While there may be a need to intelligently cut the nation’s military spending, reducing troops levels to numbers not seen since before World War II and announcing to the world that the United States no longer will be capable of fighting two land wars simultaneously seem to provide an open invitation to the rogue nations of the world.
The United States holds a unique place in the international community. It has proven itself capable of responding to threats to freedom wherever they emerge. If certain nations know the United States is weakened militarily, they also may calculate that their own military actions are worth the gamble. The result could be a more dangerous world.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced proposed military cuts this week that eventually would drop troop levels to between 440,000 and 450,000, from what recently was 570,000. Hagel and others have argued that it doesn’t make sense to maintain a large land-war capability when the nation no longer is engaged in a land war. By the end of this year, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will have dwindled to, at most, a residual crew of advisers and trainers.
Indeed, it does make some sense to recast the military in more efficient, technologically advanced terms. Generals often are accused of trying to fight the last war, meaning they are slow to keep up with how the world changes. Cutting troop levels and eliminating the Air Force A-10 attack aircraft and the U-2 spy plane altogether, as proposed, might free up more resources for focusing on cyber threats and other high-tech warfare tactics.
However, there is little indication that traditional warfare, brought on by aggressive nation states, is defunct. North Korea and Iran offer just two examples of far-flung nations with reputations for abusing their own citizens and exporting terrorism. Meanwhile, unrest in Ukraine and Venezuela might escalate and spread at any moment, putting U.S. interests at risk. The administration needs to think long and hard about whether it would increase the chances it may need to get involved in conflicts if it appears weaker to its adversaries.
The cuts Hagel announced this week face a stiff uphill battle in Congress, and not necessarily along party lines. Senators and representatives from states that stand to lose military contracts or suffer base closures will object, as will hawkish conservatives and others with a healthy concern for how the perception of weakness can diminish America’s standing in the world.
Not all of these will be valid objections, but they emphasize the need for the administration to carefully justify its proposals in terms of national security.
The Obama administration believes voters gave it a mandate to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many in the U.S. did seem to be losing enthusiasm for these conflicts, there is little evidence to suggest either nation is capable of maintaining its own security. As inconvenient as it may seem at times, the United States has military obligations and a reputation for strength that likely keeps greater belligerence at bay and makes the world safer.
The United States faces huge fiscal challenges concerning out-of-control spending on entitlements such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and the effects of the Affordable Care Act. It would be a shame to ignore needed changes in these programs, which could have a meaningful impact on federal spending, while willingly projecting a weakened military status to the world.