The Duty to Lead: America's National Security Imperative

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The Duty to Lead: America's National Security Imperative

January 21, 1999 14 min read
The Hon. Quayle
Senior Visiting Fellow

The last time America had an impeached President, back in 1868, it didn't have the slightest effect beyond our shores. We were recovering from a Civil War; Europeans thought we were crude and primitive and didn't take our views seriously. Today, it's the opposite: We're the world's undisputed Superpower--the one country to which the entire world looks for leadership.

Leadership is about choosing wisely: Choosing to make a difference instead of simply reacting to the crisis of the day; choosing to be responsible; choosing to set the right priorities; choosing to instill confidence in others by keeping your word and standing firm when the going gets rough.

That's what the world expects from America, and from its President. But they're not finding it. Today there is a leadership crisis. Major issues have been ignored. The standards have been lowered. There is a sinking feeling that the greatest nation on earth simply lacks the will and the credibility to lead.

It's quite a reversal from seven years ago: America had just emerged from the Cold War. Our political, economic, and military influence was unequaled. Our economic system had been exported to much of the world, leading to the broadest prosperity in history. We faced no global rival or significant hostile alliance. The Presidency was every inch a position of moral leadership. It was a moment of unparalleled opportunity for America, and for the cause of peace and freedom around the world.

But it was just that--an opportunity. Bill Clinton was handed the most favorable foreign policy cards of any incoming Administration since World War II. One by one, we have watched him fritter away the advantages he inherited.

Americans traveling abroad have found themselves being asked, both by leaders and by ordinary people on the street, "What is going on in your country?" I've been teaching a course at Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, in Phoenix, Arizona. One of my students, a young lady from Africa, told me, "People are laughing at America right now." And you know something else? She wondered why Americans don't seem to get it.

Part of the reason is that the world seems relatively quiet. But is it? Our hopes of bringing the developing world into the prosperous market economies have been staggered by the Asian 'Flu, which is already hurting American farmers and threatens much of the world. The advance of economic and political freedom has been set back in key areas of the world such as Hong Kong and Russia, as well as important parts of the developing world such as Serbia, Malaysia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Japanese economy, the second largest in the world, is flat on its back. Countries such as North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and India have breached the written and unwritten rules governing the spread of nuclear weapons. The Middle East peace process is in disarray. In Russia, the financial structure has collapsed; more doubts arise as to whether true democracy can ever take hold there. We may soon be asking, "Who lost Russia?" The country has 50,000 nuclear weapons--not to mention scientists, technicians, and others who may be tempted to offer their services elsewhere. Or look at China--a country whose leadership openly regards U.S. global preeminence as a threat to its own ambitions. China is building a blue water navy. It could easily become America's most significant foreign policy problem in the future. This is not inevitable, but weak American leadership makes it more likely.

North Korea has violated its pledges under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and last summer fired a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan, our most important ally in Asia. Iran remains, according to the State Department, the number-one sponsor of terrorism.

Then there is Iraq. We know Saddam Hussein has developed useful forms of anthrax as a biological weapon and VX as a chemical weapon. And we know he is determined to build nuclear weapons and continues to hide and develop missiles to carry them. United Nations inspectors can't get in--and, even more troubling, it's now clear that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright herself reined in those very same inspectors as they tried to do their job.

President Clinton launched the recent attack on the day before the impeachment debate began and ended the bombing on the day the vote was taken. The goals were never clear. And the enemy, Saddam Hussein, declared victory afterward. In sharp contrast to the coalition of Arabs and Europeans assembled for Operation Desert Storm, this time only Britain stood at our side as we tried to contain Saddam Hussein.

As you can see, a lot is happening in the world. And all these concerns are heightened because of the lack of leadership by the United States. And what can be said today of the moral authority of the Presidency? It has been completely squandered. In my debate with Al Gore in 1992, I repeatedly raised the question of whether Bill Clinton could be trusted. I ask it again, this time with a concrete example. Suppose the national security team came to the considered judgment that Saddam Hussein must be removed from power. Suppose President Clinton began contacting Arab states, Israel, allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and others to enlist their support. Would they trust him? Would they take risks to get behind him? Would they believe his promises? If you were in their position, would you?

That's where we are today. Americans are a confident, optimistic people. But on the question of national security, the leadership crisis has turned confidence into complacency. Foreign policy and defense were the orphans of American politics in the last two national campaigns--though, to be fair, my former colleague, Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN), tried to raise these issues during the 1996 primaries and was right to do so. Too much is at stake for us to continually put serious matters out of sight and out of mind. I intend to make that case in the months to come, particularly as it relates to three issues: terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the drawing-down of the U.S. military.


