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.