Every year, senior Pentagon officials, national security analysts, lawmakers and journalists fly to Simi Valley, California, for the Reagan National Defense Forum. The event is a who’s-who of defense policy big-shots, where the country’s leading figures in the defense field discuss the near — and long-term issues that may affect the future of the U.S. military.
The Reagan National Defense Forum is traditionally a prime opportunity for hawks to influence the conversation in Washington, particularly during budget season. At this year’s session, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made full use of the opportunity, pressing for consistent and predictable budget increases for the department he leads, as if Washington could paper over the real problems in U.S. foreign policy with more money.
Mr. Mattis‘ address lacked the kind of context that would help put his case in proportion. Equally disturbing, Mr. Mattis failed to even acknowledge the existential threat to American society: A national debt that continues to spiral out of contorl.
Mr. Mattis entered the conference with a predictable sales pitch: The U.S. military has a major readiness problem at the very same time Russia and China are modernizing their own military capabilities. He referenced a Wall Street Journal editorial published a day earlier, in which the top two members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees argued that only Pentagon budget increases would forestall a cataclysmic downfall in American power.
The reality is economic prosperity is the foundation of national power. If our economy is destroyed by a debt crisis that our political leaders refuse to seriously address, America’s collective power and influence as the wealthiest and strongest nation in the world is in dire risk of imploding.
The pitch was intellectually dishonest and was based more on inflating the threats of today’s security environment than a realistic appraisal of the current geopolitical or fiscal reality in which the United States operates. Mr. Mattis and swampy members of Congress are essentially saying is that a $700 billion Pentagon budget, the largest defense budget in U.S. history, is not enough to safeguard America’s security or keep the American people safe.
As the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy states, the international security environment is becoming more polarized among the world’s regional powers. What the document refers to as “[i]nter-state strategic competition” is now a central element of today’s world. But if there is any country on the planet that retains the power projection capabilities, military strike capacity, alliance relationships, and intellectual rigor to respond to the challenges of this century, it is the United States. No other nation on the face of the Earth comes close to the U.S. in terms of military capacity. This indisputable strength, however, becomes jeopardized if U.S. foreign policy officials don’t get smarter about what missions to avoid and which is absolutely vital for defending the American people at home and U.S. interests overseas.
The U.S. Armed Forces continue to be the world’s most paramount military institution, second to none in terms of the professionalism of its servicemembers and the sophistication of its technology. By virtue of its awesome might and innovation, the American people can rest assured that their military is able and ready to defend them in the event of a conflict or crisis. No serious person would suggest otherwise.
While modernization and equipment maintenance are essential to a strong and durable military, these issues have less to do with a lack of predictable funding and more to do with 17 consecutive years of troop deployments in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. If the U.S. military is overstretched, it’s due in large part to never-ending counterinsurgency and stability operations on three separate continents, not to mention Washington’s continued partial subsidization of wealthy European allies who have happily allowed the United States to serve as their first line of defense.
Washington policymakers have for far too long refused to establish national security priorities based on core U.S. security and prosperity interests, incorrectly believing that the U.S. military is the magic solution to the world’s multiple political problems.
If combat aircraft are in need of repair and the Navy’s aircraft carriers are stuck in maintenance depots, it’s because the foreign policy establishment decided it was America’s responsibility to provide security for the world instead of the United States — regardless of the cost to the nation’s economic prosperity and however detached the policy may be from core U.S. national security.
Put simply: A fixation on global primacy, not a lack of budgetary resources, is what has spawned the U.S. military’s challenges.
Unless Washington differentiates the truly important missions from the secondary and tertiary, there is no politically realistic amount of money to do everything, to provide security for the world. Policymakers can now longer operate in a world as they would like to be, with unlimited amounts of taxpayer money at their disposal. They have to set priorities and focus more on strengthening the U.S. economy and investing in military power for an era of great power competition. Tangents such as playing peacekeeper between Turks and Kurds, maintaining an indefinite presence in the Syrian desert, and serving as Afghanistan’s perpetual guardian is both a strategic distraction and a fiscal road to nowhere.
America’s debt crisis cannot be ignored forever. Too often, defense officials and the foreign policy establishment play down the significance of the country’s finances, but basic arithmetic still applies the super powers. The deficit increased by 17 percent over the last fiscal year, a number that will only grow if the U.S. government continues to see the nation’s fiscal woes as the cost of doing business. The national debt is $21 trillion with no end in sight. Policymakers dismiss these fiscal realities out of convenience to our nation’s peril.
The defense budget is set to reach $716 billion in fiscal 2019. At no point in America’s 242-year history has the figure been this high. The Pentagon doesn’t need more appropriations of taxpayer money — it needs a foreign policy leadership willing to recognize that nearly two decades of counterinsurgency, regime change campaigns, and meandering wars have degraded the U.S. military and put extreme pressure on the U.S. Treasury.
Last weekend, Mr. Mattis said that reducing defense spending “would be a dangerous disservice to our troops and the American people they serve and protect.” However, the real disservice to our troops is maintaining a status quo of interventionism that hurts, not helps, U.S. national security. In his own unique way, President Donald Trump said it best in a Dec. 3 tweet: “The U.S. spent 716 Billion Dollars this year. Crazy!” One can only hope that his national security advisers and the rest of the defense establishment have the dexterity to catch up to him.
• Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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