Here’s a question I might suggest be asked of our presidential hopefuls: In a time of war, would unilateral disarmament be a good idea?
Here’s how I might suggest they reply: This is a time of war, stupid. We have troops in Afghanistan and (again) in Iraq. Perhaps, as President Obama appears to believe, “engagement” will transform Iran from a revolutionary terrorist sponsor into an upstanding member of the “international community” but, for now, “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” remain among the openly proclaimed goals of its rulers.
North Korea — nuclear-armed despite a 1994 agreement that President Clinton assured us would lead Pyongyang to “freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program” — is developing missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to distant targets (such as Los Angeles). China has been waging cyber-attacks on the United States — with impunity. Having taken slices of Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be preparing to test NATO’s mettle in the Balkans.
I would further suggest that the candidates stress what an unpardonable error it would be to intentionally diminish our military capabilities given these threats. And oh, yes, by the way: Diminishing our military capabilities is the current policy of the Obama administration, and it has the acquiescence, and in some cases the support, of many Republicans in Congress. The American military today is smaller than it was before the “Pearl Harbor” of Sept. 11, 2001 — with more shrinkage on the governmental to-do list.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, outgoing U.S. Army chief of staff, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week that “the current environment demands” an active-duty Army of 490,000 troops, but that “the Budget Control Act of 2013, also known as sequestration, has already forced us to reduce Army forces to 450,000.” He added that the United States does not have an Army “sized, equipped and prepared to meet the uncertain security challenges that lie ahead.”
A question I might pose to reporters covering the race for the presidency: Do you not think America’s military unpreparedness matters as much as Donald Trump’s rude outbursts or Bernie Sanders’ outrage over the fact that some people in America make a lot more money than others?
There’s more: Over recent years, the U.S. had been developing increasingly sophisticated weapons of economic warfare. The term generally used, “sanctions,” can be misleading. Just as not all firearms are alike — there’s a difference between a .22-caliber handgun and a .50-caliber sniper rifle — not all sanctions are alike.
The relatively mild sanctions imposed on Cuba beginning in 1961 were essentially an expression of disapproval for the dictatorial Castro regime — a regime that the Obama administration is now rewarding even though it is unreformed, unrepentant and, in recent days, has been arresting scores of dissidents.
Significant economic pressures had been placed on Iran. Then, in late 2013, an “interim” agreement was concluded. It substantially relieved those pressures. It then became impossible to do what some members of Congress planned: to increase the pressure until such time as Iran’s rulers would see their economy being crippled and their regime threatened with collapse. Might they then have agreed to verifiably dismantle their nuclear weapons program? We’ll never know.
The “comprehensive” agreement currently being reviewed by Congress disables America’s economic weapons in return for an Iranian promise to delay that program for a decade or so. President Obama claims it will be possible to “snap back” sanctions in response to Iranian cheating or increasing Iranian support of terrorism utilizing the billions of dollars scheduled to pour into Tehran’s coffers.
But Mark Dubowitz, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has noted that Paragraphs 26 and 37 of the agreement give Iran “nuclear snap backs.” They make clear that if sanctions are re-imposed — for any reason — Iran will have the right to walk away from its nuclear obligations, pocketing whatever financial concessions have been granted up to that point. Paragraph 29 requires the United States and the European Union to do nothing to interfere with “normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.”
Why would American negotiators agree to such concessions? They apparently believe that talking softly while carrying no military or economic sticks is all that’s necessary to achieve “conflict resolution.” With Canada or Australia, that’s probably true. But Iran, Russia, China and North Korea are different. Have multiculturalism and “moral equivalence” blinded America’s leaders to that reality?
Perhaps, because while many American leaders continue to give lip service to the imperative of “peace through strength,” few seem to understand the paradox implied: The best way to avoid war is to prepare for war and to convince your enemies you are not afraid to go kinetic. Credible threats are effective threats. Implausible threats are bluffs — bluffs that are likely to be called.
And, should war break out, fortune favors the prepared and well-armed. Conversely, a nation in retreat, a nation intent on weakening itself, a nation that declares itself “war-weary,” will prove irresistible to empire-builders.
I, for one, would like to know which presidential candidates understand these concepts or at least recognize that a war no less serious than the Cold War is underway and that unilaterally disarming is precisely the wrong response. I’d even like to hear what Bernie and the Donald have to say on this score.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.