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On January 23, 1980, Jimmy Carter delivered his final State of the Union address. It was a difficult time: Iran held American diplomats captive, and the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan. “As we meet tonight,” the president told the assembled members of Congress, “it has never been more clear that the state of our Union depends on the state of the world.”
Carter, who had devoted the first part of his presidency to domestic reforms and arms control, was now prepared to act decisively; his eyes had been opened by the Russian move into Afghanistan, which he described as a “radical and aggressive step.” He imposed a number of stiff economic sanctions on the USSR, from denying fishing rights to shutting down access to high-technology equipment, and asked the Europeans not to “replace our embargoed items.” He articulated a “Carter Doctrine,” asserting that the United States would not countenance disproportionate Russian influence in the Middle East. But most of all, he moved to swiftly rebuild U.S. military strength, creating the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, the precursor to today’s U.S. Central Command, and proposing a 5 percent annual increase in defense spending — the precursor to the Reagan-era buildup.
But where Carter moved to restore the sinews of America’s weakened armed forces, today we adhere to the constraints of a Budget Control Act that is steadily eviscerating a battle-tested professional force. Carter, in the final year of what would prove to be a single term as president, took steps to create new options for future commanders-in-chief. Barack Obama, with three years left, appears resolutely committed to foreclosing American military options.
However, thanks to the constitutional separation of powers and the competition of our political parties, the president’s weaknesses need not be the final word on such matters. It is the duty of Congress “to raise and support Armies,” “to provide and maintain a Navy,” and to provide for the common defense. And it is the duty of the loyal opposition to make the arguments that might correct the course of failing policies.
To put it plainly: Congress should immediately restore the defense-budget cuts imposed under the Budget Control Act — not just the sequestration provision but the reductions included in the “baseline” law — through an “emergency” supplemental appropriation that avoids the delays and deals that would accompany any attempt to “pay for” the changes with offsetting cuts elsewhere. The Republican party has a further obligation to offer a more complete alternative: If the GOP takes the Senate in the fall and keeps its House majority, it can reshape budget legislation that not only tries to restore fiscal responsibility but remembers the federal government’s responsibility to defend the nation and the nation’s global-security interests. And the next Republican presidential candidate must articulate the need for American power and a plan for comprehensive rearmament to preserve the increasingly fragile peace.
That’s because while Putin’s aggression in Europe is the proximate motivation for slowing the pace of American disarmament, there are other motivations as well, in the Middle East and East Asia. And so, while targeted reinvestments keyed specifically to the Russian threat — in nuclear deterrence, missile defense, increasing U.S. forces in Europe, and building up the forces of front-line European states — are necessary, they are hardly sufficient.
Republicans, in particular, should remember the wisdom of the Reagan buildup, a whole that was bigger than the sum of its parts. Its ultimate strategic importance did not depend on any one element of military power but lay in the fact that it denied the Soviet Union any clear advantage: The naval contest was a lopsided one that forced the Russian fleet to stay in its home waters; investments in land forces and tactical aircraft redressed the conventional balance along the Central Front in Germany; the modernization and expansion of nuclear capabilities, notably intermediate-range forces in Europe, offset decades of Soviet effort; the Strategic Defense Initiative helped convince Moscow that there was little point in continuing the competition.
This is a moment filled with possibility, one in which America might awake from the befuddlement of the post–Cold War era and the hangover of Iraq. Alas, President Obama seems more likely to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. It is up to the other branch of government and the opposition party to do what they can — start the process of rearmament — when the commander-in-chief will not.
Thomas Donnelly and Gary Schmitt co-direct the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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