Providing for the Common Defense

April 19, 2013 Topic: CongressPolitics Region: United States

Providing for the Common Defense

The House Armed Services chair on the challenges facing Congress and the United States.

Many in power play checkers when we should be playing chess—that goes for think tanks, the media, and government alike.

We’re in a unique time for U.S. national security and we do need to take that long-vision approach. That requires meticulous analysis of strategy, military posture and end strength, foreign policy, energy security, and yes—defense spending. Now, I’m sure everyone is as tired as I am of the term “sequestration.” But it is worth asking “what is the U.S. military for?”

What is the purpose of our hegemony and is it worth the time, blood, and treasure to continue our supremacy into the next century? I think that the bipartisan answer to the latter question would be yes; American preeminence is a sensible investment and is in our national interest.

Admiral Greenert, the CNO, said in testimony before our committee that 95 percent of our commerce travels over the oceans. That is why I have always viewed our strength as an investment, rather than simple spending. Despite our differences, this is a fundamental foreign-policy objective of both the Obama administration and Republican leadership in Congress. What we lack is a common definition of “hegemony” and a common goal that we want our statecraft to achieve.

When George Kennan published the “X Article” in Foreign Affairs and sent the Long Telegram, he brought clarity to U.S. foreign and defense policy by simply defining a common purpose. Of course Kennan’s explanation of our purpose was somewhat simpler than it is today. At the time, reality and events allowed for that simplicity. He said it was “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”


Now I’ve been around for a while, and I do remember that time in our history. We were cursed by a deadly threat to our peaceful existence, but we were also fortunate to have a linear foreign-policy purpose; namely, to keep America and allied nations safe from Soviet aggression. Today it is harder to define our foreign-policy purpose because we cannot define the primary threat to our way of life. Some would say it is fundamentalist violence; some would say economic insecurity; some would say cybersecurity, some would say climate change, and some might take the more classical approach of peer and near-peer challenges like a resurgent Russia and rising China.

We know that the Constitution compels us to provide for the common defense of the American people. That’s a charge that we in Congress, especially those of us on the Armed Services Committee, take seriously. But government struggles to define even that simple, straightforward directive. Are we simply to protect our citizens from harm?


Or did the Founders frame common defense as classic border security in a time when various states were still unifying? Some doubt Thomas Jefferson envisioned a world where the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Strait of Malacca was imperative to our security half a world away. But then again, Jefferson had no problem sending a fleet of frigates to North Africa to defeat Barbary corsairs who threatened American shipping.

Too often in world history, concern over economic security, the source of power for all nations and especially this nation, has been the spark that starts a war. Traditionally threats to free economies have come from conquest, blockades, scrimmage for natural resources, piracy or direct obstruction. Today they can come from the click of a mouse or a fanatic self-detonating in a shopping mall.

If this doesn’t change the game we’re playing, I don’t know what does.

The fragility of our economic security worries me. So does the decrease in our military power. I worry that as we network economies and globalize trade, business, and commerce, we are building a house of cards that could tumble with the flap of a butterfly’s wings.

Margaret Thatcher, who sadly left us recently, said that consensus is the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes. It strikes me that despite all the competing visions about where to direct our power, whether that power should be hard or soft, and how much power is enough, there is one common, underlying desire that binds us with the same simplicity of purpose that Kennan described in 1948.

We all want to preserve our way of life. And we all want our light of freedom to extend to all nations and peoples.

Regardless of whether a Republican or a Democrat holds power, American leadership on the world stage should question whether the free world would be better served by fair, decisive leadership—or by consensus.

Today, a few issues have really gummed up our ability to lead. Political turmoil over concerns like spending and taxes have had a crippling impact on our diplomacy and military power.

Being a leader means accepting that you will make enemies. And America’s enemies, whether they sit in a politburo, an extremist mosque, or in front of a basement computer screen, have taken a keen interest in our internal instability and our indecisiveness.

Just last month, Secretary Hagel announced that budget cuts were forcing him to reevaluate the new defense strategy that concentrates U.S. power on the Pacific. Our current strategy is barely a year old, and we’re already being forced to rethink it. The two-war strategy we had before defined American hegemony and lasted for generations. This budget-driven approach to strategic thinking is concerning.

Now, I am not worried about the internal Pentagon debate over where we should be pointing our rifles. If history has anything to say about it, we usually get that one wrong. But it is worrisome that we are projecting indecisiveness into a world that is just looking for an excuse to tumble into chaos.

In the New Testament, there’s an appropriate line, that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.” Lincoln referred to the same verse during the Civil War. There was a time when we always kept our domestic squabbles separate from our foreign policy. Even though we have a commonality of purpose, I worry that the wall between the two is crumbling.

But like too many debates in Washington, we are fighting over the means to achieve a shared goal. Not only does this compromise our military power, it harms our relations with the rest of the world.

Now I wouldn’t claim to have a deciding voice on foreign policy. But I do see the impact of these fights in a very real and meaningful way. Our charge on the Armed Services Committee is to provide the best training, equipment, and leadership in the world to our fighting forces. For the first time, I question whether or not this goal is still desired by the White House and Congress. And that goes for both sides of the aisle.

Carl Vinson, one of the great Congressional champions of a strong defense said “No country has a moral right to demand that her sailors go into battle with strength and equipment inferior to an opponent's.” I’d broaden that to include all of our Armed Forces. Not only is there intellectual wisdom in those remarks, there is—as Vinson said—a deep moral responsibility as well.

We have been blessed in this regard. For the most part, America can decide when and where we challenge an enemy. And for the most part, deterrence is our preferred method of that engagement. But unless we continue to deploy the full force of statecraft, of grand strategy, of diplomacy and military power into that deterrence, there will be a time when an enemy chooses for us the time and place of battle. When that time comes, our troops will either go into combat with equipment and leadership that is light years ahead of the enemy’s, or we will take unacceptable and morally unconscionable casualties.

At the risk of abusing North Africa as a parable for our defense policy, you do not have to look farther than the Allied run on Tunis during World War II to see what happens when ill-equipped, poorly trained, and poorly led forces are hastily committed to battle. This is one of the reasons I fight defense cuts so hard. That, and the fact that there have been three rounds of cuts in as many years. And the budget we received recently would take another $120 billion out of defense.

During the 1930s, we could anticipate that the world was shaky and danger loomed on the horizon. We did not know if we would be pulled into Europe’s bubbling cauldron, but we certainly knew it was a possibility. The world today feels a bit like 1930s Europe. Uncertainty is pervasive. Threats seem to creep a little closer each day. And new perils, like that of cyberwar, emerge with astounding frequency.


We have reaped many benefits from the Reagan years, but perhaps no legacy has lasted longer than the magnificent armed forces that he built with a strong bipartisan effort. That military has lasted us 30 years. We’re still flying the same planes, we are still sailing the same ships, and we’re still driving the same tanks.