The fight over the best form of defense

March 4, 2014

With Europe on the brink of a shooting war over Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, it may seem an odd time to propose a sharp reduction in the size of the U.S. Army. But that is what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will do Tuesday when President Barack Obama’s new budget request to Congress is published.

Hagel wants to reduce the Army to its smallest size since 1940 — before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor propelled  the United States into World War Two. Hagel’s plan would see the Army shrunk to 450,000 regulars, slightly less than the 479,000 troops we had in 1999, before we rapidly expanded after the 2001 al Qaeda attacks and we embarked as well on the optional war to free Iraq from the despot Saddam Hussein.

Obama’s appointment of Hagel, a former moderate Republican senator from Nebraska, was canny. Democrats have often employed Republicans in Defense to disguise what is often regarded as a weakness on military matters by the Democratic Party, which has become the natural home to the nation’s pacifists.

Democratic presidents, however, have been the most bellicose throughout U.S. history — from Woodrow Wilson taking America into World War One, Franklin D. Roosevelt entering World War Two, Harry S. Truman leading the charge in the Korean War, John F. Kennedy embroiling us in the Vietnam War and Bill Clinton bombing Kosovo.

The isolationists of the last century — from both parties — opposed the expansion of our armed forces not merely to stay out of what President George Washington labeled “foreign entanglements,” but because they resented the high cost of war. The divide between those who insist the United States should take a lead in the world, through military means if necessary, and those who insist we must keep spending to a minimum has long been with us.

Hagel is well-placed to execute the well-ordered diminution of our defense forces. His Republican label helps in deflecting criticism from GOP neo-conservatives, who assert that deep reductions will make us ill-equipped in the event of another military emergency. He also approaches the question of where the fat can be trimmed from his unique position as the first defense secretary to have come up through the ranks.

Obama, who spoke out against the Iraq war and who pulled back from the edge when Russia attacked its former republic of Georgia and when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, is now hesitating about how to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He also now sees an unprecedented opportunity to cut defense spending. Obama senses, correctly, that Americans are weary of conflict, having waged two foreign wars simultaneously.

He knows, too, that there is a popular head of steam to reduce public spending and cut the deficit.

With painless economies in federally funded pensions and healthcare hard to find, Obama must hope that by having Hagel make the proposed military cuts he will satisfy both demands.

There will, of course, be the usual bartering — as lawmakers with military bases in their constituencies join with defense industry lobbyists and military and veterans’ groups to resist the cuts. He is confident, however, that a bargain will be struck and that defense spending can be considerably reduced.

There is another political benefit Obama is hoping to enjoy. He is fully aware of the profound division in the Republican Party between the neo-cons, ever eager to intervene in foreign conflicts to advance the cause of America and democracy, and the fiscal conservatives-cum-libertarians, who wish to shrink the size of the state and withdraw expensive U.S. troops that are policing the world.

We have seen from the battles over the sequester, the automatic deep cuts to welfare and military spending, that many libertarians are happy to see the size of the state shrink — even if it means inflicting unnecessary misery on both the most patriotic public servants who put themselves in harm’s way and the most needy Americans. GOP neo-cons have unanimously condemned the intemperate measure.

Hagel’s defense cuts are therefore a win-win-win for Obama and are likely to be profoundly embarrassing for Republicans. We can expect in the coming months to witness some sharp exchanges between traditional GOP hawks like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) and their budget-slashing America-first colleagues Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

While Democrats are more or less united on the need for defense spending to be curtailed, Republicans are split on the issue. While the nation’s center of gravity on defense is to the left of center, the dividing line on the issue is straight down the middle of the increasingly right-leaning GOP.

Watching Republicans tussle over the future of the nation’s defense — an issue they have traditionally owned – will be an alternative attraction this year to watching incumbent Republican old timers defend their voting records to avoid being ousted in a primary by Tea Party candidates.

The future of defense spending cuts to the heart of the internal debate over the soul of the Republican Party. Should the party of Lincoln continue to aspire to be the natural governing party, the party of reasonable conservatism, good governance and a responsible foreign policy supported by a strong military? Or should it become a libertarian party devoted to Hayekian economics, dismantling the federal government and turning a blind eye to the world’s problems?

Commenting on this defense-hawk versus fiscal-hawk division in his party, the conservative Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and aspiring GOP presidential candidate, put it succinctly: “I can tell you, the [Rand] Paulistas [are] not interested in the Republican Party as it now exists. They are interested in a very different kind of model.”

