November 21, 2007

November 21, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East

Report and Retort: A Weak America is an Unsafe America

Ted Galen Carpenter's November 15 article in National Interest online suggested that The Heritage Foundation is out of line in proposing to spend 4 percent of America's GDP on national defense.

In response I would offer the following:

If Heritage was being arbitrary in choosing 4 percent as the right minimum level for defense spending, then so was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he said the same thing in October at a press conference at the Pentagon. If Mr. Carpenter wants documentation of the need to spend a minimum of 4 percent, he may want to consider the writings of Baker Spring of Heritage, who has meticulously shown about a $40 billion per year gap between projected levels of defense spending and what is actually necessary to fund the modernization programs which the military needs. Closing that gap would bring spending up to 4 percent of GDP-hence the advocacy by Heritage and others of a "4 percent" solution to protect American security.

There is no real dispute within the defense community over the need to increase defense funding substantially. America's current inventory of military "platforms"-ships, planes and tracked vehicles-is old and increasingly unreliable. The reason is that the military's capital budget has been systematically underfunded since the Cold War ended.1 Unless America's defense inventory is recapitalized over the next decade, the United States will lose its military predominance. The real debate is therefore not whether additional money is necessary for that purpose, but whether American military predominance is still necessary in the post-Cold War era.

Before Mr. Carpenter and others conclude reflexively that it is not, they should consider the views of our European allies (who whatever their opinion of George W. Bush want a strong America) and the interventionist history of the Clinton Administration-consider Bosnia, for example. The real question is whether any coherent foreign policy-even a left wing foreign policy-is possible without the foundation of American power. The left wing alternative to the current engagement in Iraq, for example, was not isolation from the region but the indefinite presence of a substantial part of America's Army and Air Force stationed in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for the purpose of containing Saddam Hussein. In a world of bad actors, even a foreign policy emphasizing peace, human rights, foreign aid, cultural diversity and international cooperation depends on American power as a stabilizing influence.

The biggest danger in defense and foreign policy is allowing ideology to trump reality- trying to force circumstances on the ground to fit preexisting beliefs rather than adjusting one's beliefs to fit circumstances on the ground. We live in a multipolar world with threats that are highly unpredictable and therefore, taken as a whole, more dangerous than the threats we faced during the Cold War. There is no conceivable scenario in which a weak America is a safe America. Even isolationists should understand the importance of military power. In the end, it would take a lot more than 4 percent of our GDP to defend a "Fortress America"-an America that allows dangers to fester and grow until they are strong enough to attack us in our homeland.

Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow in military affairs at the Heritage Foundation. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993-2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002-2007). He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four years, chairman of the committee's Seapower Committee.

1 For a review of that history, see my article from the March 5, 2007, edition of National Review.

Original article on National Interest online

About the Author

Jim Talent Distinguished Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in the National Interest Online