Missing and Wanted

A New Consensus on National Defense
Missing and Wanted
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It is a question one expects to hear on Veterans Day, even though it is never asked by leading journalists or answered by the major candidates. But that basic question is: How will we now defend ourselves at home and abroad?

In this three-part series, I argue that the current political sweepstakes has failed to stimulate a national conversation on defense, much less a working consensus (Part 1); that this buy-in is an  essential first step in any blueprint for defending our interests at home and abroad  against a widening array of enemies and threats (Part 2); and, finally in Part 3, that this conversation should include a wide-ranging debate on our national manpower policies, including some form of national service.

There are two reasons why these issues have become so urgent. The first is that we are in serious difficulty, our once-proud foreign policy collapsing into a sea of troubles. President Obama recently boasted to the UN that he “commands the world’s most powerful military.” Yet skeptics contrast his failed red lines in Syria and temporizing over ISIS with Vladimir Putin’s quick dispatch of a robust Russian intervention force that instantly re-defined the Middle Eastern power calculus. Mr. Obama similarly promised a pivot to the Pacific while presiding over austerity measures that forced the US Navy to retire more ships than it is building. So when the Pentagon, recently disputing Chinese territorial claims, dispatched a guided missile destroyer to the South China Sea, the PRC obliquely threatened war. This increasing mismatch between words, means and ends carries the real risk of war-by-misadventure with Russia or China – citing  only the short list of potential adversaries.

But the second reason why these issues cry out for debate is because we no longer seem to recognize the steady onset of mortal dangers, even as they multiply. Why do Americans take our freedom for granted or assume that our defenses will always prove adequate? Perhaps it is because the same nation that produced the Greatest Generation now defends itself with borrowed money while sending Other People’s Kids in harm’s way – usually three or four times. With less than one percent of our citizens serving in uniform, military illiteracy has become the new normal. Perhaps Mr. Obama’s background as a community organizer produces precisely the sort of chief executive that Americans truly deserve.

Yet this does not explain why Democratic and Republican candidates trying to succeed him should fail to offer convincing alternatives, preferring instead to play small-ball. It is as if, given the opportunity to speak with the ill-fated captains of the Andrea Gale and El Faro before they left port, the candidates neglected to mention the approaching cyclones, urging instead greater attention to crew hygiene and galley sanitation.

In contrast, any leader hoping to form the next administration should embrace two key assumptions:

The 2016 campaign is likely to be transformed by another “911 event” at home or an unforeseen international crisis, even an American military reversal;

Even without such catastrophic events, victory in the 2016 campaign likely awaits the candidate or party best able to restore a bipartisan consensus on 21st century defense.

The reason: The last bipartisan consensus on defense was the fifty-year crusade to contain the Soviet Union, an accord that disappeared when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Democratic scion David Rothkopf argues that, with the over-reach of George W. Bush followed by the under-reach of Barack Obama, we went “in twenty years from a bi-polar world to a bi-polar superpower.” A search for middle-ground stability has recently been provided by Professor Henry Nau of George Washington University. His book Conservative Internationalism resurrects Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy of ‘armed diplomacy.’ Military force was used, “not as a solution but as...leverage to achieve diplomatic outcomes that favor freedom.” This Reagan tradition has strong bi-partisan origins, including Harry Truman and Thomas Jefferson. 

Rather than prolonged interventions, Reagan also favored well-defined limits backed up by military force. In a recent Commentary article, Nau argues that “Ronald Reagan mastered…armed diplomacy. He built up US defenses early before he started negotiations with the Soviet Union.” In sharp contrast, “President Obama practices “unarmed diplomacy.” With Iran, “He initiated talks with Tehran while cutting defense budgets and removing US troops from Iraq.” A future Iranian nuclear breakout looms precisely because force has been uncoupled from diplomacy.

The take-away lesson for reconstituting American power: “A diplomacy that combines the pursuit of freedom through military leverage while maintaining strict limits on that pursuit offers more realistic expectations.”  Instead of endlessly re-hashing the Gulf wars, why can’t leaders of both parties seek a new consensus on national defense that begins precisely where Ronald Reagan left off? 



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