I'm dismayed at the low level of attention that's given to the issue of terrorism. We know the threat is there. We had the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19 Air Force personnel and injuring hundreds of others. We had the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year, with 200 dead. Oklahoma City and TWA Flight 800 did not turn out to be attacks by international terrorists, but Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie was, and it ended the lives of hundreds. The World Trade Center bombing left 6 dead and 1,000 injured. But how many Americans realize that the terrorists' actual plan was to release a cloud of sodium cyanide that had the potential to kill every person in the building?

You don't have to be an alarmist on these matters, only a realist. The world's only Superpower is a possible target of every nut, every rogue dictator, every group with an ax to grind. Again, leadership is about making choices. What are our priorities? What's the most important use of a President's time and prestige? The President should use every tool at his command to get a grip on this problem, and that includes finding new ways to coordinate activities among the National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency. This Administration has held conferences, town hall meetings, lectures, and talkathons ad nauseam. Bill Clinton and Al Gore hyperventilate over the theory--the theory--of global warming. Wouldn't it be nice if they paid half as much attention to the reality of global terrorism?


The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is where we see possibly the most serious cumulative impact of failed leadership. This is especially true when you get into components and the know-how for fielding longer- and longer-range ballistic missiles. We know that ballistic missiles are a lot cheaper than armies or navies; that's why so many countries are trying to get them. We also know that the Clinton Administration has done little to stop the transfers that have taken place between such states as Russia and Iran.

We further know that the Clinton Administration has consistently downplayed the ballistic missile threat, even as we've watched North Korea deploy--and as we will soon watch Iran deploy--missiles capable of hitting Japan, U.S. servicemen in Northeast Asia, and targets throughout the Middle East. In 1995, the Administration estimated that these missiles would pose no conceivable threat to the United States for at least 15 years. It's now clear, thanks to the recent report of the bipartisan Rumsfeld Commission, that the ballistic missile threat could materialize within 5 years--and that the warning time could be virtually zero.

These are the facts. To start with the obvious, it is time for a focused effort to develop and deploy effective missile defenses. A short-term response is already available. As The Heritage Foundation's Team B panel on missile defense pointed out almost four years ago, we can modify the ship-borne Aegis anti-missile defenses of the Navy to intercept ballistic missiles.

But the next step is to develop a national missile defense system. Some will object that doing so would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the old Soviet Union. Let me offer a very simple question: Should our ability to defend ourselves be short-circuited by a treaty signed in a completely different era--with a second party that is now literally nonexistent?

It's a sign of how far we've fallen that more fidelity is shown to a piece of paper signed with a state that no longer exists than to our own Constitution. We should do now what we should have done long ago: declare the ABM Treaty obsolete and exercise our right to withdraw.


This leads me to the larger issue of preserving the strength of the U.S. military. After six years of no leadership, it's time for a reality check. The desired end is to deter future adversaries. The means, frankly, is not just to stay ahead of our competitors. We should aim to be so dominant that no one can possibly compete with us. That's the surest strategy for peace and security. By that standard, how are we doing?

As a percentage of gross domestic product, defense spending is about 3 percent, the lowest level since the isolationist period preceding World War II. After the Cold War, it made sense to re- evaluate national security priorities. But the only discernible theme in the past six years has been cuts, cuts, and more cuts. Under current plans, by 2001 the Army will have been reduced from 18 divisions down to 9 or 10; the Navy from 546 ships down to 300; and the Air Force from 36 fighter wings to half that many.

A key component of U.S. military strategy has been to maintain the capability to fight two regional wars at more or less the same time. The Joint Chiefs of Staff is saying already that there is a "moderate to high risk" that we will be unable to do so. It's already been calculated that, by 2001, the following would be required to carry out a military operation on the scale of Operation Desert Storm: 90 percent of the active Army; two-thirds of our fighter wings and aircraft carriers; and the entire Marine Corps. And we would still be required to maintain a significant military deterrent in Asia, Europe, and other areas of vital interest to the United States.

Part of maintaining the dominance of our military is paying close attention to the technical side. This is not a new issue for me. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1980s, I was concerned about the spread of Soviet-built Scud missile technology around the world and pushed for funding to give the Patriot missile system an anti-missile capability. We got the job done, and the Patriot was there during the Persian Gulf War to shoot down Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles over Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Another subject I worked on in the Senate was the emerging revolution in weapons guidance systems. We knew that, with satellite sensors, on-board computational systems, and propulsion technologies, cruise missiles could be improved to hit their intended targets with pinpoint accuracy.

Remember: the Soviet Union wanted to ban conventional cruise missiles under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. I led a group of Senators determined to keep that from happening. And, as we all understand, the United States has been able to use cruise missiles for many missions that once required putting pilots, sailors, and soldiers in harm's way.

