President Obama went to the Pentagon for a press conference on premise last week to announce a strategic overhaul of the nation’s military. There is much to commend, and much about which to worry, in the President’s proposals even though we got only the broad outlines. The specifics will doubtlessly contain more worries, but that is the nature of specifics, and they will argue for themselves as the President tries to implement his strategic vision.
The intention to focus more on the Pacific theater and less on the Atlantic one makes obvious sense. Russia is an unlikely military threat and China is using its vast resources to build up its military strength. Additionally, in Europe, NATO is a more or less well-tuned military alliance capable of responding to threats in a way that our partnerships in the Far East are not. Yet, we maintain huge bases in German and Italy and elsewhere, all leftover from the Cold War. Those bases may now serve essentially as intermediate bases between the U.S. mainland and the ever-erupting Middle East, but after years of base closings within the U.S. through the BRAC [base realignment and closure] process, it is past time to look searchingly at which bases in Europe can be closed.
It is also time for some of our allies in Europe to pay a greater share in men, materials, and money, towards their own defense needs. The way the President handled the revolution in Libya is a hopeful indicator of what a more balanced approach to security in the West should look like. The U.S. helped at first but increasingly turned over operations to NATO. Obama was criticized for “leading from behind” but I think most Americans were delighted to let the Europeans take the lead.
Since the end of World War II, America’s military has made its plans with a view towards being able to fight two land wars simultaneously. The President’s new plan alters that calculation, providing essentially for the capability to fight one land war and mount a holding pattern on a second. Critics have suggested that this is short-sighted, that it is not difficult to imagine two wars that threaten America’s national security breaking out simultaneously, and that the President’s plan would leave the U.S. in an awkward position if such events occurred. What would we say to the North Koreans, the critics ask, if they took advantage of U.S. engagement in, say, Iran to create mischief in the Pacific: Could you wait until we are finished? But, this is an argument with no endpoint: It is not inconceivable that a war could break out in Iran and another in Pakistan and a third in Korea. Should we therefore mount a capability to fight three ground wars?
Like other sectors of the federal payroll, an increasingly large amount of funds goes to the benefit packages we extend to our troops. Lord knows our soldiers and veterans deserve our respect and that such respect should take the form of an exceedingly generous package of health care and retirement options for those who have risked their lives for the rest of us. It remains a scandal that some military families live in poverty: Many military families qualify for food stamps! On the other hand, the provisions for early retirement seem excessive. Perhaps, after twenty years in the military, instead of a full-retirement package, veterans could spend another ten years in the reserves to qualify for a full-retirement package, simultaneously providing a cadre of experience soldiers who could serve as a kind of strategic reserve should two wars break out as the critics fear. Perhaps, after twenty years, veterans could bring their skills to bear in other parts of the federal government for a decade in order to garner the full retirement package. I am sure others will have other ideas how to trim the military payroll that are good for the budget and fair to those who risk so much on our behalf.
The biggest problem I have with the President’s proposals is a political one: It did not seek to restore the idea that partisan politics stops at the water’s edge and foreign policy be considered bi-partisan by nature. That bi-partisan consensus began to shatter during the Vietnam War, it received more blows from Ronald Reagan’s forays into Central America, and it was only partially restored by George H.W. Bush’s first Iraq War and Bill Clinton’s better-late-than-never intervention in the Balkans. But, the second Iraq War destroyed any sense of bi-partisan commonality as Republicans embraced certain neo-conservative ideas about the ease of nation-building and some Democrats became increasingly isolationist. The U.S. handling of the Libyan revolution – balanced, limited, successful – should have brought at least some nods of approval from the Republicans, but they just can’t bring themselves to applaud this President for anything. That does not absolve him from the need to keep trying. It would have been a smart move to discuss these proposed changes with some leading Republicans in the Congress like Sen. Lugar of Indiana and Sen. McCain, solicit their input and try and devise proposals that they would endorse. I have not seen any evidence of such an effort although there might have been one behind the scenes. If so, it needs to come out from behind the scenes. It would be a great contribution to the future of America if President Obama were to restore a sense of bi-partisanship to our foreign policy and there are some Republican statesmen with whom such bi-partisanship is possible.
Certianly, many on the left have been disappointed that President Obama’s foreign and military policies have not represented the kind of drastic break with his predecessors they sought. Conversely, his Republican challengers continually, and falsely, charge that the President doesn’t care about American exceptionalism the way they do, that he is always “apologizing” for America when he goes abroad. There is not a scintilla of evidence of the apology thesis and as for American exceptionalism, perhaps the reason President Obama does not need to talk about it so much is because, in his person, he represents it. The rest of the world noticed that America, only fifty years away from the legal demise of Jim Crow, elected a black man with a funny name and that such a political result tells us more about American exceptionalism than any neo-con speech ever could.
But, back to the left’s disappointment. No president should think foreign policy is his or her own private plaything. No president should break with the policies of his predecessors too abruptly – and no president should adopt policies that would warrant such an abrupt break! The president is not the president of the left or the right, but the president of the nation and when he travels abroad, he represents us all. It is difficult to fault President Obama for the increasingly shrill partisanship in Washington, but he should take every opportunity to engage those Republicans who are not allergic to engagement on issues of foreign policy and military matters. It is not evident that he created such an opportunity here.
There will always be differences of opinion about budget cuts, which weapons systems should be developed and which ones scrapped, about what part of the world represents a greater or lesser threat. But, getting any of those matters right or wrong is less important than fashioning a bipartisan consensus on foreign and military policy again. To borrow a metaphor from the Church, you may or may not agree about this decision or that appointment, but rarely does an issue rise to the level of rivaling the prior, foundational need for all in the Church to enflesh the Lord's prayer that "all may be one." The same holds for families: your wife may be right, or she may be wrong, but it is rarely more important to be right than it is to keep on good terms with your wife! Democrats and Republicans need to work together, especially on foreign policy and military decisions. Our commitment to our troops is one of the few things about which we all agree in this great, disputatious nation of ours. It is time to build on that commitment in ways that reflect what we share, and not what divides us.