BOLTON: Why Tea Party should resist gutting defense

Automatic cuts would undermine constitutionally mandated mission

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Two recent, seemingly unrelated events weigh heavily on the question of whether America will remain able to protect its national security or languish in failed policies and a federal debt crisis that has led to our credit rating being downgraded.

First was the downing by Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan of a Chinook helicopter carrying members of Navy SEAL Team 6, inflicting the greatest loss of life ever suffered by that elite military unit.

Second was the appointment of a bipartisan congressional “supercommittee” charged with finding $1.5 trillion in spending cuts. If the committee fails to do so, a “trigger” in the debt deal will force mandatory across-the-board cuts, half to come from defense.

This would mean cutting $500 billion to $600 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade. Those cuts would take place without respect to risk assessments or security needs, in spite of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; an increasingly menacing Iran intent on possessing nuclear weapons, as North Korea already does; an “Arab Spring” that may lead to a destabilized Middle East; and an ongoing global war on terrorism.

Many Tea Party supporters opposed the debt deal because they thought the spending cuts were largely illusory, postponed well into the deal’s later years. But now, with the deal in place, Tea Party activists and their allies must make clear that it undermines national defense, one of the few powers our Founders saw as truly critical for the federal government.

The Tea Party has had a major impact on Washington, shifting the terms of the national debate from how much to spend to how much to cut. This is a significant achievement. American liberty is only as strong as our ability to defend it, and a hollowed-out military is a disservice to both the cause of freedom and the Framers’ vision of the Constitution.

The Constitution clearly lays out the federal government’s responsibility to “provide for the common defense.” Of the 18 paragraphs in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, enumerating the powers the Congress, six - fully one-third - explicitly bear on national defense. Article II states expressly, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States [when in federal service].”

In Federalist No. 41, James Madison explained, “Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.” To treat national defense as just another wasteful government program is not only unwise policy, it runs counter to the Framers’ basic constitutional priorities.

Madison explained further in Federalist No. 45 that the national government’s muscular exercise of its responsibility for national security made it less likely to infringe on the liberties of the people or the states. “The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense,” he argued, “the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.”

It makes no sense to put our military on the chopping block when any objective analysis shows the real culprit is entitlement spending. The Heritage Foundation predicts that between 2010 and 2015, total defense spending will fall from 4.9 percent to 3.6 percent of gross domestic product. Meanwhile, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid surpassed defense spending in 1976 and have grown unchecked since. These three programs alone risk completely crowding out the government’s primary constitutional obligation: defending our country.

That brings me back to the tragic loss of Navy SEALS recently in Afghanistan. This attack should have been a wake-up call to those who think special operations are fail-safe and the war on terrorism can be won on the cheap. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some in Washington believe we can fight guerrillas with a hollowed-out military geared toward special operations. But the elite forces that target terrorists on dangerous night missions require next-generation attack helicopters to transport them, drones to track the enemy, fighter aircraft like the F-18 and the F-35 to protect them, modern tankers to refuel the jets and bombers providing air support, and sophisticated command-control communications and intelligence systems to support them. Cutting those programs will leave our best soldiers, sailors and Marines sitting ducks in the most dangerous parts of the world.

George Washington said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” He was right, and his wisdom should inspire Tea Party members and other conservatives to oppose gutting our military.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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