President Obama just ordered massive cutbacks in defense spending, eventually to total some $500 billion. There is plenty of fat in a Pentagon budget that grew after 9/11, but such slashing goes way too far.
Fairly or not, the cuts will only cement a now familiar stereotype of Obama's desire to retrench on the world scene. They follow symbolic apologies for purported past American sins, bowing to foreign royals, and outreach to the likes of Iran and Syria. Abroad, such perceptions can matter as much as reality, as our rivals begin hoping that Obama is as dubious about America's historically exceptional world role as are they.
In contrast, a robust military keeps the peace by deterring aggressors through the appearance of overwhelming force. We often forget that the appearance of strength in peace is almost as important as the reality of strength in war. When wars end, we scale back (think 1919 or 1946) -- only to kick ourselves once tensions arise again out of nowhere, and we must scramble to catch up and rearm for an unimagined World War II or Cold War.
America's armed forces spend about 80 percent of their budgets not on bullets and bombs but on training and compensating soldiers. Often, they do a far better job shaping the minds and character of our youth than do our colleges. Somehow the military can take an 18-year old and teach him to park a $100 million fighter across a carrier deck, but our colleges cannot ensure that his civilian counterpart will show up regularly for classes. Young men and women leave the service debt-free and with skills. Too many of our college students pile up debt and become increasingly angry that by their mid-20s they still have received neither competitive skills nor real education.
The reason why our deficit is more than $1 trillion is not just that we have multimillion-dollar jet fighters or tens of thousands of Marines. Defense outlay currently represents only about 20 percent of federal budget expenditures and is below 5 percent of our gross national product. Those percentages are roughly average costs for recent years -- despite an ongoing deployment in Afghanistan. In contrast, over the last three years we have borrowed a record near-$5 trillion for vast unfunded entitlements -- from a spiraling Social Security and Medicare to expanding the food stamp program to include one-seventh of America. Yet many Americans would probably prefer a new frigate manned by highly trained youth to discourage our enemies, rather than another Solyndra-like investment or a near-$1 trillion stimulus aimed at creating "shovel-ready" jobs.
Unfortunately, defense cuts do not occur in isolation. They feed a syndrome best typified by an insolvent and largely defenseless socialist Europe. The more that prosperous societies cut their defenses to expand social programs, the more the resulting dependency leads to even less defense and ever more benefits. Once the state promises to take care of the citizen, the citizen believes that more subsidies are still never enough. And once voters believe that defense spending is an impediment to greater entitlements, the fewer impediments they will pay for. The net result is something like the squabbling, soon-to-collapse European Union: trillions in unfunded entitlement liabilities, and unable to defend itself.
Many of the new cuts are aimed at the traditional ground forces, given that we are in a high-tech age of missiles, sophisticated drones and counterinsurgency missions. But the nature of war is neither static nor predictable. After World War II, Harry Truman wanted to do away with the Marines -- and then was glad he had not when they largely saved the reputation of the U.S. military during the unforeseen disaster in Korea in December 1950. After the Gulf War of 1990-91, we cut back on our ground forces, only to build them back up so that the Marines could deal with enemies in awful places like Anbar Province in Iraq.
The decline of civilizations of the past -- fourth-century-B.C. Athens, fifth-century-A.D. Rome, 15th-century Byzantium, or 1930s Western Europe -- was not caused by their spending too much money on defense or not spending enough on public entitlements. Rather, their expanding governments redistributed more borrowed money, while a dependent citizenry wanted even fewer soldiers to guarantee ever more handouts.
History's bleak lesson is that those societies with self-reliant citizens who protect themselves and their interests prosper; those who grow dependent cut back their defenses -- and waste away.