Arthur Herman: The Re-Hollowing of the Military

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Arthur Herman is the author, most recently, of Gandhi and Churchill. His recent articles for COMMENTARY include "The 35-Year War on the CIA" (December 2009) and "The Gitmo Myth and the Torture Canard" (June 2009).]

On May 3, 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a speech at the Navy League in Washington to an audience of veterans, retired and current defense-industry executives, and supporters of the tradition of American naval power. Gates gave it to them. He told his audience that the time had come “to re-examine and question basic assumptions” about how their beloved Navy works, “in light of evolving technologies, new threats, and budget realities”—specifically, a federal deficit in the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion.

“Do we really need 11 Carrier Strike Groups for another 30 years,” Gates asked, “when no other country has more than one?” That seafaring strength is a source of pride for Navy League members, as is the United States’s having a navy second to none. The audience’s surprise at hearing the secretary of defense question the value of America’s overwhelming naval predominance as unnecessary soon turned to dismay. “We simply can’t afford to perpetuate a status quo,” Gates told his listeners. By “status quo,” he meant a navy that maintained 11 carriers, 57 submarines, and a battle fleet larger than the next 13 biggest national navies combined.

Five days later, at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, Gates delivered the next salvo in the Obama plan for reducing the size of the U.S. military. Evoking the memory of Ike as the progenitor of -smaller but “bigger bang for the buck” defense budgets in the 1950s, Gates preached the virtue of putting America’s military forces on a strict monetary diet. “The gusher” of defense spending after 9/11 is being “turned off,” he announced, “and will stay off for a good period of time.” Not only will the country be better off not having “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,” he assured listeners, but the military itself will be. “I say the patriot today is the fellow ?who can do the job with less money,” Gates concluded.

Altogether, the Gates Pentagon has slated $300 billion to be axed, including $100 billion in the next five years through reduced overhead and cuts in low-priority programs. And as all this happens, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will grow to spend five federal dollars for every dollar spent on defense.

Tackling fat at the Pentagon is nothing new. -Every president since Eisenhower has looked for a defense secretary who can do more with less by sweeping away costly and unnecessary programs, trimming the bureaucracy, and revamping an obsolete arsenal. John F. Kennedy had his Robert McNamara; Bill Clinton his Les Aspin; George W. Bush his Donald Rumsfeld. Nearly everyone expects that the winding down of Iraq and the lessons learned in the ongoing conflict in -Afghanistan will mean fundamental changes in both our force structure and defense budget.

But the Obama-Gates drawdown signals a more ominous trend—a unilateral shift away from maintaining an American military that is truly second to none toward something far more modest in size and scope. A peacetime drawdown, such as took place after World War II and after the Cold War, is entirely appropriate and to be expected. But imposing one while a war—not one war but two, actually—is ongoing is an innovation, and not a welcome one. For the danger it poses is that Gates’s effort to lay the foundation for a leaner military will instead lead to a permanently reduced U.S. strategic presence. If we follow this course, the U.S. military will be a force more like those of our European allies...

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Scott Stabler - 8/20/2010

How does a carrier group stop terrorists? "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." MLK

Janet Ellingson - 8/17/2010

And what is wrong with a military "more like those of our European allies?" The excuse that we shouldn't decrease the size of the military while we are fighting a war is precisely why we seem to be constantly fighting wars. The military has a huge financial incentive to keep itself at war.