By Ivan Eland
John Kerry and Chuck Hagel—two of the best mainstream nominees that President Obama could have selected for Secretaries of State and Defense, respectively—will soon face Senate confirmation. With these nominees, hopefully Obama is signaling a veering away from interventionism to a long overdue, restrained foreign policy. During the first term, to his credit, Obama ended the Iraq war with thankfully no American troops remaining in that country, set an end date to American combat in Afghanistan, and has apparently signaled an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces from there.
Unfortunately, the downside to Obama’s first term foreign policy was his expanded, and therefore unconstitutional, “secret” drone war against Islamists in many countries, which included killing American citizens without any due legal process. Also, Obama was dragged by the newly aggressive France into a primarily air war in Libya to overthrow a Muammar Gaddafi, a dictator who had already agreed to play ball with the West.
Although during his second term, Obama again risks being sucked in by the French to another brushfire war in the developing world—this time in the African nation of Mali—Obama has been headed down the right path of lessening U.S. involvement in unnecessary wars. Obama must warn France that American help will be confined to intelligence and U.S. aircraft to transport French soldiers and that the United States will not bail out France from any future quagmire on the ground (Vietnam all over again), which seems likely.
Hopefully, Obama’s negotiation with Hamid Karzai to keep some American troops in Afghanistan after the U.S. “withdrawal” date in 2014 will fail. The main trunk of al Qaeda (the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks) in Afghanistan and Pakistan has largely been wiped out, and the current drone campaign is simply making new Islamist enemies for the United States. Besides, if the United States needed an emergency military strike against such remnants of al Qaeda, it could be taken from outside those countries using long-range Air Force bombers or carrier-based naval aircraft. Obama should also cease drone attacks in Yemen and Somalia, thus halting the generation of new Islamist enemies in those countries. (Furthermore, the Senate should veto Obama’s nominee to direct the CIA, John Brennan, who is the architect of the drone program.)
Scaling back or eliminating the drone campaign in these countries would save a little money, but many more savings are needed to battle the nation’s monstrous debt of more than $16 trillion. First of all, the United States no longer needs to plan to fight and to size its ground forces for more than one war at a time. Second, because no need exists for a “greater than one war” capability and because the All Volunteer Force has become too costly, expensive active Army and Marine divisions need to be reduced and National Guard and Reserve forces need to be trained to a higher standard. Third, to reduce the costs of all military forces, cutting the soaring health care costs of active and retired forces is a must; thus, those currently serving and those who are retired must pay a greater share of their health care costs. In addition, the luxurious retirement of U.S. military personnel at a very early age (which is even much earlier than the infamous low retirement age in Greece), compared with that of the general American population, must be ended. Finally, excessive benefits, such as subsidizing military housing and grocery bills, need to be curtailed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, compared to civilians working in the general economy, military personnel during peacetime receive lavish pay and benefits; these excessive perks need to be cut back.
Recently, Leon Panetta, the current Secretary of Defense argued that the U.S. needed a military presence in Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Yet no real threat exists to Europe, Africa is not strategic to the United States, and no other great power could challenge U.S. dominance of Latin America, even if U.S. forces operated from the continental United States. In fact, in the current low threat environment worldwide, to save money, the United States could reduce the number of its military bases all over the world, decommission many of the military units stationed there, and rely more on forces projected from the United States.
Drastic cuts in the defense budgets will be needed, especially if President Obama adheres to his apparent irresponsible Second Inaugural pledge to hold fast on reforming rapidly growing entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. At minimum, the president should endorse additional defense cuts of about $500 billion over nearly a decade, which will take effect if nothing is changed (what has been heretofore called the “fiscal cliff”). In reality, to put the nation on a better fiscal footing, and thus to ensure its long-term security, defense cuts should go even deeper than that.