President Obama, as is proven after every major speech he delivers, is a Rorschach inkblot: Those on whom he has a mesmeric hold, see the silhouette of a leader worthy of placement on Mount Rushmore. To them, he can say or do no wrong. Those of us who are not so captivated by his words see a very different image and hear a very different message when he speaks. Consider his two major speeches so far this year: the Inaugural Address and the State of the Union.
In the State of the Union, the president repeated his tired and flatly-wrong reference to “the tide of war receding,” promised “a new defense strategy that ensures we maintain the finest military in the world” and pointed to a looming payroll-tax increase as “our most immediate priority.” Of course, what should be the “most immediate priority” for him and Congress is a problem of his own making: the sequestration guillotine hanging over the military.
The president innocently noted that “Congress passed a law” requiring a trillion dollars in automatic spending cuts in the event that the deficit cannot be reduced through the normal policymaking process. He derided the sequestration cuts as “sudden, harsh, arbitrary” and noted that lots of people have called sequestration “a really bad idea.” (Indeed, it would trigger spending cuts to the U.S. military of $500 billion.) But although he repeatedly demanded that Congress “send me a bill”—to reform immigration, to punish outsourcing, to reform the tax code, to change mortgage-lending rules, to “limit any elected official from owning stocks in industries they impact” (now there’s an enforceable law)—there were no solutions about sequestration, no responsibility for its existence.
Already, while entitlement spending mushrooms, the Pentagon has coughed up $487 billion at the president’s direction. The Navy has been ordered to cut the number of surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, stretch the “build time” of new aircraft carriers from five to seven years, and had to seek a special congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while the USS Gerald Ford is built. The Air Force has announced plans to reduce its fleet by 286 planes. The active-duty Army will be cut from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000; the Marines from 202,000 to 182,000. And there’s virtually no investment in modernization. Although the defense budget grew by $300 billion in the decade after 9⁄11, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) notes that just 16 percent of that increase was earmarked for modernization and new weapons systems. However, CSBA points out a dozen new weapons systems were terminated and many systems had their numbers cut below end-strength goals (e.g., the F-22). “The aggregate effect is that a significant portion of DOD’s investment in modernization over the past decade did not result in force modernization.”
To get a sense of the modernization crisis, consider that the Air Force now plans to keep flying B-52 bombers through 2040. The first B-52 took to the skies in 1954. The Air Force is relying on reconnaissance airframes built in 1955, tankers built in 1956, fighter-bombers built in 1974 and stealth bombers (there are only 20 of them) built in 1989.
Sequestration will only exacerbate these issues: less modernization, older equipment, fewer troops, more cuts.
These cuts might make sense if peace were breaking out all around the world. But despite what President Obama keeps saying, we know the very opposite to be true. As Reagan counseled, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” America is still at war in Afghanistan. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda still have the ability to strike and are increasing their influence in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is less stable and more paranoid than ever, as is nuclear-armed North Korea, which just tested another nuke. Iran is racing ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program. Syria is on fire. The Arab Spring revolution is upending the Middle East. And these, it could be argued, are not even our principal worries. As the U.S. declaws itself, China’s military spending has skyrocketed from $20 billion in 2002 to some $180 billion a decade later—an unparalleled jump in military spending on a percentage basis. The resulting arms buildup has empowered Beijing to bully its neighbors; launch cyber-attacks against the United States; conduct provocative military operations in space; and deploy a swelling arsenal of missiles, submarines and warplanes aimed at countering U.S. Naval power.
Does the president’s silence on sequestration mean he wants the Pentagon’s budget to be cut by another $500 billion—or put another way, to shrink over the next decade by nearly $1 trillion? Before scoffing at that question, recall that the Pentagon was the first place President Obama turned when the debt crisis emerged as a political issue. “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world,” Obama said in 2011.
Read that again: a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and role in the world. It seems a smaller military could serve a larger objective for the president—an America less able to act independently; an America that is less assertive; an America with fewer military resources, a shorter reach, slower reflexes and a smaller global role. After the sequestration guillotine falls, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey concludes, “We wouldn’t be the global power that we know ourselves to be today.”
That brings us back to the president’s Inaugural Address, which subtly underscored this shrinking global role and reminded us that this president is not particularly interested in the things other presidents addressed in their inaugurals: facing global “responsibility and danger” (TR); committing to “strengthen freedom-loving nations against the dangers of aggression” (Truman); vowing to “bear any burden…to assure the survival and the success of liberty” (JFK); building “a security shield that would destroy nuclear missiles before they reach their target” (Reagan); “ending tyranny in our world” (Bush 43).
Instead, after a campaign that promised to “focus on nation-building here at home,” President Obama asked America to avert its gaze from North Korean nukes and Iranian centrifuges and Syrian chemical weapons, to ignore a Middle East aflame, to look away from a metastasizing terror threat in Pakistan and Yemen and North Africa, to stop worrying about Beijing’s buildup and bullying. All of that is unimportant or unreal, his soothing words suggested, because a “decade of war is now ending.”
Sure, he made some stock references about “our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle.” But that was a tee-up line for his real message: that we are “heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends,” that “we will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully,” that “engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
The president’s implication, though larded with faux JFK-isms, is that war is the easy choice, peace is hard; defense and deterrence are easy, diplomacy is hard; fighting wars is what brutes do, making peace is what statesmen like him do.
There is nothing wrong with applauding peacemakers and engaging other nation-states to find common ground. But there is something fundamentally wrong with suggesting that diplomatic engagement is somehow more courageous than deterrence or what Churchill called “decisive blows,” with using rhetorical misdirection to conceal our massive military retrenchment, with not understanding that those Americans who “won the peace” first defeated our enemies:
In short, our history shows that winning the peace comes only after securing victory. But history is not that important to this president. How could it be? After all, it has to do with what happened before he came on the scene—and that’s just prologue for him. If that sounds too harsh, remember this is the man who said his presidency would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal…when we came together to remake this great nation.”
But contempt for history can be a liability. The president’s wise men allowed the phrase “peace in our time” to be included in his Inaugural Address last month. It’s difficult to understand how a phrase so fraught and freighted could slip by all the reviews and rewrites—unless the president and his wise men simply don’t know about or care about the history of this phrase.
This phrase, it pays to recall, is what Neville Chamberlain uttered as he returned from a peace conference with Hitler in September 1938. Waving a piece of paper that expressed the commitment of Germany and Britain “never to go to war with one another again,” the well-meaning British leader declared, “I believe it is peace in our time.” Hitler ignited World War II less than 12 months later.
Chamberlain said something else that day, a line that has been forgotten but may be just as relevant to us: “Go home and get a nice quiet sleep,” he soothingly reassured his countrymen.
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