Soapbox: Slashing defense budget need not leave us defenseless: The Obama administration asserts America's military power while slashing wasteful spending

Posted by Eric Shapiro

It has become increasingly clear over the past few years that the Obama administration is devoted to making the the U.S. military leaner and more efficient. It's necessary for the U.S. to strike an appropriate balance that will allow it to maintain its military supremacy while simultaneously cutting back on unnecessary expenditures.

After a decade of post-Cold War dithering, 9/11 provided the U.S. with a clear and unambiguous foreign policy direction. The attack seemed to mandate a vigorous and immediate response from the world's only superpower; hence, the rare displays of bipartisanship from Congress that culminated in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

The next decade of conflict abroad served as a long and painful wakeup call, with the U.S. forced to question its role in the world to an extent not seen since the Vietnam War. By the 2008 elections, the drawbacks of the War on Terror had become painfully clear.

For one, the economic crisis called new attention to the spiraling national debt, in part the product of two costly wars largely funded by China. Furthermore, the often hostile reaction of the international community, coupled with America's failure to win the hearts and minds of the very people's it sought to "democratize," caste serious doubt on the viability of nation-building as a counter-terrorism strategy. These disconcerting realities have given rise to a new skepticism in the U.S. regarding what role, if any, the world's only superpower should play in international affairs.

This sense of doubt comes at a very dangerous time, with the Middle East in a state of chaos and Iran on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons.  It seems likely that the prospect of intervention in Iran and/or Syria will put foreign policy back on the political agenda in advance of the 2012 elections. If this is the case, voters will be bombarded with all manner of extreme positions in the coming months, advocating everything from isolationism to a ground war with Iran. The key will be to maintain a balanced approach to foreign policy, one that takes the nation's dire economic situation into account while also remaining mindful of America's security commitments abroad.

The latest military budget proposed by the Obama Administration, which would bring troop deployment abroad back to 2005 levels and cut funding from conventional weapon development, aims to do just that. Unsurprisingly, the new military budget has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle. Hawks and reflexive Obama-bashers on the right have accused the president of neutering the military and speeding American decline. The Left (and Ron Paul), still bitter that many of the Bush Administration's controversial counter-terrorism policies are still in place, have accused Obama of squandering precious funds on the military that could be better-utilized to stimulate the economy at home. The eventual GOP nominee will almost certainly cite Obama's proposed military cuts as evidence that the president is leading America into decline.

However, it is important that Americans don't overreact to mismanagement of those conflicts and retreat into isolationism. There are myriad of practical reasons that this would be a bad idea. For one, U.S. economic power is inextricably tied to its military capacities. In this globalized economy, the smallest of events could set of a major economic chain reaction, and the U.S. is better equipped than any other state to prevent rogue regimes from disrupting the world economy. The perception that the U.S. no longer has the will to defend its interests could embolden hostile states to be more belligerent.

Suppose, for example, the Iranian regime decides to block off the Strait of Hormuz, which numerous states in Europe depend on for the shipment of oil. The best way to prevent such things from occurring is with the threat of military force. The U.N. and international institutions have time and time again proven incapable of dealing with rogue states with irrational regimes that flout world opinion. As the major world power, the U.S. is in a unique position to keep these regimes in line. There are also humanitarian benefits to the considered and well-applied application of force in international affairs. The recent intervention in Libya – nominally "led" by European states but dependent on U.S. military and logistical support – comes to mind. 

And what of our perpetually imperiled allies? Numerous states (Taiwan, South Korea, Georgia, Israel) provide valuable strategic and ideological footholds in otherwise unfriendly regions of the world.  These countries depend on the U.S. for economic and military assistance. Send the impression that we are no longer unconditionally devoted to their security and we risk not only damaging our credibility, but putting countless lives at risk. Without the threat of U.S. military retaliation, who can seriously doubt that North Korea would immediately overrun its Southern neighbor and spread its brutal totalitarian regime as far as its enormous military allows?  What incentive will competitors like Russia have to take us seriously if they get the impression that the U.S. is no longer willing to defend the allies it has committed itself to protecting?  

None of this is to say that the status quo is acceptable. There are ways for the U.S. to cut back on military expenditures without sacrificing economic and security interests. Long, drawn out wars and "nation building" ventures of the kind undertaken in Iraq are both costly and impractical. They bear a great deal of responsibility for the crippling national debt, and it remains to be seen whether Iraq and Afghanistan will be better of in the long run thanks to our efforts.

In addition, the military industrial complex is very real and as devoted as ever to lining the greedy pockets of military contractors by cranking out endless lines of expensive new aircraft and missile defense systems. This is in spite of the fact that many experts are saying that conventional military forces are becoming less relevant (although still essential) in the post-Cold War world. 

The key is for the U.S. to strike an appropriate balance that will allow it to maintain its military supremacy while simultaneously cutting back on unnecessary expenditures. It has become increasingly clear over the past few years that the Obama administration is devoted to this goal. Moral implications aside, the use of drones has proven to be an effective and relatively inexpensive way of hunting down and killing our enemies. And it was not an army, but an elite squad of Navy SEALs that took out Bin Laden.

It is reasonable to expect that these kinds of small-scale specialized operations will become progressively more effective and hence, more common. Unfortunately, such methods of warfare are no substitute for maintaining military bases in certain key regions to check hostile states. America's future will hinge in part on whether U.S. citizens comprehend the need for a common sense approach to military expenditure rather than retreating to ideological extremes that will not serve the nation well in the long run.

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