute over the Falkland Islands.

Conservatives thus face two existential questions: First, do we want to resume a global role? Second, what kind of military, intelligence, and diplomatic policies must we undertake to ensure our national defense over the next decade?

GOP leaders such as vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and former Virginia Governor James Gilmore (now head of the Free Congress Foundation) have already charted paths to economic recovery. Some combination of their proposals—and those of a President Romney—will be pursued if President Obama is defeated in November. If Obama is reelected, economic growth will be postponed indefinitely and the pressure on our national security spending will only increase.

Superpower or Not?

A SUPERPOWER IS A NATION that has the ability not only to protect its homeland but also to defend its interests and allies globally. As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers told me:

The world is looking for some certainty in security, and the U.S. has been the pillar that the world could count on for pretty much all of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century. If we give that up, the question is, what takes our place? Is it going to be the United Nations? Is it going to be some other alliances? I don’t know about this ‘indispensable nation’ notion, but I do know how important the United States has been to world security and stability for a long time.

Myers hit the nail on the head. If the United States shrinks to a regional power, nothing—no nation, no international body such as the United Nations or NATO—will fill our shoes.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) Told me that our leadership isn’t looking out for America’s national security as it should. “We’re already heading in the direction of not being a superpower,” he said. “And our allies and friends have seen that. Our enemies have seen that.”

It’s not possible to separate the concept of economic security—which includes stability in the conditions that permit prosperity—from that of national security, because each is dependent on the other. Today, the threats to U.S. economic and national security are essentially identical. Regardless of whether we choose to continue as a superpower, we must invest in essentially the same intelligence and military capabilities to answer those threats.

Although there is no guarantee when and if it will do so, we should assume that our economy will recover at some rate. It may take a decade or more to return to a pre-Obama level of prosperity and growth. What, then, shall we do in this period of transition to ensure our nation’s security?

National security is the product of a wide variety of economic, military, diplomatic, and industrial variables. There’s no mathematical formula to compute it, because those variables change constantly. Think of it as a bubbling pot of chemicals that is kept unstable by the constant addition and subtraction of ingredients by us, our allies, and our adversaries.

The Obama Doctrine

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S NATIONAL SECURITY doctrine is stated in terms that are almost Churchillian, but it is executed in ways that are at odds with facts, U.S. interests, and what had been American principles.

The president’s defining moment occurred in June 2009 when the Honduran supreme court ordered the removal of President Jose Manuel Zelaya for violating the Honduran constitution by trying to stay in power past his elected term. Obama didn’t stand with freedom-loving Hondurans and for American principle. Instead, he sided with Cuban President Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, condemning the “coup.”

Obama pushed through Senate confirmation the New START arms control treaty with Russia, which is highly disadvantageous to the U.S. While agreeing to cut our nuclear force, Obama conceded an “interrelationship” between missile defense and strategic arms reduction—a stance the Russians had sought from us since Reagan announced his plan for missile defense decades ago.

Having said the United States has too many nuclear weapons, Obama is now rapidly cutting our nuclear capability. McKeon says it is a major concern to him that our nuclear force is being reduced to the point that it will be too small to accomplish its missions of deterrence and defense. Obama canceled the ground-based missile defense system President Bush promised Poland, and he replaced it with a theoretical sea-based force that the Navy has neither sufficient ships nor missiles to provide.

Throughout Obama’s tenure, American diplomacy has been defined by compromising our interests to other nations’ ambitions. Prime examples are the misbegotten “Law of the Sea Treaty” (which Senate Republicans are confident they can block this year) and the new UN small arms treaty that would erode Americans’ Second Amendment rights.

After his first defense secretary, Robert Gates, said that America had no national security interest in Libya, Obama nevertheless chose to join in the French-British military intervention that helped overthrow Gaddafi.

He has presided over a build-down of our defense capabilities, imposed by cutting budgets and cancelling investment in future weapon systems, which has resulted in the smallest navy in a century and the smallest air force since the Air Force was created. It’s not a simple question of spending. Obama’s choices, propelled by his two defense secretaries and his CIA directors, are reducing our military and intelligence capabilities without regard to the threats we face.

Obama and his congressional cohorts insisted that the 2011 debt ceiling deal threaten “sequestration”—a statutorily imposed decade-long reduction of defense spending authority—in the event that the so-called “supercommittee” could not agree on a comprehensive debt reduction plan. Because Obama insisted that any larger deal include massive tax hikes, the supercommittee failed. Starting in January, unless Congress changes the law, $600 billion in defense spending will be “sequestered” over the next 10 years, in addition to the over $400 billion in cuts Obama already orchestrated.

Before being muzzled by his political bosses, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the sequestration budget cuts could cause the U.S. to lose its status as a global power. Obama has repeatedly threatened to veto any legislation to relieve the Pentagon of those massive cuts. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims the Pentagon is unable to plan for the cuts: The legislation requires an across-the-board reduction that would result in breached contracts and canceled weapon systems. Sequestration doesn’t differentiate between reducing fat and cutting muscle.

Buck McKeon told me he sees nothing that will prevent sequestration, which will hollow out our military and be “just devastating.”

Despite these dangers, Obama announced a new global military strategy that appears sound on its face, but that is divorced from reality by the budget cuts he has already imposed and worsened by the future cuts he supports. In the introduction to the Defense Department’s January 2012 white paper entitled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” Obama wrote, “As we end today’s wars and reshape our Armed Forces, we will ensure that our military is agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies.” The paper’s strategic guidance promises growing strength in the Pacific region, investment in Future technologies, and emphasis on primary missions that range from countering terrorism and projecting power to improving capabilities in cyberwar and space. But these goals are directly contradicted by sequestration and the president’s refusal to pay for them. Obama’s defense strategy is a concatenation of false promises.