When listening to the arguments surrounding Hagel’s defense cuts, then, we can expect two parallel threads. One is the usual battle between the administration and vested interests over where the axe will fall and which communities and businesses will suffer as spending is reduced.

The second is less predictable, more emotionally charged, and even more significant in the long term: What sort of Republican Party will emerge from the internecine battles between conservatives and libertarians? A neo-con party, as it has been until now, or a libertarian party — closer to Barry M. Goldwater than Dwight D. Eisenhower?

Most pressing for Republicans, however, is another question often ignored in the lofty ideological arguments over dry conservative theory: Which will help Republican Party candidates win?

PHOTOS: A F-16 fighter jet from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., prepares for aerial refueling during Exercise Razor Talon at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, in this February 7, 2013 handout photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Shane A Cuomo/Handout 

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle assigned to the 174th Fighter Wing prepares to take off from Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum, N.Y. in this October 18, 2011 USAF handout photo obtained by Reuters February 6, 2013. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Ricky Best/Handout 


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Barry Goldwater is a excellent guide, and do not forget it. L.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

GOP defense policy is a socialism spending program. It just happens to be easy to scare up the typically fearful US TV viewers to help support this pinko agenda.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The 1940 U.S. Army included the U.S. Army Air Corps (which better fit the meter of “off we go, into the wild blue yonder…” so the comparison might better be:

1940 Army vs. 2014 Army + 2014 Air Force.

While Lindbergh’s sympathies or political views were naive at best, the value of his technical and intelligence services to U.S. military aviation before and during WWII can’t be disputed. He advocated in favor of research & development over spending on premature production, so that the newest and best engines and aircraft would fill American squadrons as conflict grew closer. Much of the same NACA and other aviation research that fed into production of aircraft that were good enough – and plentiful enough – to help win the air war also boosted civilian aviation before and after the war, tax money well spent.

While Eisenhower oversaw a large defense buildup with exponential growth in nuclear weapons, missile programs and the first atomic submarines, he chose that “pivot to high-tech and nuclear deterrence” approach as the best cold war bang for the buck to keep peace with the Soviets, and argued against spending for many other conventional weapons programs, or calls for more manpower or more wings of bombers. Ike wrote of how much fat he trimmed from the defense budgets that came to him either from inter-service rivalry or congressional pork. We can also thank Ike for the radically new technology of the first spy satellites and the U-2 that showed, in secret, there was no missile gap or bomber gap with the Soviets, taking the wind out of a push for even more nuclear defense spending cried for in the press or by rivals.

Ike not only trimmed the defense budget compared to most requests that crossed his desk, he balanced the budget several years using a forgotten tool: taxes. He kept Korean War taxes in place for a year after 1953 just to reduce the deficit. That war tax surcharge put top tier income tax rates around 80%, back when capital gains rates were more like 25%.

Our nation had a strong defense, a balanced budget, high employment, and world-leading new infrastructure. I wouldn’t propose going completely back to that high-tax and high-cost, but also high-wage model after decades of globalization, but I do think we could correct moving too far from that model in the 21st century.

If defense spending is important to most GOP (and many other voters too), then let’s should follow one of Ike’s examples and hold the strong military and deficit reduction as more sacred ‘sacred cows’ than the new, more self-serving sacred cow of tax cuts. Look at a tax structure that pays the front rent for our strong military and ongoing world-leading R&D, and also helps pay the back rent from Iraq and Afghanistan, including coming decades of VA care.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive

Hagel seems like a great source to provide Ike-like firsthand insight into the military for Obama. I hope as a team they channel Ike’s fiscal pragmatism too.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive

“Should the party of Lincoln continue to aspire to be the natural governing party, the party of reasonable conservatism, good governance and a responsible foreign policy supported by a strong military?”

That is a description of the Democratic Party. The Republicans are the party of extreme conservatism, of sabotaging government when the opposing party is in power, and an over-aggressive foreign policy supported by excessive military spending.

Posted by delta5297 | Report as abusive

Well Mr. Wapshott, I usually can’t stand your overly left leaning inflammatory opinions, but this one seems actually though out (a little, as most of it is pretty obvious). Indeed we may have the opportunity to reduce spending to say, equal to the top 8 countries instead of the top thirteen combined. As long as they can blame the job losses on President Obama (loudly), the republicans just might do it.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

What’s 50 + 67 equal? I believe it’s 117 Right? So then the year 1967 plus 50 years would equal the year 2017 right?

