Government’s First Duty: Liberty Requires Defense

THERE IS A GROWING MISCONCEPTION in the fiscally focused salons around the country that all federal spending is more or less equal, and that it doesn’t matter too much what gets cut in order to close the federal deficit—so long as something gets cut. A robust national defense, says this thinking, is but one of the luxuries America cannot afford right now, as dispensable as, say, subsidies for wealthy farmers.

This formulation is reflected in the setup of Congress’s most recent deficit-reduction effort—a project that is charitably characterized as not a plan, but a plan to have a plan. In August, as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, Congress established a bicameral committee to propose measures that would reduce federal deficits by $1.2 trillion cumulatively over 10 years. As an inducement to reaching agreement, the deal stipulated that failure to come up with that amount of deficit reduction would trigger automatic cuts (called sequesters) to make up the difference. Half of those sequesters would come from the defense budget.

On November 21, this bicameral committee announced that it would not be able to find agreement on a plan to cut the deficit. Those automatic cuts to the defense budget will therefore take place unless Congress passes a law repealing them.

As a general rule, you can never have too many citizens thinking carefully about the proper size of government. However, first must come thinking about the proper scope of government. You don’t need much history to realize that, human nature being what it is, wars and other sorts of organized violence occasionally happen. Individuals cannot enjoy life or liberty or even pursue happiness without some protection from that violence. Since individuals cannot provide that protection very effectively on their own, government exists with the primary purpose to provide it for them. Governments that do not do that, in fact, have little reason to exist. Or, as Ronald Reagan put it: “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.”

Whether they realize it or not, those who want to balance the federal checkbook using the “haircut” method (cut a little bit everywhere in order to spread the pain) make common cause with those whose real motivation is not budgetary at all. That alternative motivation is to use defense cuts to redefine America’s role in the world from one of engagement to timid withdrawal. They believe an America unprepared for war is more likely to avoid war.

This attitude has influenced U.S. policy on other occasions, too—and with disastrous results. The United States has a tendency to disarm following military conflict. It happened after World War I, when America regarded European affairs with disinterest. That disposition, combined with the power vacuum left by a declining British empire, allowed Hitler’s Germany to pursue expansionist policies unchecked until it was too late to avoid a world war.

More recently, the United States cut military spending drastically following the end of the Cold War. The Clinton Administration reduced the entire military—its forces and equipment—by fully one-third under the assumption that the end of the Cold War meant a lasting peace. The 1990s “procurement holiday” left the military with outdated technologies and platforms. The “peace dividend,” meanwhile, has now been spent several times over.

What the Founding Generation Learned from Experience

The temptation to think the country can be safe without a ready military first befell the Founding generation. The revolutionary firebrand and later governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry, represented this point of view eloquently. Thinking that distance and an ocean protected the country from Europe and obviated the need for an army and a navy, Henry declared: “You may sleep in safety forever from them.”

Pacifist sentiment in early America also emanated from the radical ideas of the European Enlightenment, which held that it was possible to abolish international conflict and, with intentional effort, establish perpetual peace in the world. These ideas belonged not only to philosophers or a fringe few. In December of 1815, the Reverend Noah Worcester founded the Massachusetts Peace Society to promote international arbitration of conflict and a “confederacy of nations” to prevent wars from occurring. The Society counted among its members the Massachusetts governor and lieutenant governor, two judges, and Harvard’s president and faculty members.

“Let us recollect that peace or war will not always be left to our options; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation or hope to extinguish the ambition of others.”

Other Founders knew better. Alexander Hamilton described those who held these views as “visionary or designing men, who stand ready to advocate the paradox of perpetual peace.” To base the country’s future security on their notions would be to unrealistically “calculate on the weaker springs of human character.” Nevertheless, civic groups formed throughout the American states based on these utopian ideas. Their continued influence prompted James Madison to note gravely: “A universal peace, it is to be feared, is in the catalogue of events, which will never exist but in the imaginations of visionary philosophers, or in the breasts of benevolent enthusiasts.”

Like the ideas undergirding the Constitution itself, the Founders approached foreign policy with a realistic assessment of human nature and the nature of international relations. “Let us recollect,” wrote Hamilton, “that peace or war will not always be left to our options; that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation or hope to extinguish the ambition of others.”

According to Madison, “Security against foreign danger … is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.” Without an adequate degree of military strength, America would not remain secure or maintain the independence necessary to conduct its own foreign policy. And in his 1790 address to Congress, President George Washington advised:

Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite.

But it was not until the United States had fought numerous wars during its first three decades that the counsel of Washington, Madison, and Hamilton became accepted as settled policy. The first such lesson came from the disastrous defeats to native Indian tribes in the Northwest Indian War. Congress decided that a standing army was necessary after all, and soon U.S. troops achieved victory on the frontier at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

Not long after, in 1797, the Revolutionary French Directory issued a decree directing French warships to target American commerce. President John Adams decided “to equip the frigates, and provide other vessels” for a navy capable of defending American merchants against the French. In response to the coercive acts of European powers, a cry went up from the American people: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” In the atmosphere of national alarm and indignation, Congress passed a defense program that included provisions for harbor and coastal fortifications, troops, and more warships.

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson sent the navy to protect American commerce from the Barbary Corsairs in the Tripolitan War. By this time, America had a small but effective navy. America’s land defenses, however, were woefully lacking, despite repeated presidential requests for more troops, training, and fortifications.

In 1812, President James Madison and Congress decided to declare war on Great Britain for its violations of American sovereignty. For years, the British Navy had taken thousands of American sailors from U.S. ships and forced them to serve in the British Navy. Americans believed that they had to fight or risk losing their hard-won independence, but in material terms America was unprepared to fight a war with the British Empire.

In August 1814, a British Army led by General Robert Ross landed on the shores of Maryland eager to conquer the American capital. The cheap American gunboats and undisciplined militia provided by Congress provided no defense. Within 11 days, the British had captured the American capital. British troops burned the Houses of Congress, the White House, and the Library of Congress.

The Americans, however, achieved some successes, too. Earlier investments in the navy paid off with a few spectacular, if strategically insignificant, naval victories by the ships built during the Washington and Adams administrations. The British attack on Baltimore, for example, failed because the British could not take Fort McHenry, which had been built with the funds appropriated by Congress per Washington’s request in 1794.

Great Britain and the United States negotiated a peace in 1814. The war had impressed on Congress how important it was to maintain a strong Navy. Shortly after the war, Congress authorized the building of three new 74-gun heavy warships and two new 44-gun frigates. That program was following in 1816 by authorization of a longer term buildup that included nine new ships of the line and 12 new heavy frigates.

The Barbary pirates, who had resumed attacks on American ships during the War of 1812, also witnessed the shift in America’s approach to defense. Not only did President Madison dispatch a squadron to force the Barbary States to cease demanding tribute from American ships, he directed the Navy to maintain a permanent presence off the North African coast following the Barbary capitulation.

In addressing Congress, Madison noted the “important considerations which forbid a sudden and general revocation of the measures that have been produced by the war.” Madison requested that Congress authorize long-term defense programs, because “a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters in the onset, but affords also security for the continuance of the peace.”

America’s early statesmen clearly held a long-term perspective and favored robust and sustained investment in the military. The lessons they taught, however, have been forgotten occasionally. Will today be another learning period?

Today’s Threats

Pirates again threaten international shipping. Only this time the threat emanates from Somalia against ships in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, rather than from North Africa against ships in the Mediterranean. And there are plenty of other threats.

Weapons of Mass Destruction. According to the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, terrorists are likely to develop and deploy a weapon of mass destruction as early as 2013.

Afghanistan. One hundred thousand American troops are currently struggling to accomplish an ill-defined mission in Afghanistan with an artificial deadline to depart the country. Pakistani cooperation against the Taliban remains uncertain, and the Karzai government is an increasingly unreliable partner in the effort. Success is possible in Afghanistan—assuming success is defined as stabilizing the country and creating a government that can contribute materially to its own security. But even the Obama administration is tacitly admitting that this will take a number of years to achieve and will require a substantial number of American troops on the ground for a long time.

China. The Chinese are deliberately developing the capability to exclude the United States from freedom of operation within the Western Pacific Ocean. They seek to keep the U.S. military as far as possible from their economic center of gravity (along their coast), as well as to underscore their control over the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea. China has now unveiled a new stealth fighter, confirming what a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report from a year ago found: The situation in the air over the Taiwan Strait is steadily shifting against Taiwan. This report comes as the United States dithers on selling new F-16C/Ds to Taiwan. The Pentagon’s latest report to Congress on Chinese military power notes that “China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise-missile program in the world,” may have already begun construction of an aircraft carrier, and is building new attack submarines equipped with advanced weapons. China is also developing an anti-ship ballistic missile with a maneuverable warhead and range of more than 900 miles.

North Korea has threatened to weaponize all of its plutonium and build more nuclear weapons, abandoned all previous disarmament pledges, vowed to “never return” to the Six-Party talks, launched several missiles in violation of U.N. resolutions, conducted a nuclear test, threatened the safety of civilian airliners, and abrogated the Korean War armistice and all bilateral agreements with South Korea.

North Korea. In early 2009, many expected the incoming Obama administration to achieve a breakthrough with North Korea in the Six-Party Talks. But Pyongyang quickly scuttled those hopes. North Korea threatened to weaponize all of its plutonium and build more nuclear weapons, abandoned all previous disarmament pledges, and vowed to “never return” to the Six-Party talks. North Korea also launched several missiles in violation of U.N. resolutions; conducted a nuclear test; abrogated the Korean War armistice and all bilateral agreements with South Korea; threatened war against the United States, South Korea, and Japan; threatened the safety of civilian airliners; and closed its border, holding hundreds of South Koreans hostage. Since then, it has engaged in even deadlier provocations. In 2010, it conducted two unprovoked acts of war: sinking the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March and rocketing South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November.

Iran. Iran continues to be the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. The Iranian regime is closely allied with Syria (another state sponsor of terrorism), regularly supplies terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah with rockets and other arms, foments instability throughout the Middle East, and is hated and distrusted by its neighbors. According to the latest round of documents released by WikiLeaks, the Iranians have already acquired advanced missiles from North Korea. Tehran’s aggressiveness will certainly increase substantially if it succeeds in its efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Russia. Russia, an increasingly illiberal democracy at home, has also behaved badly abroad. Russia has provided ballistic missile technology and advanced weaponry to countries like Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. Russia’s intelligence operations, including sleeper cells, against the United States are as robust as during the peak of the Cold War. Russia has made questionable territorial claims in the Arctic, and is actively modernizing its military, including its nuclear forces.

A host of additional threats have the potential to grow more severe, including drug-related violence in northern Mexico; Venezuela’s military buildup (being carried out with the support of Iran and Russia); and failing states such as Yemen and Somalia.

The Danger of Budget-Driven Defense Policy

No place in the world is getting safer for the United States. None of America’s enduring national interests are more secure today than they were even a short time ago. Yet, Washington has failed to examine the changing nature of America’s vital interests and assess how better to develop and sustain the capabilities necessary to protect them. American foreign policy has been drifting since the end of the Cold War. In the absence of strategic clarity, budget considerations have driven defense policy, rather than the other way around.

To cut defense responsibly, the country must first decide which of its commitments abroad can be abandoned safely—no easy task, given the threats it faces. While President Obama has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq, he has also given the military new missions.

To cut defense responsibly, the country must first decide which of its commitments abroad can be abandoned safely—no easy task, given the threats it faces. While President Obama has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq, he has also given the military new missions. Over the past three years, the U.S. military has surged its troop commitment to Afghanistan twice, prosecuted a new air war over Libya, delivered humanitarian aid to Japan and Haiti, dramatically ramped up counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia, and even sent ground forces to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.

While defense budgets have risen since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, most of those increases have been spent on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—not on building new capabilities. Ten years of war have degraded much of the military’s equipment.

Meanwhile, the military’s spending plans have been cut over the past three years. The administration has lowered the defense budget by some $750 billion from President Obama’s second defense budget request.

Some have claimed that the sequestration that will take place under the Budget Control Act does not actually cut defense spending, but only lowers the rate of growth. That claim is not correct. The Department of Defense’s base budget (i.e., excluding funding for current operations including Iraq and Afghanistan) was $553 billion in FY 2011 and is projected to be $549 billion in FY 2012. If the full sequestration is implemented, the DOD base budget drops to $491 billion in FY 2013, and then edges up annually but doesn’t recover to the 2011 level until FY 2018. These projections are in current dollars, and therefore do not account for inflation, which would make the relative declines even larger.

The contemplated cuts would require a one-quarter reduction in U.S. Army active duty troops, making the force smaller than before 9/11; leave the Air Force with just one-third of the fighters it had in the 1990s and scant funds to buy next generation aircraft that are far superior in capability; cut the Marine Corps to 1950 levels, compromising its ability to deploy to hot spots quickly; and force the Navy to mothball over 60 ships.

Examining the state of the military in 2010, a bipartisan commission led by President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense and President George W. Bush’s national security adviser concluded last summer that “the aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.”

And it’s likely to get worse. On top of cuts already in effect, the automatic defense cuts set to take effect as a result of the “Super Committee” failing to agree on a deficit reduction plan would irreparably harm the U.S. military and endanger vital U.S. interests. According to a House Armed Services Committee report, the contemplated cuts (about $600 billion over 10 years) would require a one-quarter reduction in U.S. Army active duty troops, making the force smaller than before 9/11; leave the Air Force with just one-third of the fighters it had in the 1990s and scant funds to buy next generation aircraft that are far superior in capability; cut the Marine Corps to 1950 levels, compromising its ability to deploy to hot spots quickly; and force the Navy to mothball over 60 ships, including two carrier battle groups, shrinking it below pre-World War I levels. The United States did not even have an aircraft carrier available at the launch of the Libya no-fly zone operation.


At a time when the federal government has undertaken responsibilities that are constitutionally beyond its reach, it is important to remember that the one constitutionally mandated and primary obligation of government is to keep Americans safe. To do so most effectively and cost-efficiently, the U.S. military’s missions should be driven by America’s vital national security interests and the threats it faces.

Of course, resources are limited. Budgeting, by definition, requires choosing priorities. Judging from current U.S. spending priorities, the country seems to think defense is a luxury. Despite popular perceptions that the U.S. defense budget is astronomical, defense spending stands at historic lows. It stands at roughly 4.5 percent of our economy today, versus 6 percent during the Reagan buildup, almost 9 percent during the Vietnam War, nearly 12 percent during the Korean War, and 34 percent during World War II.

Yes, waste in the defense budget should be eliminated, but cuts of the magnitude being contemplated will further degrade the American military’s ability to respond to crises, protect commercial sea lanes, and defend America’s interests from hostile forces. Military spending should be prioritized and driven by strategy. The United States needs a fully modernized military that matches both America’s security commitments and its security threats.

A grand strategy of peace through strength—not any sort of appeasement or evasion— was the legacy of the Founders’ foreign policy. This “settled policy,” as Madison called it, requires an adequate and ready military. Having a robust defense budget does not mean that America is the world’s policeman or that it wants to invite conflict; it means Americans realize the universal good of upholding the American concept of republican self-government as an ideal and that they continue to be very serious about providing for their common defense. This reality should be reflected in the federal budget—because it reflects who we are as a nation.

Ms. Eaglen is a research fellow and Mr. Smith is a graduate fellow at The Heritage Foundation.