But militarily, you can't stand still. Just as you shouldn't fight the last war, you shouldn't stop preparing the army of tomorrow. We should be preparing now by using our advantage in stealth, sensors, robotics, and information systems to develop a wide range of advanced weapon systems, as well as the operational concepts to use them. The weapons that enabled us to win the Persian Gulf War--from Patriot and cruise missiles to F-117 stealth fighters--were developed over a generation. The Secretary of Defense through most of the Reagan Administration, Caspar Weinberger, has patiently explained that we don't just go to the store and buy the latest technology to defend our country and protect our troops. Technology is the result of years of intensive, and usually expensive, research and development--a category that has taken some serious budgetary hits in the past decade.

On the military procurement side, we've had a 50 percent dropoff since Bill Clinton took office. The military is basically using up the equipment purchased in the 1980s. Early in the next century, 70 percent of all our military aircraft will be 40 years old; three-quarters of the Air Force fleet will be more than 20 years old. We're looking at an imminent defense train wreck in which equipment, platforms, and weapons will need to be replaced across the board.

Twenty years ago, when I was in the House of Representatives, we were talking about the hollow military. What we have today is a depleted military. This year, the President tells us it will be different. But the proposed increase will be far less than what the Joint Chiefs of Staff think is necessary. It will come only as a result of pressure from Republicans in Congress who are worried about the large gap between what we are asking the military to do and the funds needed to equip, train, and operate them. The Clinton Administration is giving us defensive politics, not defense policy.

The Clinton Administration is proposing more pay for the armed forces, and that's fine. But if they think we're losing good people mainly because of the pay, they're wrong. Talk to people you know in the service. Rates of deployment have gone up between 300 percent and 400 percent in the 1990s. Many in the military are over-deployed, overextended, under-appreciated, and at risk of becoming exhausted. And, to be honest, you don't find a high degree of confidence in the Commander in Chief. This is hardly what we need in an institution that is so central to the architecture of peace and security across the globe.

U.S. military superiority has a calming effect on the world. It induces both our friends and enemies to focus their energies and resources elsewhere. It's a key element of support for the international economic system that has so enriched the United States and the rest of the world in recent decades. But when the world senses that the United States no longer is serious about national security, our adversaries take note. Is it any surprise, then, that states like Iraq, North Korea, China, Russia, India, and Pakistan have begun to assert themselves?

Yes, we are beginning to see the consequences of pushing national security concerns to the side. The requirements of American global leadership cannot be handed off to the Secretary General of the United Nations. Terrorism can't be wished away. Weapons proliferation cannot be swept under the rug. There is no substitute for a well-trained and well-armed U.S. military. And there is no substitute for committed, confident, experienced leadership in the White House. And no better way to convey that confidence than to pick tough and talented representatives for America like Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.


Historian David McCullough has observed that

Among the most difficult and important concepts to convey in teaching or writing history is the simple fact that things never had to turn out as they did. Events past were never on a track.

It wasn't inevitable that we were going to win World War II or the Cold War. We prevailed only because we had the determination and the will to do so. And, critically, we had leaders who made a stand for freedom in times of extreme peril.

That's what real leadership is all about. Real leadership understands that, when you make a mistake in the realm of domestic policy, often it can be corrected as early as the next election--if not earlier. When you make a mistake in foreign policy or defense, it can take this country a generation or more to recover. The Vietnam War ended a generation ago, and we're still living with the consequences of the no-win strategy of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara.

The subjects I'm addressing today are not dominating the headlines or the public opinion polls. But real leadership has nothing to do with taking cues from headline writers or poll-takers. It has everything to do with explaining to the people what is at stake, and why they need to care. Real leadership understands that we are writing history today, and that Americans of tomorrow will judge us by our words, by our deeds, and by the choices we make.

In the near future, I will be announcing an important decision concerning my future plans. But I can tell you now: I have already decided to make national security a top priority on the public agenda this year and next. And I will say to the American people that it's time to choose. It's our country. It's our future. We've had six years of misplaced priorities, complacency, cynicism, and slick salesmanship. No more hollow military, hollow promises, hollow policies, and on-the-job training. Let's return to confidence, moral authority, and leadership.

Dan Quayle, 44th Vice President of the United States, is widely considered to have been one of the most active Vice Presidents in history. He made official visits to 47 countries, was chairman of the President's Council on Competitiveness and the National Space Council, and served as President George Bush's point man on Capitol Hill. He is the chairman of Campaign America, a national political action committee.


The Hon. Quayle

Senior Visiting Fellow