President Obama went to the Pentagon Thursday to announce cuts in defense spending that will, according to his estimates, reduce the nation’s defense budget by just under $490 billion over the next ten years.
The president made the case that with the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq and the pending drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, “the tide of war is receding.” He also said that his new plan is “smart” and “strategic” and that it sets priorities. And his top priority, that to some would seem most alarming, is contained in this statement from his address:
We’ll be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget cuts will not come at the expense of this critical region.
The president also paid lip service to the dangers that exist in the Middle East, where he said the military would remain “vigilant.”
Mr. Obama tried to counter the expected criticism of his plan by claiming that the United States will, even after his proposed cuts, be spending more than the top 10 military budgets of other countries combined. Depending on which set of statistics Obama was using, this might actually be accurate. But in checking a copy of the 2009 edition of The CIA World Factbook (and I am not making that up — you can get a copy from Amazon), in 2005, the United States was spending approximately 4.06% of its GDP on defense. China, one of that group of 10 nations that Mr. Obama referenced, was spending about 4.3% of its GDP on its military as of 2006. With the phenomenal growth of the Chinese economy in the past several years, if they continue spending at that 4.3% rate and continue growing, their military will be a rising threat. The president considers the PRC to be a threat to our interests in the Pacific, and their military has recently added a full-sized aircraft carrier to their fleet.
It is apparent that the president, in developing his strategy, used the same extensive knowledge, his superior intellect, and worldly wealth of experience that he brought to his strategy for his $800-billion stimulus, his strategy for providing cost-free health care to millions of Americans, and his strategy for using “smart diplomacy” to defuse hot spots around the world.
As a veteran who spent two fun-filled years serving in Vietnam, I think that I can say without too much fear of contradiction that the Pentagon would not object to all spending cuts. If the proposed cuts were limited to those weapons and weapon systems that are forced on them by senators and representatives who are more interested in protecting defense industries in their states and districts than in strengthening the combat-effectiveness of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, the ladies and gentlemen who wear stars on shoulders would be cheering instead of standing mute on the podium behind Obama as he laid out his new, “smart” strategic plan.
But the most significant weakness of Obama’s plan is that it ignores a basic, but often underappreciated, fact. The perception and appearance of overwhelming strength will make the actual need for that same overwhelming strength unnecessary. The appearance of weakness, on the other hand, is as much an invitation to aggression as pasting a “kick me” sign to your own back.
Obama should realize this more than just about any other politician that has ever lived. He is acutely aware, at all times, of how he, himself, is perceived. How the electorate views him is constantly in the forefront of all his decisions. So how he could blunder by ignoring how a reduction of the readiness of U.S. military, no matter the size of the reduction, gives a perception of weakness?
The United States has real enemies who will test just how much weakness there is in actuality, and compare that against their perceptions. Just like your teenage kids will push the envelope to see how much they can get away with, certain countries will attack us, refuse to cooperate with us, or threaten smaller nations in their area of interest with the casual reference to the U.S. military cutbacks.
You can be sure that the foreign offices of such nations are already drafting the diplomatic communiqués that will advise these smaller nations to remember that Uncle Sam will no longer be able to protect them. Strip away all the diplomatic verbal gymnastics, and the message would be in about the same tone as one delivered by Tony Soprano to a small neighbor store: “Nice little country you have here. Be a shame if anything happened to it, now wouldn’t it?”
Should this prove to be effective (and, historically speaking, it has worked pretty well as a power play since at least the days of Julius Caesar), these same nations would be emboldened to ever greater and more potent actions against American interests, American military and diplomatic personnel that they could reach out and touch, and even attacks on the homeland.
This is the cost of the president’s desire to reduce the effectiveness of our military. It may save a few dollars in the short term, but it is like the first move in a game of chess. Unless you are thinking ten moves ahead, you might just as well not play the game at all, because you will lose — everything.