Morning Bell: Why We Provide for the Common Defense

Conn Carroll /

In a luncheon speech to American business executives in which he urged the United States to recognize China’s claims over Tibet and Taiwan, Chinese President Hu Jintao said yesterday: “We do not engage in an arms race, we are not a military threat to any country. China will never seek to dominate or pursue an expansionist policy.” We certainly hope this is true. But our leaders must do more than just hope. As President George Washington asserted in his First Annual Message, the “most effectual means of preserving peace” is “to be prepared for war.”

This week we have documented China’s rapid rise in four key domains of potential conflict: air, sea, space, and the Internet. Over the past decade, in each of these domains, Chinese capabilities have significantly increased while ours have either stagnated or declined. A continuation of this trend is not a recipe for lasting security. In the latest installment of The Heritage Foundation’s Understanding America series, National Security Studies Research Fellow Mackenzie Eaglen explains why this neglect is antithetical to the Founders’ vision for peace:

The Founders realized that only an organized and professional military could respond to both domestic and foreign threats. That is why they authorized the building of forts, the creation of the U.S. Navy, and the founding of West Point. … America’s Founders believed that peace through strength is preferable—militarily, financially, and morally—to allowing war to come through weakness. That is why, over two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson advised George Washington that “the power of making war often prevents it.” In providing for the common defense, the goal of the Founders was to build a military sufficiently powerful and capable that America’s enemies preferred not to challenge it.

Maintaining a force powerful enough to deter any challengers is not cheap. And our federal government’s growing spending problems do require immediate attention. But so does our need to maintain a strong national defense. Congress must evaluate all federal spending on its merits and decide whether it is both constitutional and necessary. At a time when our federal government has undertaken responsibilities that are constitutionally beyond its reach, it is important to remember one constitutionally mandated and primary obligation of government: to keep Americans safe. The duty to “provide for the common defense” is right there in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. If any program can stand on its constitutional merit, it is defense.

It is true that our nation’s current defense spending practices are far from perfect. Heritage Foundation defense policy analysts Mackenzie Eaglen and Julia Pollack have identified defense spending reforms that could save taxpayers more than $70 billion. But it is vitally important that these savings are used to strengthen the tools of national security so that the U.S. can continue stabilizing the international environment, keeping U.S. citizens safe and free and ensuring that America’s economy can prosper and grow.

Driven by the desire to save money, Congress should not take steps that reduce military spending in the short term but vastly increase the danger and cost to America in the long term. It can do this by providing for defense an average of $720 billion per year for each of the next five fiscal years, in addition to the funding needed for ongoing contingency operations. In his farewell address, Washington urged Americans to remember “that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.”

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