A Conservative Defense Strategy for the Next Decade 

WHAT, THEN, should be a conservative defense agenda? Unlike the liberals, we accept the duty of defense and insist that it be provided for even as we demand reductions in the size and cost of government in order to revive the economy. We understand that though the cost of defense is an important consideration, a budget is not a strategy.

There are principles on which we must stand. First, that America supports freedom everywhere but will fight for it only when our vital national security interests are at risk. Second, that our diplomatic, military, and intelligence actions must all proceed consistent with our strategy toward the same goals. Third, that our combined national strategy must be implemented in a way that ensures we can deter or defeat any significant threats to our vital interests.

The “vital” qualifier means that we must make judgments to separate the most important interests from those we can afford to ignore and those for which our allies must take responsibility. Throughout the Cold War, our NATO allies were protected by American forces in Europe and our nuclear “umbrella.” Since the Soviet Union fell, they have refused to invest in their own defense.

Israel, Japan, and Taiwan are exceptions, but what of the others?

A March 2011 NATO communiqué shows the staggeringly low levels at which our allies are investing. From 1990 to 1999, the U.S. spent an average of 3. 8 percent of its GDP on defense. During the same period, the figure for Britain was 3.2 percent, for Germany 1.8 percent, for France 3.1 percent, for Norway 2. 5 percent, and for Italy 1.9 percent. In 2010, when NATO was in the midst of its Afghanistan mission, the rate of defense spending in member countries shrank.

NATO is not sustainable as an alliance if its members aren’t willing to contribute. A U.S. military presence in Europe must be maintained at some level, because bases there allow us to operate more quickly in areas far from our home turf. And though our nuclear umbrella should remain, it is time to insist that our allies choose between investing in our mutual defense and the cancellation of our guarantees of their security.

The Conservative Defense Agenda 

GEN. MYERS STATED the principle from which we should proceed when he told me budgeting should be “strategy-based.” “What is our national strategy?” he asked. “What is our U.S. military strategy? What are our vital national interests, what role does the military play in ensuring that our vital national interests are supported and achieved?” 

Freedom of the seas has been a vital interest for centuries; to that we must add freedom of the skies and of space, and the ability to function internationally in the cyberworld. To that, we must add the interest we have in the mutual defense of those allies that are willing to pay their share of the cost, as well as ad hoc alliances that can help deal with specific threats.

By that definition, we must choose a policy that ensures America does resume the role of a superpower. We should continue to defend our vital interests and refuse to use military power unless those vital interests are clearly at risk. We must abjure nation-building: Creating democracy should not be our role in the world.

The basis for our agenda has to be an analysis of the threats we face, the sources of those threats, and the assets necessary to answer them. From those analyses, a strategy can be developed that would, in turn, be the basis for budgets and plans. We have to insist on that process for developing our defense and intelligence budgets, for without it, planning is mere guesswork.

Because we can base our national strategy only on what we know about our adversaries’ intentions and capabilities, it is essential that we repair the inadequacies of our intelligence community. Without current, accurate, and complete intelligence, policy making is mere guesswork.

Next we must define the threats to our vital interests and our adversaries’ capabilities to implement those threats. Realities, again, intrude. For example, the threat of radical Islam cannot be answered by kinetic means alone. The Islamists are conducting an ideological war against us, which we are losing principally because we have failed to fight back.

America’s ideological arsenal contains many of our most effective—and least expensive—weapons. What we say, and the principles for which we stand, are enormously effective against ideologies that offer only poverty, enslavement, and suicide. However, ideological warfare must be undertaken by leaders who believe in those principles that defined America until Obama’s doctrine took root. It must be a conflict fought personally by the president, his cabinet, our diplomats, and our intelligence community.

We know there are things to cut, particularly in the inanities forced on the Pentagon by Obama’s liberal agenda. For example, the Navy’s huge investment in “alternative fuels” led to the purchase of 200,000 gallons of algae-based fuel from the Solazyme company for $8.4 million, or $425 a gallon. A fundamental part of a conservative defense agenda should be to expunge all such nonsense.

We should also exempt some defense spending from sequestration, which will waste billions of dollars by forcing the termination of many defense contracts. Termination of these contracts will cost billions and won’t deliver a single aircraft, ship, or pair of boots. Better to get something for those billions more than the honor of paying them.

On the other side of the equation are very expensive things we cannot afford to cut. For example, our intelligence, communications, and other defense satellites are very expensive to build and launch. A new spy satellite can cost upwards of $1 billion to manufacture and another $200 million or more to launch. As Gen. Myers told me, “Space launch is absolutely essential not only to our national defense, but to a lot of commercial activity as well…. It is fundamental to our ability to defend this nation.”

Myers put the “guns versus butter” debate in the right perspective. In the end, the Pentagon budget has to be seen in terms of the military options that can be presented to the president:

When the president is thinking about the use of force…every president that I’ve served (and it’s been a couple) they want options. And I think as your budget declines, then there are fewer and fewer options you can offer your commander in chief. And that’s not where we want to be as a nation given the important role we play in the world.

The conservative national security agenda isn’t suitable for bumper sticker-length summation, but we can state it concisely: In this period of economic weakness, we insist that our nation’s security can best be ensured by acting to restore the conditions that will foster rapid economic growth, and by pursuing a national security strategy that defends our vital interests at home and abroad.

That national security strategy must be the product of a rigorous analysis of the threats we face and where our vital interests lie. From that strategy, an integrated defense and intelligence budget must be derived to ensure our national security over the next decade. If Mitt Romney is elected, that job should be at the top of his list.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.