Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The fight over the best form of defense

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 4, 2014 15:57 UTC

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.

The North Korean threat in an age of Pentagon cuts

Nicholas Wapshott
Apr 11, 2013 19:48 UTC

It may not feel like it, but we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The temptation to dismiss the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a cartoonish figure of fun belies the real and present danger his samurai sword rattling presents. A strange time, then, for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to set out on the most thorough reappraisal of our defense spending since the end of Vietnam.

It is no secret that Hagel relishes the chance to slim the armed forces to a more affordable size. It is what commended him to President Barack Obama. He has already commissioned a wholesale “strategic choice and management review” of the Defense Department, which has been told to think the unthinkable in terms of cutting spending. This week, before defending his vision before the House Armed Services Committee, he offered a glimpse into what he has in mind: a slimming of the desk-bound middle management whose pay and perks cost more than the value of their contribution to the nation’s defense; a clearheaded look at the generous health and retirement benefits the nation’s military and veterans enjoy; the abandonment of expensive advanced weapons that may not be necessary; and an unsentimental assessment of the need for all of our domestic military bases.

Hagel invited “change that involves not just tweaking or chipping away at existing structures and practices but, where necessary, fashioning new ones” because “left unchecked, spiraling costs to sustain existing structures and institutions, provide benefits to personnel and develop replacements for aging weapons platforms will eventually crowd out spending on procurement, operations and readiness.” The American military is too large, Hagel argued. “How many people do we have,” he asked, “both military and civilian? How many do we need? What do these people do? And how do we compensate them for their work, service and loyalty with pay, benefits and healthcare?”

The real reason Obama wants Hagel

Nicholas Wapshott
Jan 8, 2013 16:58 UTC

You might imagine the president has quite enough trouble on his hands with the looming battle with House Republicans over extending the debt ceiling without opening a second front over the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Although a distinguished former Republican senator, Hagel has already attracted venomous opposition from his old colleagues who think, among many other complaints, he is not sound on Israel and has been too critical of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does the president really need more aggravation? Isn’t it a golden rule of politics not to spend your political capital all at once, as the president did in his first term when he pressed through healthcare reform to the detriment of an effective plan to reshape the wayward financial institutions? Having achieved a partial victory in the fiscal cliff negotiations by raising taxes on the super-rich, does Obama really need to take on the House and Senate at the same time?

The Republican charge list against Hagel is long, starting with the accusation that he is not really a Republican at all. Hagel, who believes “the Republican Party has come loose of its moorings,” might argue with conviction that it is the Republican Party that has deserted him, not the other way around, but he has certainly relished tweaking the noses of his old pals. In short, he thinks they are not up to snuff. “When you ask the question, Has [the Republican approach] worked? I don’t think many people will say it has worked,” he said. “God knows, I would never question the quality of our elected officials. That’s why I’m so popular with many of them.”

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