Wednesday, January 13, 2010


During the Bush administration, conservative discussion of America’s war aims and defense policy took a back seat to defending the president against the left’s vitriolic assaults. Conservatives must resist the urge to attack the current administration’s defense policies in kind. Instead, we should now reflect on what America’s defense and foreign policies should be, rather than simply offer a sharp critique of the present.

The Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse ended the Cold War. It also ended the conservative consensus on defense and foreign policy.

President George H.W. Bush’s foreign-affairs team was largely defined by a Nixonian realpolitik ethic, far more concerned with stability and great-power balance, than with the power of liberty and human rights.

Conservatives spent the Clinton administration years largely in opposition to his frequent overseas deployments. Many conservatives also saw Mr. Clinton’s China policy as a thoughtless inertial carryover of the Nixon strategy to bolster China as a Cold War counterweight to the Soviet Union.

George W. Bush came to power in 2001 calling for an end to Clinton’s open-ended nation-building commitments. The response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed that, with the administration soon employing Wilsonian rhetoric extolling the universalism of democratic ideals.

So, where does conservative defense policy in the age of Obama begin?

We need to start from a common understanding that national power is dependent on three basic factors: political, economic and military.

America has had the world’s largest economy for more than 100 years. This economic strength sustains our military power. In 2010, U.S. defense spending will total about 4.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), up from a low of 3 percent 10 years ago, but still less than the 6 percent of GDP at the peak of the Reagan buildup in 1986.

Maintaining defense spending at current levels will be difficult, as federal entitlement spending and debt service have put pressure on budget writers.

Looking at the percentage of GDP applied to defense is useful, but it is just as important to see how we are spending our money. Reagan-era defense budgets invested 45 percent in modernization while day-to-day operations consumed 50 percent. Today’s wartime budget invests 30 percent in modernization while military operations consume 65 percent. This is the result of the decision to spend $1.08 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while lacking the political will to spend as much on defense as we did 25 years ago.

As defense research-and-development and capital spending go, so goes the U.S. defense industry. Talented young engineers are now turning elsewhere for work. Rebuilding our defense industrial base will be more difficult than finding new recruits, and, if our armed forces don’t have the right tools, defending the nation and winning wars will be difficult indeed.

As a result of culture and geography, Mr. Obama’s Afghan surge will likely fall short of its objectives while spending $40 billion per year. Employing conventional forces in pursuit of terrorists and guerrilla forces is always an expensive proposition. Attempting to build nations on soil not yet fertile to the concepts of democracy and national unity is even more problematic. Neither is needed to produce the result we want: deadly consequences for attacking Americans. This can be done with special forces, drones and better human intelligence.

At its peak, the Soviet Union produced a GDP that was only about half (55 percent) what the U.S. produced. The People’s Republic of China passed that mark in 2008. Yet, in spite of this and threats from Iran, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and North Korea, our attention remains fixed on the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With new weapons-systems procurements taking many years, we need to take full measure of the world around us and prepare for the next war so we can prevent it or, failing that, end it on our terms.

Because America is, as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan said, “The last, best hope,” we owe it to our posterity to get defense- and foreign-policy right. Our Founders understood that threats to our Constitution come from within and without. That’s why our elected officials and military officers swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Our national security policies must reflect this oath, being humble enough not to try force the world into our image, but at the same time understanding, as Reagan did, liberty’s compelling hold on the human spirit.

Conservatives must lead a vigorous debate on defense and foreign policy, moving beyond mere criticism of Mr. Obama, whose national security policies offer much to criticize.

Chuck DeVore, a California state assemblyman, was a special assistant for foreign affairs in the Pentagon under President Reagan. He is a lieutenant colonel in military intelligence, U.S. Army Reserve, and was an aerospace-industry executive before election to the Legislature in 2004. He also is running in this year’s U.S. Senate Republican primary in California.

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