And the year is now 2014 so in 3 more years the American Freedom of Information Act allows the world to view the first Photographs that must be made public of the USS Liberty Massacre where Israel ordered its Army, Navy, and Air Force to destroy our American war vessel by bombs, Torpedoes, Strafing, and Shooting the American Officers and Enlisted Men in International Sea Waters that immediately killed 37, and wounded 170 that have died and been dying from their wounds in the 1967 Israeli 3 Day War.

No Enteral Flame has ever been erected in Arlington National Cemetery for these brave dead American Soldiers, no mention of their sacrifices in any American High School History Books, no President, Senator, or Representative has shown any public display of gratitude for their courage in this conflict, all those who were there and died have been all but forgotten but in 3 years the world will come to know the truth.

President Johnson was suspected of the JFK assasination by conspiracy theorists and the conspiracy to keep quite the USS Liberty Massacre for the last 50 years came on President Johnson’s shift so is there a link between the two conspiracies with the same man involved?

Posted by 1justmyopinion | Report as abusive

This is a lot of two + two = five.

First, as has been discussed by many at this point, the comparison of the US Army pre-WWII with today’s is comparing apples to elephants. Before WWII, the army fielded the air corps as well. That has since been broken out into its own distinct entity, wholly separate from the Army, complete with its own budget.

Second, the US military budget is bigger than the budgets of the next dozen or so countries on the list combined. There is a reason why historically, the US has been viewed as the world’s policeman. It is stronger and better equipped than any other military on earth. One simple metric: the US military fields 11 aircraft carriers, which is about 8 more than all other countries combined, even if you count the Chinese, who’s aircraft carrier is years away from being combat-ready.

Third, the US military has done far more with far less than any other modern fighting force: drones, cruise missiles, electronic counter measures, and the like, have ensured tactical superiority for American forces, and orders of magnitude fewer casualties. Which other country in the world has bombs that can target individual ventilation shafts in enemy buildings? Who else has missiles that can destroy other incoming missiles? Indeed, many analysts will tell you that even if every country in the world were to band together against the US, America would win before a single invading boot hit US soil.

Fourth, war against Japan was brought to a decisive end by the US dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the US is the only country in the world to use nuclear weapons in an act of anger. Prior to WWII, no army in the world had those weapons. Since then, the US has amassed more than 5,000 atomic bombs. They won’t be going away anytime soon.

Fifth, say what you like about Democrats being bellicose, but please don’t forget the Republicans efforts to bring war to the masses. JFK might have basically started Vietnam, but Nixon massively escalated it; and re-read the Pentagon Papers, because it’ll remind you that he did so despite unquestionable evidence that the US would never prevail. Under Reagan’s watch, Caspar Weinberger massively increased the size of the military across all services, and Reagan wasn’t averse to dropping bombs or invading a few countries, especially where shady deals were the order of the day — remember Iran-Contra? What about George W. Bush, and his invasion of Iraq, based on trumped-up charges that the Iraqi government was buying yellowcake uranium on the sly? How many hundreds of billions were spent on that little junket?

I’m sorry, but this is a poorly written piece, based on too many false premises.

Posted by WhoCanItBe | Report as abusive

As for Hayek vs. Lincoln, put some points on the board for the former, as Rand Paul and Cruz lead the GOP charge towards 2016. Their sophomoric call for massive disengagement from the world (Paul has called for the U.S. to withdraw from all international organizations and to dust off that historical relic, formal declarations of war, Cruz thinks the world can be turned over to market forces) is the stuff that idealistic and unschooled college students take to heart. Hard to believe these guys are the best the GOP can put forward.

And unfortunately both the Russians and Chinese are bolstering their ground forces, Putin aiming for a million man army by the end of the decade. Both powers are increasing defense spending dramatically and will start muscling their neighbors accordingly, as we see in the Ukraine and the South China Sea. They will hardly respond in kind to an American reduction of its armed forces, which the GOP Tea Party is pushing, and will perceive it, correctly, as evidence of American retreat and weakness. And so will American allies, especially in Asia.

But Texas has 15,000 contractors dependent on Pentagon dollars so Cruz will eventually temper his fight against defense spending as he is an opportunist extraordinaire.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive