Guns vs. butter

Ken Allard Retired U.S. Army Colonel
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Day by day, the Democratic strategy becomes more apparent: Wearied by the post-9/11 decade of war, American voters will favor social spending over national defense in the election of 2012, overwhelmingly choosing butter over guns. According to the America Enterprise Institute’s analysis of the 2012 national security budget, this year defense spending will drop to 2.5% of GNP ($531B) while entitlement spending (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) will exceed $2 trillion.

Or to be more specific:

● Iraq? We’re outta there.

● Afghanistan? We’re leaving by 2014 but, who knows, maybe even earlier (wink).

● Iran? Hey, we’ve got Israel’s back so all that nasty “war talk” suddenly vanished. OK, maybe Iran’s centrifuges are still turning but gas prices are down so no worries there either until after the election.

● Mexico? So what if there’s some violence on the border! It’s hot, dusty and a long way from anything important. We built up the Border Patrol and what more do you want — a moat?

● Oh, yeah, we just unveiled a whole new defense strategy for the 21st century built around a “strategic pivot” toward the Pacific! Pentagon insiders call it “Air-Sea Battle” because we can win with our advanced technology instead of those messy ground forces. Now won’t that be nice?

And for many Americans, it may well be. But it’s a funny thing about guns and butter: If you get that calculus wrong, you can easily wind up with neither. History offers formidable examples beginning with that sardonic Roman aphorism, Si vis pacem, para bellum: If you would have peace, then prepare for war. More recent examples — from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 — invariably reveal a common factor: We just find it terribly hard to predict our wars, much less their consequences. The American history of willful innocence in the face of relentlessly stubborn facts recalls that wonderful Yiddish proverb: Want to make God laugh? Then tell him your plans.

One place they are not laughing is in the House Armed Services Committee. The House is of course the place where budgets first harden into policy. In a presidential election year already being likened to that of 1860, this is also where the battle lines are being drawn. HASC Chair Buck McKeon has taken an unusually public stance to underline the impact of those choices not only on the 2012 budget but also what will happen if sequestration takes effect in 2013. A recent Roll Call op-ed McKeon co-authored with House Budgetary Chairman Paul Ryan painted a stark portrait of sequestration’s havoc:

Sequestration would force the greatest Armed Forces in history to its knees, resulting in the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy since 1916, and the smallest Air Force in our history. We would risk ceding our special role in world affairs to countries such as Russia and China, who are both vastly expanding their military power.

Should sequestration occur as scheduled, they point out that 50 percent of its mandated cuts will be taken from defense, which comprises only 20 percent of the federal budget. On the HASC website, McKeon lists the foreseeable effects: transforming “a superpower into a regional power,” imperiling the defense of such vital allies as Taiwan and Israel and even compromising the all-volunteer force. “With a ‘hollow force’ akin to the Carter era, defending our freedom will be harder and cost more in terms of both blood and treasure.”

Think that’s all election-year BS or budgetary one-upsmanship? Then listen to the HASC testimony of JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey, who warned last October that sequestration’s mandatory across-the-board cuts, “… would wreak havoc on our programs and policies. Together, we need to avoid self-inflicted wounds to our nation’s security.” In a May 16 briefing to the Pentagon press corps, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, a highly decorated hero of the Iraqi surge, repeated that sequestration would be “disastrous,” inevitably affecting “every asset that we have in every area” of the Army. General Odierno echoed Dempsey’s concern over the risks entailed by a “hollow force,” a term that invariably brings a shudder to former soldiers like me who remember the impotent Carter era and have vowed “never again.”

The problem is that there are fewer and fewer soldiers or voters old enough to remember those thrilling days of yester-year when Ronald Reagan finally re-awakened an America that had fallen soundly asleep at the switch. Recalling that part of our shared national experience is what elections and electoral campaigns are supposed to be all about — educating people about choices and their consequences. In general, the Republicans have failed to do that thus far, despite the valiant efforts of leaders like Buck McKeon and Paul Ryan. Not to worry — or at least not yet. There is plenty of time until fateful choices have to be made at the ballot box. And if history is any guide to our future, Dame Chance and Lady Fortune (maybe disguised in a sombrero or even a turban) are likely to have their usual impact in determining our next commander-in-chief and the platform he must defend.

Colonel (Ret.) Ken Allard rose from draftee to Dean of the National War College. A former military analyst for NBC News, he is a prolific writer on national security issues.