The notion peddled by some GOP presidential candidates that we can’t “afford” to defend our interests is both false and misguided. Defense spending is not driving our debt problems; domestic entitlement and discretionary spending are. Moreover, the green-eyeshade approach to national security overlooks the GOP’s prevailing foreign policy vision for the past few decades — forward-leading, projecting American strength and values, guaranteeing the West’s freedom. Isolationism is not only pre-Sept. 11 (even President Obama has come to understand we must take the fight to jihadists), it is anti-Reagan.

If Jon Huntsman and other candidates are interested in becoming credible contenders with appeal to a broad swath of the Republican primary electorate, they need to stop imitating Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and get on the side of the grown-up candidates (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty), who understand that a dangerous world requires a bold, not isolationist, foreign policy,

Robert Kagan in January wrote for the Weekly Standard:

No serious budget analyst or economist believes that cutting the defense budget will aid economic recovery in the near term — federal spending on defense is just as much a job-producing stimulus as federal spending on infrastructure. Nor, more importantly, do they believe that cutting defense spending will have more than the most marginal effect on reducing the runaway deficits projected for the coming years. The simple fact is, as my Brookings colleague and former budget czar Alice Rivlin recently observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” and even if one assumes that defense spending continues to increase with the rate of inflation, this is “not what’s driving the future spending.” The engine of our growing debt is entitlements.

Kagan also debunks the idea that we need to cut defense because every part of government needs to be cut:

This “fair share” argument is at least more sober than phony “cut defense or kill the economy” sensationalism, and it has the appearance of reasonableness. But it is still based on a fallacy. Distributing cuts equally is not an intrinsically good thing. If you wanted to reduce the gas consumption of your gas-guzzling car by 10 percent, you wouldn’t remove 10 percent of your front and rear bumpers so that all parts of the car shared the pain. The same goes for the federal budget. Not all cuts have equal effect on the national well-being. Few would propose cutting spending on airport security, for instance. At a time of elevated risk of terrorist attack, we don’t need to show the American people that airport security is contributing its “fair share” to budget reduction.

At least Ron and Rand Paul are honest: They want to cut defense because they don’t believe in a active foreign policy. They don’t pretend to be in favor of “giving troops all they need” or participation in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Those counseling for deep cuts in defense pretend it’s just about the money, but the result is a radical redesign of our approach to national security. As Kagan explains:

In fact, the only way to get significant savings from the defense budget — and by “significant,” we are still talking about a tiny fraction of the cuts needed to bring down future deficits — is to cut force structure: fewer troops on the ground; fewer airplanes in the skies; fewer ships in the water; fewer soldiers, pilots, and sailors to feed and clothe and provide benefits for. To cut the size of the force, however, requires reducing or eliminating the missions those forces have been performing. Of course, there are any number of think tank experts who insist U.S. forces can be cut by a quarter or third or even by half and still perform those missions. But this is snake oil. . . .

The only way to find substantial savings in the defense budget, therefore, is to change American strategy fundamentally. The Simpson-Bowles commission suggests as much, by calling for a reexamination of America’s “21st century role,” although it doesn’t begin to define what that new role might be.

Obama’s stance does not have the benefit of intellectual honesty that the Pauls’ have. He’s the one arguing for a continued presence in Afghanistan, military action in Libya and giving Israel military assistance. He bragged at AIPAC :

Because we understand the challenges Israel faces, I and my administration have made the security of Israel a priority. It’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. It’s why we’re making our most advanced technologies available to our Israeli allies. And it’s why, despite tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels.

That includes additional support — beyond regular military aid — for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. This is a powerful example of American-Israel cooperation which has already intercepted rockets from Gaza and helped saved innocent Israeli lives. So make no mistake, we will maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge.

How’s he going to do all that if he keeps taking a chain saw to the defense budget? It is, as with his deficit plan and refusal to alter unsustainable entitlement programs, a refusal to level with the public and to lead.

This is a critical debate, one that should be front and center in the GOP primary. At the end, the Republicans had better have someone who can look Obama in the eye during the debate and ask, “How are future units of SEALs supposed to eliminate key terrorists if we systematically cut back on defense?”

UPDATE (11:13 a.m.): The Associated Press reports today on Secreatary of Defense Gates’s commencement address at Notre Dame University, in which he warned against deep defense cuts. “‘Beyond the current wars, our military credibility, commitment and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries from making the kind of miscalculations that so often lead to war.’ . . He warned against heeding calls for shrinking the nation’s global commitments and military size and capabilities to deal with budget problems.” Too bad he is most vocal when heading out the door; a little less cheerleading for Obama’s defense cuts during his tenure might have been helpful.