No one wants war with Iran or North Korea, but if one occurs, a major U.S. land force will be needed for a prolonged period. And if central authority dissolves in Yemen and a threat to the U.S. homeland emerges from al-Qaeda forces there, what will be the response? Mr. Obama’s strategy seems to assume that counterterrorism operations — such as the drones that circle al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal territories or raids by special forces — will be sufficient. The history of Afghanistan before 2001, and the deteriorating situation in Pakistan today, suggest otherwise.
To be sure, if hard budget choices must be made, it is probably wiser to reduce troop levels than to curtail investments in new planes and ships or in new weapons technology. But this raises the question of whether the scale of the defense cuts the president is considering is appropriate. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, under Mr. Obama’s plan “you have over the next four years a reduction in total defense spending as rapid as any we experienced after Vietnam or after the Cold War.” Both those drawdowns are now almost universally regarded as having been unsustainable and shortsighted.
Moreover, another $500 billion in across-the-board “sequestration” cuts will take effect in 2013 unless Congress repeals them. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs have said that such a fiscal hit would be a catastrophe for U.S. defense. But Mr. Obama did not speak against it Thursday. In fact, he has vowed to veto any bill that is limited to repealing the Pentagon sequestration. He seems to be trying to bluff Republicans into accepting other spending reductions or tax increases. But for the commander in chief to toy with measures that would materially damage U.S. national security hardly seems responsible.
As he has before, Mr. Obama cited on Thursday President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s maxim that military spending “must be weighed in light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” When Mr. Eisenhower spoke those words, defense spending represented more than 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. Under Mr. Obama’s plan it would drop from about 4.5 percent to under 3 percent. Meanwhile, other than cuts to finance the new entitlements in his health care bill, the president has yet to propose meaningful trims in the exploding costs of entitlements such as Medicare, which did not exist during Mr. Eisenhower’s presidency. Would Ike have regarded what Mr. Obama is proposing as “balanced”? It’s hard to see how.