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President Obama isn’t in the habit of keeping many promises. But he is doing his best to keep the big one about “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” (even though, during a pre-Super Bowl interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, he denied that he’d said it, pesky video to the contrary notwithstanding.)
This past week’s announcement, using Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as cover, of his intent to cut the military to levels not seen since before World War II is another incremental fulfillment of that promise.
No more of the odious “cowboy diplomacy” practiced by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The president has told us the tide of war is receding, terrorist groups like al Qaeda have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves, and he has pressed the diplomatic “re-set” button with our former implacable enemies so that they no longer want to destroy us.
If you still hear any “death to America” chants, they are coming from a few harmless fringe groups with no more evil intent than Red Sox fans chanting “Yankees suck.”
Besides all that, as Hagel explained, we just can’t afford it. He claimed the cuts are necessary “to sustain our readiness and technological superiority” – you know, kind of like when a bank says it is closing a few branches “to serve you better.”
What a fabulous trade-off it will be – fewer guns, more butter. What’s not to like?
Well, several things.
First, recall that the president has called for an “end to the era of austerity.” Except, apparently, for defense.
Anyone who called for cutting an entitlement program to pre-World War II levels - many didn’t even exist then - would immediately be laughed out of the room. The proposal would be described as “devastating” and “unconscionable,” as “destroying the safety net," etc.
Beyond the hypocrisy is a much larger point: National security is the fundamental safety net.
I’m sure some of my beloved critics will say it is hypocritical for me, a professed small-government advocate, to defend military spending.
Indeed, I do favor limited government. But what I really favor is constitutional government. And the preamble to the Constitution calls for the federal government to “provide for the common defense.” The very next phrase, by contrast, calls for it to “promote (not provide for) the general welfare.”
In other words, provide guns, promote butter. Provide swords, promote plowshares. Or, to make it a bit more current, provide a strong military, promote charitable relief for the poor.
Calls for more spending on food stamps and other entitlements at the expense of defense twist the constitutional mandate upside down.
Defense is the one area where government should be – needs to be – big enough to let everything else exist. Without it, we will no longer have the luxury of debating how much to spend on education, health care and food stamps. Those become trivialities when your national survival is threatened.
I say all this with a major caveat: Defense spending is indeed wasteful and in many cases corrupt, as is the case in government at every level.
I witnessed a bit of that as a junior-level Army officer decades ago, on something as simple as leave. It was laughably easy to game the sign-in and sign-out procedures to gain an extra third to a half as much vacation time as you deserved. But the colonels at the top of my department did it, so everybody else below them did it, too.
Imagine if everybody took only the time off they deserved. Productivity would soar. And that is just one example. Everybody knows the procurement process is larded with waste and corruption.
Cleaning up that corruption would produce a better military for less money – a worthy endeavor. But the president simply wants to shrink it – a more dangerous endeavor.
That leads to the final point: The president and his people can say that a war is over all they want, but it is not over until all sides agree that it is over. Did we somehow miss a surrender ceremony involving the Taliban or al Qaeda?
Sure, we can quit the battlefield. Doing that reminds me of when I was a grade-school kid and another kid started following me home after school, harassing me, demanding that I fight him. This was long before anti-bullying committees existed, and kids were supposed to "work out" stuff like this on their own.
I wasn’t much of a fighter. I told the kid that and even told him I didn’t care that he called me a sissy. None of it mattered.
Finally, one day I threw down my books and went at it with him. Much to my surprise - and his, I’m sure - I knocked the wind out of him and managed to push him down while he was trying to catch his breath. Big moment. All of a sudden he wanted to be my best friend. Only then was it really over.
Sad to say, nations are like that, too, except that they are vastly more dangerous than fifth-graders.
We’ve supposedly learned that lesson multiple times in the past. Looks like we’re going to have to learn it again. We can only hope it won’t be even more painful.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org