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Peace Despite Weakness?

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Two recent episodes offer an insight into a world in which the United States deliberately adopts a policy of pursuing international peace despite weakness, rather than practice what Ronald Reagan called “peace through strength.”

First, prior to and during Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates‘ present trip to communist China, his hosts lifted the veil of secrecy on a brand new, fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft. This J-20 is clearly intended to compete with, and perhaps defeat, America’s inventory of such planes - the F-22, whose production Mr. Gates insisted on terminating prematurely, and the F-35, whose production he is now slowing.

U.S. intelligence evidently was taken by surprise that the Chinese have made such progress in so sophisticated an area of military design and manufacturing. In part, faulty estimates about the likelihood of “peer competitors” fielding stealthy air-superiority fighters and the like have been used to justify - or at least rationalize - the sorts of unilateral-disarmament-measures-via-budget-cuts that Mr. Gates is affording President Obama the political cover to make.

As it happens, a further pall was cast on the Pentagon chief’s visit to the Middle Kingdom by another revelation: Just after Christmas, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Robert F. Willard, revealed that Beijing had achieved “initial operational status” on a new ballistic missile designed to destroy aircraft carriers at sea at ranges up to 2,000 miles from China.

The technical term for these sorts of developments is “game-changers”: They are clearly meant to threaten access to and freedom of operation in the Western Pacific for the United States‘ most important power-projection forces.

Second, The Washington Times‘ Bill Gertz revealed last week that the chief of the Russian armed forces staff had just made a no-less-portentous announcement: Gen. Nikolai Makarov declared that his country would have by 2020 an “impenetrable” defense against missile attack: “The state will have an umbrella over it which will defend it against ballistic missile attacks, medium-range missiles, air-based cruise missiles, sea-based cruise missiles and ground-based cruise missiles, including missiles flying at extremely low altitudes, at any time and in any situation.”

Presumably, U.S. intelligence and Mr. Gates were surprised by this revelation, too. After all, no mention was made of the Russians’ commitment to provide comprehensive protection against all missiles a month ago, when the U.S. Senate was being coerced into hastily approving the New START Treaty. One wonders whether senators would have voted differently had they known what is now clear: They approved an accord that the other party insists will effectively preclude us from making “any qualitative or quantitative improvements” to our missile defenses. This despite the fact that our present anti-missile systems are: a) Only designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, not cruise missiles that fly aerodynamically, and b) too limited to prevent any attack, including ones from Russia or China - just the relatively small threat of a couple of missiles launched by “rogue states.” These would include Iran and North Korea (which, curiously, happen to be Moscow and Beijing’s allies/clients/proxies).

When told of Mr. Makarov’s pronouncement, a friend who had warned one of his senators against rushing to approve the New START Treaty during the lame-duck session, asked me whether such a formidable Russian defense would violate that pact. Answer: It would not, since the Obama administration evidently assumed that the Kremlin opposed missile defenses in general, not just ours. In the event, U.S. senators have now recklessly approved a treaty made even more lopsidedly contrary to our interests by giving Vladimir Putin a de facto veto over our protection to the American people - while leaving the Russians free to do whatever they want to protect theirs.

If these developments make you uneasy about America’s place in the world, let alone its security, get used to it. Our adversaries - actual or potential - are taking our measure and responding as bullies, thugs and dictators have time and time again in the past. They are becoming more assertive and, in some cases, more aggressive in filling the vacuum they perceive we are creating by retreating from global responsibilities and conflicts, ceding our pre-eminence technologically and in terms of industrial capabilities, running up our debt and, most especially, by slashing our defenses.

We better not kid ourselves. Mr. Gates‘ China visit - in which he was reduced to pleading for improved military-to-military communications (as though they would actually mitigate the danger posed by China’s steadily increasing offensive power) and for Beijing’s “help” in containing North Korea (as though the latter poses a threat to the United States, but communist China does not) - is but a taste of what is to come.

History suggests that when bullies perceive this sort of opening, it does not conduce to peace. As one of Mr. Gates‘ predecessors, Donald H. Rumsfeld, put it, “Weakness is provocative.” And what it provokes is not peaceable impulses, but warlike ones, on the part of freedom’s foes.

To those who say we can no longer afford to be strong and must make at least the $178 billion in cuts in defense spending sought by Mr. Gates and Mr. Obama, there is a time-tested reality: We can pay now for peace through strength or pay later and vastly more in lives and treasure for the costs of failing to achieve that peace through our provocative weakness.

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