This editorial appears in Wednesday’s print edition.
The Cold War ended in 1980s after leaders of the Soviet Union realized they weren’t buying more security with unsustainable military spending – just more antagonism abroad and poverty at home.
The United States isn’t in the same hole, but a growing number of defense advocates – people who genuinely care about the nation’s military strength – are recognizing that something’s got to give.
Foremost among them is Robert Gates, who’s stepping down this week as secretary of defense. Serving under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Gates has skillfully outmaneuvered Pentagon power blocs to kill or curb immensely expensive weapons programs – the F-22 Raptor, example – designed to fight large conventional wars.
He’s shifted funding toward special forces and other programs adapted to the conflicts the United States is more likely to face in the near future.
Congressional Republicans – traditionally, the chief champions of the military – are also showing a new willingness to cut back defense spending rather than raise taxes. The flexibility on the Pentagon budget is welcome, even if it flows from rigid absolutism on taxes.
America’s allies, too, must understand that Congress can no longer write blank checks for their security.
Gates startled many Western Europeans three weeks ago when he bluntly told them they aren’t paying enough for their own defense. Some complained that he just didn’t understand their budget problems.
But America has its own budget problems, to say the least, and it doesn’t help that it is bearing far more than its proportionate share of NATO’s burdens. It’s pathetic that all of Western Europe has barely been able to sustain limited air operations against a single, fifth-rate military power – Libya – as the United States has cut back its involvement there.
Gates has proposed that NATO countries combine branches of their armed forces instead of each trying to maintain its own army, navy and air force. That would produce far more bang for the buck than the existing fragmentation of forces.
Britain and France have recently decided to go in together on an aircraft carrier – a fantastic idea. If Western Europeans can open their borders to each other and maintain a common currency, they ought to be able to stretch their own defense budgets with that kind of cooperation.
America can’t afford isolationism, the old temptation to withdraw from the rest of the world and hope our enemies don’t devour too much of it. We also can’t afford to squander a fortune on “defense” that buys too little real security.