When President Obama announced last spring that he wanted to trim $400 billion from national security programs in an effort to address the country’s fiscal crisis, the question was whether this was a ceiling to further cuts or just its floor.
Coming on the heels of $400 billion already cut from the defense budget the last two years by the administration, the hope was that it was a ceiling.
But Tuesday, the “Gang of Six”—a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators—put forward a proposal to trim $3.7 trillion from the government’s budget over the next ten years. President Obama’s praised the plan and declared it “broadly consistent” with his approach for getting the country’s finances under control.
Although the plan is somewhat sketchy on how these savings will be achieved, it is noteworthy that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a key member of the six, recently put forward his own plan that included $1 trillion in defense cuts over the next decade.
Reading the tea leaves, it seems pretty obvious that defense will be the largest bill-payer for addressing the deficit.
Understandably, the country wants its elected representatives to address the nation’s fiscal crisis. But in doing so, will it be creating a crisis on the national security front?
Indeed, what is striking about the various deficit-reduction proposals is how often they are proposed in abstraction from the known threats and requirements that the country faces today and will likely face in the future. Whatever one thinks about the advisability of cutting this or that military program, reducing benefits for the all-volunteer force, or trimming numbers in active duty forces, at a minimum, such decisions should be tied to some strategic calculus about what role we want the United States to play in the world today and tomorrow. Maybe our allies in Europe can get away with just making defense cuts a budget exercise but it is extremely dangerous for Washington to go down this road.
Whether we like it or not, in the next few years, we will still be dealing with the conflict in Afghanistan, an aggressive and likely nuclear-capable Iran, the continuing threat of Islamist terrorism, possibly a failed, nuclear-armed state in Pakistan, a Putin-led and revanchist Russia, a rising and increasingly assertive China, and of course the seeming never-ending problem child of Asia, North Korea.
Add to that the requirement to protect the American homeland and maintain assured access to the global commons—sea, space and cyberspace—and one quickly sees why the U.S. defense budget is as large as it is. There is a lot on the country’s plate.
And this is what we know is on our plate. But if the past quarter century has taught us anything, it’s that strategic surprises are just as likely to occur as not—and that includes wars that no one expected to be fighting. When George H. W. Bush was elected president in 1988, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was clearly a problem. Nevertheless, Bush was not expecting that just a little more than a year later, he would be ordering an invasion of Panama. Of course, the bigger surprise was the First Gulf War. Even when Saddam Hussein had massed troops on Kuwait’s border, only a few individuals saw this as a prelude to an actual invasion, let alone the opening act in what would end with an American-led counter-invasion in 1991 totaling well over a half-million men in arms.
Similarly, when President Clinton began his presidency in 1993, he was undoubtedly aware of the fact that Yugoslavia was flying apart, with Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia already having declared their independence from Belgrade. But equally certain is the fact that he had no idea that just a few years later he would be ordering U.S. aircraft to bomb Bosnian Serb positions in 1995 to stem the Serb militia’s onslaught against the Muslim Bosniaks and UN-designated “safe areas.” And even less improbable for candidate Clinton was President Clinton’s decision, in conjunction with NATO allies, to engage in a sustained bombing campaign in the spring of 1999 against Yugoslavian forces, government installations and key infrastructure in a successful effort to force Milosevic’s military to leave Kosovo and prevent a repetition of the bloody violence and massacres that had occurred previously in Bosnia.
For his part, George W. Bush came to the White House determined to avoid such conflicts. Indeed, an argument among many of his senior advisors was that the United States had entered an era of “strategic pause” in which the United States could focus on domestic affairs and the transformation of its military in the absence of a great power rival. However, as we know, by the end of his first term, President Bush and the Congress had authorized wars that resulted in tens of thousands of troops being deployed in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nor has President Obama escaped his own unexpected war. Even while determined to end combat operations in Iraq and drawdown in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, Obama now finds himself in armed conflict with Libya. Although it is clear that this was not something he wanted to do, nevertheless, the U.S. navy and air force, in conjunction with NATO allies, are slowly but surely engaged in attempting to squeeze Qaddafi out of power.
Four presidents and various wars later, it is obvious that whatever the policy predilection or party affiliation of the person sitting in the Oval Office they likely will be faced with, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted, the problem of going “to war with the army you have…not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Those arguing for deep cuts in the defense budget will suggest that the majority of these conflicts were avoidable. Yet, in doing so, they are ignoring the realities of history, statecraft and domestic politics. And cutting troops or buying fewer planes or ships is not going to change those dynamics. However, what it will do is leave the men and women of the American military in a far more precarious position to carry out what we as a nation will almost surely be asking them to do.
Gary Schmitt is resident scholar and director, Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.