Today, the threats to our national security are complex, fluid, and hard to fully comprehend. This requires a serious look at what the U.S. can do to affect events worldwide that would produce outcomes favorable to our interests, rather than allowing other nations to drive events, some of which are contrary to U.S. interests. The President should lay out a clear foreign policy agenda and then consider what the military requires to make it happen.
But President Obama has never done that admittedly hard work. Instead, he announced in April 2011 a $400 billion cut in defense spending, and then said he would like to do it again. But when he revealed his plan for fiscal year 2012, he actually upped the ante, seeking to cut Pentagon spending by $487 billion. He blamed the steeper cuts on the Budget Control Act, as though the entire thing was against his will and out of his control.
More cuts loom. The Budget Control Act requires an automatic, across-the-board $1 trillion cut to the discretionary budget over nine years, starting in January. The defense budget will take half of that hit, even though it accounts for only 17 percent of all federal spending. So the Pentagon’s getting hit disproportionately hard. But, according to President Obama, that’s the goal. Last summer he said, “A lot of the spending cuts that we’re making should be around areas like defense spending as opposed to food stamps.”
So it’s come to this. The national defense is now competing directly with social entitlements for funding. And it’s a rigged competition. Spending on the Big Three entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—is on auto-pilot. It’s not even subject to the regular budget process. Spending on just those three programs will jump from 10.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012 to 18.2 percent by 2048, meaning it will require every single cent of federal taxes collected.
But we are at a crisis point already. For years, Washington was committed to building and maintaining a military not only strong enough to fight and win, but strong enough to deter war to begin with. The recent defense spending cuts—and those slated to come—make that impossible. The U.S. should never settle for a military that’s on par with other global powers. This invites war. A military that is dramatically more capable than any other actor is a force for stability and peace.
To address the rising conflicts abroad—some of which could be brought to the U.S. homeland—Washington must get serious about foreign policy once again. The Administration must lay out a clear foreign policy agenda to reassure our allies that we are with them and inform our enemies of what we will not tolerate. In the short term, our agenda must include precise short-term goals for dealing with real-time problems such as those in Syria or Libya. Indecisiveness and waffling cannot define the U.S. role in world affairs.
For the nation’s long-term fiscal health, it’s imperative to rein in spending—not defense spending, but the true drivers of the federal deficit: runaway entitlement programs. Strategy must drive the defense budget, not the other way around. We have to get both of these right, and fast—for the sake of the economy and security. Our country cannot afford to do otherwise.
–A national security expert, Rebeccah Heinrichs is a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.