From “What’s marriage?” to “Where’s Snowden,” the nation was buzzing with Washington-based stories last week. But Washington had little to say about national defense.
When the Army announced it would eliminate 10 combat brigades, the response was crickets. When military officials acknowledged they had insufficient forces in place to respond to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, more crickets. Paula Dean got more media attention than slashing America's defenses.
Bucking the tide was Republian Sen. Kelly Ayotte. The junior senator from New Hampshire chose last week to deliver a major address on the state of America’s state in the world. It was a very un-Washington speech. Not only was her chosen topic not a news-topper, she chose to take a long view of what’s happening around the globe rather than focusing on what’s trending on Twitter.
Ayotte is a bit of an odd senate duck. She champions a strong national defense, even though by the standards of most other states, New Hampshire’s military-industrial complex is pretty small. (Hardly any active-duty soldiers are stationed in the Granite State. Even the Portsmouth Shipyard is really in Maine.)
A fierce advocate for the armed forces, she never served a day in the military (though her husband was in the Air Force). And though she was schooled in law, she has become a self-taught expert on technical defense issues like missile defense.
And that’s what makes Ayotte such a rarity in Congress. She jumps on an issue, not because doing so is good politics, but because it’s important to be good on the issue. And Ayotte is very good on defense.
Little surprise then that she elected to speak out about it when everybody was talking about everything else.
Americans may not be paying attention to America’s place in the world, Ayotte pointed out, but the rest of the world is watching us. “The gap between rhetoric and reality,” she warned, “is growing.” Ayotte then ticked off a long list of concerns including relations with Russia, the rumble in Syria, an apathetic human rights agenda and resurgent Islamist threats.
America’s standing in the world has fallen, she said, in large part because the Obama administration lacks a serious game plan for playing the great game of international relations. Rather than craft a coherent strategy for advancing American interests, she argued, the White House simply produces “naïve wish lists.”
As a result, she said, the “crisis of the day crowds out the important” in White House discussions, while high-ranking military leaders who are supposed to be thinking about the horrors over the horizon are left “in the dark.”
Ayotte offered up missile defense as a clear example of the problems inherent when the winds of crisis lash into a foreign policy that lacks a strategic anchor. Earlier this year, North Korea unleashed another round of threats, suggesting that it was prepared to launch a nuclear missile in the general direction of either us or Japan.
The White House response was a swift reaffirmation of its commitment to protect the U.S. from ballistic missile attack. Yet the Obama administration then proceeded to: Cancel an advanced version of type of missile interceptor; drag its feet on setting up an East Coast missile defense site, and request zero funds for critical upgrades to the mid-course interceptor system. The disconnect was palpable.
This is the wrong time for America to lack a clear and determined purpose in the world, Ayotte concluded. According to Freedom House, global freedom has declined for seven straight years. Those committed to ensuring the safety, freedom and prosperity of all Americans, must prepare to operate in an increasingly hostile environment for the foreseeable future.
-James Jay Carafano is Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Examiner