GULFPORT, Miss. -- "We're the heart of the U.S. military. Our sons and daughters serve, and our neighbors build military ships." That's how a fan put it this week as I autographed a copy of "American Heroes" for him during a book-signing session. Then he added, "I hope that doesn't change." He has reason for concern, as do those who work at nearby Pascagoula Naval shipyard or Keesler Air Force Base or who serve anywhere in our nation's uniform.
President-elect Barack Obama said on election night that "change has come to America." Though the next commander in chief has yet to announce exactly how he will do it, he clearly intends to change the commitments, capabilities and cost of America's military.
--Commitments: Candidate Obama made "ending the war and getting out of Iraq" the centerpiece of his foreign policy platform from the very beginning of his campaign two years ago. He never has recanted on his goal of "bringing our troops home within 16 months of taking office." He is also adamant that more U.S. and NATO troops are needed in Afghanistan.
Thanks to the courage and perseverance of young Americans in flak jackets, helmets and flight suits, the campaign against radical Islam in Mesopotamia is all but over. Iraqi soldiers and police now carry out most combat operations against Sunni and Shiite terrorists and militias. A phased pullout from Iraq will indeed free up U.S. combat units for Afghanistan, where they are needed.
But a "total pullout" from Iraq invites the theocrats in Tehran, who are the world leaders in exporting terror and are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons, to further ambition and adventure in the region. This week, Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, obviously concerned about a premature U.S. retreat, said that candidate Obama "reassured us that he would not take any drastic or dramatic decisions." In case the point was missed, he added: "When there is a reality check, I think any U.S. president has to look very hard at the facts on the ground. The gains that we have attained and won with hard struggle and a great deal of sacrifice need to be sustained."
--Capabilities: Even before the election, leading Democrats in the House and Senate were prognosticating a "transformation" in U.S. defense capabilities. The two most recent Democratic presidents made similar promises. When Jimmy Carter came to office, he all but eliminated our human intelligence capabilities and ordered an across-the-board reduction of 15 percent in everything from ships to planes to "end strength" -- the number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines in the services.
Bill Clinton did the same thing, only bigger. Half the Army's divisions disappeared, along with scores of ships and combat air wings. He also introduced the "don't ask, don't tell" policy to allow gays to serve in the armed forces.
The net effect of both presidents' cuts of capabilities was to embolden America's adversaries. Arguably, American troops still are paying in blood for the cost cutting done during the Carter and Clinton administrations. That may well be happening again, in an ever-more dangerous world.
--Cost Cutting: When the moving vans roll up to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in January, it will be the first time since Richard Nixon took over from Lyndon Johnson that our nation has changed its commander in chief while at war. Yet leaks from the Obama transition team and Capitol Hill indicate that cuts in defense spending are a top priority.
Any of these cuts will have the effect of seriously reducing U.S. defense capabilities. One parochial example: The V-22 Osprey is programmed to replace all of the U.S. Marines' 40-year-old CH-46 helicopters. Without the Osprey, Marines will have to walk to the next gunfight.
In his first remarks as president-elect, Obama promised defeat to "those who would tear the world down." If that's what he really wants to do, prudence dictates that he ought not start by tearing apart our nation's defenses.