Making the Nation More Secure

You'll find charts galore in the 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength, but two at the start of the detailed report are particularly troubling.

One shows the overall state of our military. It's not "very strong" or even "strong," according to the foreign-policy experts who wrote the index, but "marginal" for all branches except one — the Army, which is rated as "weak."

The other chart notes the threats to our vital interests. They range from "elevated" for Iran and Middle East terrorism, to "high" for Russia, China and Afghanistan-Pakistan terrorism, to "severe" for North Korea.

As Al Gore liked to say on the campaign trail, everything that should be down is up, and everything that should be up is down. And it's obvious that the task of turning the situation around will fall to the next president.

True, President Obama has a year to go in office. But when you consider the role his policies have played in creating our deteriorating security situation, it seems unlikely that a last-minute turnaround is imminent.

A 2010 paper from Kim Holmes and James Carafano, both of whom have extensive experience with foreign policy, points to the underlying problem. The president made it clear early on that his administration — unlike others, Republican and Democratic — didn't feel the United States had an "exceptional" role to play among nations. We're just one among many, and should act accordingly.

As a result, the emphasis of the Obama administration would be on "soft power" and diplomacy. If, for example, you wanted to address global crises and security concerns such as nuclear weapons, you would turn more toward treaties and international organizations, not your traditional friends and allies.

You'd be more humble in your state-to-state relations. Downplay your military might. Play a more restrained role on the world stage. To drive the point home, you'd go on an apology tour such as the one President Obama undertook in 2009, then have your press secretary say it made America "safer and stronger."

Mr. Holmes and Mr. Carafano weren't convinced. "These tenets may be well-intentioned, ostensibly to improve America's standing in the world, but they will make America and the world far more insecure," they wrote.

Five years later, with our military degraded and tensions rising worldwide, who can disagree?

Of course, Congress plays a role in this situation. Perhaps its most notable failure is its inability to reduce spending in any meaningful way, which led to the indiscriminate budget cuts that have been undermining our military.

But the president, as commander in chief, is the one who sets the tone and the direction of our foreign policy. He's the one most responsible for ensuring that our military is used wisely. And let's face it, even before the Paris attacks, the need for a substantial change of direction was clear.

One step recommended by Mr. Carafano and other foreign-policy experts is to build enduring alliances with key nations in key regions. That means, among other things, strengthening the special relationship the United States has with Britain, one of our oldest allies. It means reinvesting in our allies in Eastern and Central Europe, the first line of defense when it comes to deterring threats from Russia — which has become more bellicose since its "reset" under the Obama Doctrine.

Another step is to rebuild our military. It's overtaxed, overextended and just plain worn out. Mind you, our troops do an outstanding job, but we're making their job harder than necessary. Spending more is vital, as is instituting reforms to ensure that our defense dollars are spent as efficiently as possible.

Third, we need to promote economic freedom, which tends to increase political freedom. Removing barriers to free trade, for example, can help create a safer and more peaceful world.

The next president has a big job ahead. The prospect of a world with a still-weaker U.S. military and a still-bigger threat aboard is unthinkable.

-Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

This piece first appeared in the Washington Times