Vladimir Putin, playing geopolitical chess while our president plays tiddlywinks, has effectively taken over Crimea. Armed men, looking suspiciously like Russian military personnel, have seized both airports and established border checkpoints decorated with Kalashnikovs and Russian flags. This comes after other armed men seized two government buildings and raised Russian flags, as the legislature appointed a pro-Russian regional leader. Meanwhile Russian military forces are gathering on the border, with Russia’s parliament unanimously voting to approve deploying troops in Ukraine.
This is just Putin’s latest revanchist expansion of Russian power throughout the region. He’s been at this for a while. Remember that during the Bush administration he stole chunks of Moldova and Georgia, using the same argument of ethnic self-determination that served Hitler so well in 1938, when he made the Sudeten Germans the pretext for gobbling up Czechoslovakia. Remember when in 2005 Putin said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union––the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, as he put it–– “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory”? And just as England and France did nothing except talk about Hitler’s aggression, so too the West has blustered and threatened and indulged “diplomatic engagement” in response to Putin’s depredations. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Vladimir is dismissing Obama’s flabby threat of “costs” and damage to Russia’s “standing in the international community” if Russia annexes part of Ukraine––as if the ruthless Putin, currently arming and backing the Syrian butcher Assad and the genocidal mullahs in Iran, gives a hoot about his international reputation. And after so many of Obama’s toothless “deadlines,” “red lines,” “game-changers,” “I don’t bluffs,” and “no options are off the table,” who can possibly take this administration seriously?
But let’s not forget why the president has gotten away with this foreign policy of apology, retreat, and appeasement in a world bristling with brutal aggressors. Too many Americans are sick of military involvement abroad, with 52% in a Pew poll last December saying the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” More important, many don’t want to spend money on defense if it means cuts to entitlements.
Consider that at the same time the Ukraine crisis was heating up, more cuts to our defense budget were announced. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled plans to reduce the army’s strength from 520,000 active-duty personnel to between 450,000 and 420,000 soldiers, eliminate the A-10 Warthog ground-support aircraft, mothball 11 Navy cruisers, put in doubt funds needed to retrofit the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, and cut 8,000 Marines from the Corps. And things could get much worse if sequestration remains in effect after 2015. Max Boot points out the obvious dangers of these cuts: “The world is a more chaotic place than ever and we face the need to respond to a multiplicity of threats, from pirates and terrorists and narco-traffickers to rogue states like Iran and North Korea to potential great power rivals such as China and Russia to failed states such as Yemen and Syria. And not only do we have to be able to project power in traditional ways, but we also have to be able to protect new domains such as outer space and cyberspace.”
Prudence dictates that we be prepared for those contingencies. But apologists for the cuts premise their arguments on a lack of money and on fantastic projections about the future. A New York Times editorial approving the cuts asserts, “The truth is that the United States cannot afford the larger force indefinitely, and it doesn’t need it. The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.” The claim that we cannot “afford” a larger military is preposterous. The same week Hagel announced the cuts, Obama proposed spending $302 billion on roads. In 2013 defense spending was 4% of GDP, while mandated entitlement spending and interest payments on the debt were 14.5%. The cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over eleven years, $1.4 trillion, was only 4% of federal spending, and nine-tenths of 1% of the $163 trillion the economy produced during that same period. Yet half the amount of the $1 trillion in the 2011 budget sequester cuts are coming from defense, while the real engines of our debt and deficits, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, were left untouched. We have the money, but we just choose to spend it on ourselves rather than on ensuring that we have the military power to defend our security and interests.
As for the rosy projections that large forces will not “be necessary in the foreseeable future,” such rationalizing prognostications are dangerous, as history shows. After World War I, English military planners formulated the “Ten Year Rule,” which assumed that “the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years, and that no Expeditionary Force is required for that purpose,” as military planners announced. The defense budget was reduced by four fifths in just 2 years. In 1928, the rule was extended. There were similar reductions in shipbuilding and air power, with the result that in 1934, the whole defense budget would have been necessary just to restore the cuts to the army. Meanwhile, Germany was secretly rearming, training its officer corps, and improving its tanks and planes. By 1938-39, Germany was spending 5 times more on its military than England was. Wishful projections about future threats forget that the enemy always has a vote on what is “necessary.”
The Times editorial, however, does hit on one accurate cause: many Americans don’t want to spend more money on defense if it means reductions in entitlement spending. That’s why cutting the defense budget isn’t the political “third rail” that reducing Social Security or Medicare is. The preference for butter over guns, except when there are direct attacks on the homeland, is typical of democracies going back to Athens in the 4th century B.C. Then citizens received state-pay for serving on juries or in the Assembly, and even for attending the tragic performances and other religious festivals. Indeed, it was a capital crime even to propose transferring surplus funds to the war-fund rather than to the fund for subsidizing attendance at religious festivals.
Even as Philip II of Macedon began his campaign of aggression against the southern Greek city-states, the Athenians refused to finance a defense build-up. While trying to rouse the Athenians to defend the city of Olynthus against Philip’s attacks, the great orator and defender of political freedom Demosthenes scolded the Athenians on just this score. “With regard to the supply of money,” he orated, “you have money, men of Athens; you have more than any other nation has for military purposes. But you appropriate it to yourselves, to suit yourselves.” Later historians linked Philip’s defeat of Athens and its subsequent loss of political freedom to the Athenians’ refusal to spend money on their military instead of on themselves. The historian Theopompus blamed the law financing festival attendance for making the Athenians “less courageous and more lax” and for “squandering state revenues.” Two millennia later, England’s reductions in defense spending during the twenties and thirties were similarly motivated in part by the desire to devote more funds to social welfare programs. Cuts in military spending were more politically palatable than cuts in subsidized housing.
As justified as the criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy are, we have to remember that we citizens create priorities with our votes. If we do not vote into office effective leaders who can convince us that we must prepare for future threats by building a military deterrence, and who have the political spine to back up words with deeds to make sure that deterrence works, then we must share some of the blame for the consequences sure to follow when our enemies and rivals are emboldened by our seeming acceptance of empty bluster as an instrument of foreign policy, and by our willingness to prefer butter to guns.
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