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• North Korea attacks our ally South Korea with apparent impunity and now threatens war because Seoul has taken the incident to the U.N. Security Council.

These are not the actions of nations confident in or respectful of American power and leadership.

But the brightest warning signal that we are entering the Carter-era redux is the revival of the notion in Washington that U.S. military strength is not all that important. We see it when we “follow the money.”

One of the few federal agencies from which this administration demands “fiscal responsibility” is the Department of Defense. White House spending projections would increase budget outlays for the General Services Administration (by 22 percent), the Treasury Department (35 percent), and foreign aid (18 percent) over the next two years, but cut the defense budget (by 5.5 percent).

Mr. Gates calls for cutting off a “gusher” of defense spending. But the only thing “gushing” here is wasteful domestic spending. The administration may promise future cuts of non-defense spending, but it already has shown through concrete actions where its real priorities are.

Certainly, we should cut wasteful Pentagon spending (Heritage analysts estimate that we could save $32 billion a year in military logistics alone). But that money needs to stay in the defense budget to purchase new weapons and equipment — not to offset hikes in foreign aid or domestic programs.

The real culprits driving our exploding national debt are social entitlements and other domestic spending. Defense spending is one of the few budget areas where spending is actually declining as a percentage of the gross domestic product. Indeed, rising entitlement and domestic spending threatens to crowd out national defense spending more and more.

Americans are rightly outraged because government spending is 1. Too high, and, 2. Misallocated. But national defense is not optional. The U.S. Constitution establishes it as the central responsibility of the federal government.

There is a huge difference between spending taxpayer money to get clunkers off the road and building a missile defense system that protects Americans from nuclear attack. The first is unnecessary and of dubious constitutionality. The second is absolutely necessary and mandated by the Constitution.

We need a strong military and strong American leadership today for the same reasons we needed them in the past: to prevent wars from happening in the first place, and to fight and win them should we fail in that noble endeavor.

Above all, we should remember that declining military strength goes hand in hand with weakness and timidity, which inevitably demoralize allies, repel potential friends, and embolden enemies.

The country paid dearly when Mr. Carter forgot this maxim. We cannot afford to relearn that lesson today.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter@kimsmithholmes.