F-16s grounded. Blackhawks covered in foam. Just two Army brigades combat ready. Half the cruiser fleet rendered inoperable. New nukes delayed—for two years. The percentage of the economy devoted to defense at pre-9/11 levels. Bipartisan experts terrified of the consequences. America’s deterrent—our ability to discourage and respond to aggression—is gone.
It was thrown away. First, President Obama cut defense massively, constraining the Pentagon and hollowing out the force. He was helped not only by Democrats in Congress but also by Republicans, who agreed to the budget sequester in 2011. Democrats want more money for social programs; Republicans want to cut the deficit. They are both guilty of short-term thinking.
The effects of defense cuts are felt not only in one budget. They are felt over time—in weapons not developed or devised, forces not raised, troops not adequately trained and equipped. The government cashes out a peace dividend just once. Later, we all pay.
For example: When the Cold War ended, secretary of Defense Dick Cheney cut his own department. One of his targets was the A10. Congress overruled him. It wasn’t long before Cheney learned to appreciate the A10’s hitherto undiscovered value as a tank killer in Operation Desert Storm. Cheney learns from his mistakes. He’s been a supporter of the Warthog ever since. President Obama wants to kill it.
But spending cuts are just part of the problem. In the past, America has cut defense without eliminating our deterrent. What’s different? Presidential incompetence.
The White House drew a red line in Syria: Bashar Assad could not use chemical weapons against his people. Assad crossed the line—again and again. And last summer, when evidence of his atrocities became overwhelming, the president threatened military action. But his heart wasn’t in it. He met opposition from Congress, from the media, from Russia. He backed down.
Assad paid no price. He not only surrendered his declared stocks of WMD as part of the Russian “peace” plan; he volunteered them. He knew he could continue his war by conventional means—the death toll is approaching 200,000 souls. He knew America would not move against him as long as U.N. teams were in Syria. And he may well have held on to some WMD, knowing that there is little appetite in Washington for a verification system that could cause the president embarrassment.
It was a signal moment. By not acting on his threat of military action, by not making good on his demand that Assad must go, President Obama eliminated the U.S. deterrent. Just like that.
“I didn’t set a red line,” President Obama said last year. “The world set a red line.” Even if what Obama said was true—which it wasn’t—he was answering the wrong question. It doesn’t matter who sets the red lines. It matters who enforces them. These days, no one is. The cop is off the beat.
Not even a year has passed since Obama’s Syrian reversal. But the consequences are apparent. And they are global.
Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukrainian democracy has been incremental. Each move is meant to test Obama’s reaction. Putin annexed Crimea. America’s response: not military aid, not security pledges, but sanctions. Putin sent guerrillas to fight an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. America’s response: more sanctions.
This week uniformed Russian troops and tank columns invaded a sovereign nation without even the slightest pretext. The White House has not announced its formal response. Something tells me it will involve sanctions.
“The sanctions that we’ve already applied have been effective,” Obama said at his press conference yesterday. Effective at doing what? Hastening the Russian expansion? Sanctions haven’t curtailed Putin’s freedom of action. Sanctions haven’t deterred him. They have emboldened him.
Russian antagonism is not confined to Europe or the Middle East. The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill Gertz has reported for years on Russian encroachment of America’s air defenses. That encroachment has accelerated. A flurry of incursions by Bear bombers—16 in 10 days—took place earlier this month.
Now Gertz reports that China wants in on the act, dangerously and provocatively intercepting a Naval intelligence jet. In the months since Obama abandoned his red line in Syria, the Chinese have declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, harassed Vietnamese interests in the South China Sea, and escalated their anti-Japanese rhetoric. Last week a Chinese jet entered Taiwanese airspace. The Chinese are behaving exactly like Putin. They are testing us—and getting the same result.
Our competitors and adversaries are not stupid. They understand that they have a little more than two years to take what they want without fear of an American response beyond stern words and financial penalties. They know that words are meaningless unless backed up by force. They know that financial penalties are easily undone.
They know, too, that re-establishing deterrence will not be easy. It will take years. And it cannot be done without reversing our military drawdown.
Obama is right to praise the American military and its technological and operational capabilities. But if I may, Mr. President, you didn’t build that. Someone else made that happen. The armed forces you deploy against ISIL today are the product of decades of effort, forged in the Reagan buildup and enhanced, somewhat, under George W. Bush. The state of the U.S. military is one of the most important legacies a president bequeaths to his successor. The next president can expect to inherit an undermanned, ill-equipped, unenthusiastic force.
It is a test of seriousness not only for Congress, especially a Republican Congress, but also for presidential aspirants to explain how they will repair this self-inflicted wound. Every day brings another reminder that there is only one power with the ideals and capabilities required to preserve a liberal world order. Every day brings another reminder that there is—there was—only one global cop. And she needs to be re-militarized.