President Obama’s speech last night was met with a mixture of praise and incredulity by the right. Many saw a complete conversion — “Kennedyesque,” is how Robert Kagan described it. (“Bushian” for some of us.) Others saw the gap between what was promised not only in Libya and what Obama was willing to commit American forces to do. But he sure is aware of the burdens, risks and achievements of our military:

I want to begin by paying tribute to our men and women in uniform who, once again, have acted with courage, professionalism and patriotism. They have moved with incredible speed and strength. Because of them and our dedicated diplomats, a coalition has been forged and countless lives have been saved. Meanwhile, as we speak, our troops are supporting our ally Japan, leaving Iraq to its people, stopping the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and going after al Qaeda around the globe. As Commander-in-Chief, I am grateful to our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and their families, as are all Americans.

So why in the world would the president be cutting our defense budget?

I’m going to assume that Obama’s speech reflected some awareness of the unique role of America in the world and the degree to which we still are expected to lead. While trying to create the appearance of a hand-off to NATO, there is no doubt how critical U.S. forces, planning and intelligence are to the Libya operation. Moreover, it seems inevitable that they will play a role, as the president observed, when the United States “will do its part” in helping to build a viable Libya after 40 years of tyrannical rule.

Obama said it: We have multiple commitments all over the world. And, let’s face it: No other country is as prepared or as capable of shouldering the majority of the military burden that must be undertaken to defend our interests and that of our allies.

But budget-cutting is all the rage, and here’s where Obama’s policy conflicts with his rhetoric. Last June , Mackenzie Eaglen, writing for the Heritage Foundation, observed that defense spending is at a historic low as a percentage of GDP:

President Barack Obama’s fiscal year (FY) 2011 defense budget request would increase the defense topline by between 1 percent and 2 percent in real terms. However, even with this modest increase, the budget is still insufficient to pay the Pentagon’s bills. In fact, the nation’s defense plans have become so chronically underfunded that most defense analysts dismiss the out-year projections in the Pentagon’s five-year budget plan as implausible.

The news that the defense budget is inadequate to meet the nation’s security plans may come as a surprise to many Members of Congress who approved cuts in nearly 50 defense programs in FY 2010. Noting that the defense budget has been growing since 9/11, some observers argue that there should be no problem. However, despite the post-9/11 budget increases, defense spending is still tight, and core defense capabilities are being shortchanged.

And that was BEFORE the Arab Spring and Libya.

The fiction nevertheless persists that defense has been “overfunded” (under President George W. Bush, core defense spending held at 3.5 percent of GDP.) Likewise, the administration and liberal commentators would have us believe that defense spending is driving the deficit. An October 2010 joint report produced by Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative spelled this out:

The defense budget is a relatively small slice of the $14-plus-trillion American pie. And it’s a shrinking slice: as a percentage of our economy and as a percentage of the federal budget, the burden of defense is declining. President Obama’s long-term budget projections also reduce Pentagon spending in real dollars. Moreover, the idea that defense cuts will restore fiscal health simply does not add up: suppose Pentagon spending for 2011—$720 billion—were eliminated entirely. This would only halve this year’s federal deficit of $1.5 trillion. And defense spending is a drop in the ocean of today’s $13.3 trillion of government debt. From the Korean War to the collapse of the Soviet Union, total U.S. defense spending was about $4.7 trillion. So had there been no military spending at all during the Cold War, the savings would not equal even half our current national debt.

But we come back to a central contradiction: Obama has our military doing many things; there’s no end in sight to most of its missions and yet he’s not providing funds commensurate with his policies. Commenting on the proposed defense cutting by the debt commission, Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained the problem last November:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized proposed military cuts outlined by a deficit-reduction commission as “math, not strategy,” defending his plan to reinvest savings in high-priority areas.

“If you cut the defense budget by 10 percent, which would be catastrophic in terms of force structure, that’s $55 billion on a $1.4 trillion deficit,” Gates said. “We are not the problem.”

Deficit panel co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson called on Nov. 10 for $100 billion of defense cuts in 2015, with steps such as canceling a version of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F- 35 jet. The 2015 defense budget is now projected to be about $666 billion.

The target list also includes ending production of the Textron Inc.-Boeing Co. tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey and a General Dynamics Corp. Marine Corps combat vehicle.

“In terms of the specifics they came up with, that’s essentially math, not strategy,” Gates told a Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in Washington today. . . .

Gates, anticipating a drive to reduce the growth in defense spending, is pressing the military services for cuts totaling $100 billion. The savings from overhead would be spent on more critical priorities.

“That means going in with a scalpel instead of a meat ax and figuring out how we change the way we do business,” Gates said today.

Gates eventually coughed up another $78 billion in cuts, but the central problem persists. Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute e-mailed me from Berlin today:

As for the administration, it’s QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] pretended that one could cleverly weigh risks versus capabilities in a manner that would allow us to do what was needed with less. With the recent problems with China and now Libya on top of waging a war in Afghanistan, the administration is discovering what’s needed is not that easily predicted. As a result, when it comes to defense spending, it remains true that being “safe rather than sorry” is a far sounder strategy to follow.

So let’s see, as we enter the 2012 budget debate, whether the administration’s stance on defense spending reflects its current national security thinking, or whether Obama’s real policy is “We’d like to fulfill our responsibilities but we’ve already spent the money on entitlements and domestic spending.”