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President Obama is shrinking America’s armed forces, and his admirers say: “Why not?” The U.S. always draws down its military forces at the end of wars. Just look at what happened after World War II, Vietnam and the end of the Cold War. Mr. Obama, they say, is merely adjusting America’s defense posture to the “strategic realities” of postwar peace.  

There’s just one problem. Where’s the peace? The International Institute for Strategic Studies counts 46 armed conflicts underway. The Middle East is a caldron of instability. China is flexing its muscles against our allies in the East and South China seas. And the U.S. and Russia are in a Cold War-like standoff over Ukraine, as Russia amasses thousands of tanks and troops on its border.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper testified that, in 50 years of intelligence experience, he’s never seen “a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe,” including “the diversification of terrorism, loosely connected and globally dispersed into more than 1,500 groups.” The Global Terrorism Database logged more than 8,400 terrorist attacks in 2012, a record.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Defense Intelligence Agency director, calls cyberwarfare a “persistent threat to our ability to plan, prepare and ready our forces for future conflicts,” and weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles a “grave and enduring threat.”

If this is an era of peace, our foes aren’t buying it.

How, then, can the Pentagon say it can draw down U.S. forces and still “defeat or deny any aggressor” — especially when its Quadrennial Defense Review acknowledges that a “smaller force strains our ability to simultaneously respond to more than one major contingency at a time”? What if North Korea decides to attack South Korea at the same time China moves against one of the islands held by Japan, or Russia decides ethnic Russians in NATO ally Latvia deserve the same “protection” as those in Crimea? Would existing U.S. military strategy require writing off any of those scenarios?

Don’t think that major military challenges can never strike at the same time. In World War II, the U.S. had to split its forces to fight the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. From 1992 to 1996, the U.S. military was enforcing no-fly zones in Iraq and Bosnia and involved in operations in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia, the Central African Republic, Kuwait and elsewhere.

Surprising events happen all the time in world affairs. It’s irresponsible, not to mention unprecedented in recent American history, to make “hoping for the best” the official U.S. military strategy.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledges that the cuts come with risks. What he means is that we may not be able to protect ourselves or allies if attacked, and if we try, our fighting men and women will likely suffer far higher casualties than necessary.

Yet the administration puts forward rosy assumptions that suggest we can manage with a much smaller force — our allies would step up their spending on defense, for example, or our forces will be more technologically advanced to compensate. This isn’t planning for unforeseen events; it’s seeing circumstances perfectly well and choosing not to deal with them.

There’s plenty of blame to go around: Not only the administration, but many in Congress have allowed America’s defenses to weaken. Democrats hold the defense budget hostage to demands for higher taxes, while Republicans let about half the sequester cuts come from national security budgets.

Despite the claims of those who want less defense spending, there’s no iron law of history to justify it. There is only political calculation. War-weary and eager to spend more on domestic programs, Washington is choosing to gamble with national security. It’s a strategic choice, which our leaders pretend is easier to make than it really is. That’s the “strategic reality” we really face.

 - Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in the Washington Times

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