Commentary Magazine


The Defense Budget and America’s Decline

There are many salient points to make about President Obama’s terribly unwise plan to cut $500 billion in defense spending during the next decade. But I want to focus on what I think it reveals about the worldview of America’s 44th president.

The one unequivocal area in which the federal government should be involved in is national defense. And our military is the one area which Gallup reports Americans trust more than any other American institution. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of those polled say they have a great deal of confidence in the U.S. military (versus 12 percent for Congress). And that trust is well-earned; the military has performed its tasks with extraordinary skill. And yet it is the military, more than any area in the federal government, that is now being asked to absorb the brunt of budget cuts – even though we’re still a nation at war. It is a striking thing to witness.

I’ve argued before that the Obama presidency, animated by a progressive impulse, wants to punish success. Rewarding human excellence is in many respects an alien concept to this president (see his repeated attacks on wealth creators). It’s therefore not surprising the president would decide to target the military when it comes to budget cuts. Its achievements have earned it a reduction in its budget, much like bad schools are rewarded with more money (the theory being that their failures are due to parsimony).

And then there is the point made by the estimable Charles Krauthammer, who said on Fox News last night that Obama’s budget strategy “is a roadmap of American decline.” I quite agree, and I would simply add that it’s intentional. For those who dissent from this judgment, I would point them to an important article by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker that includes this paragraph:

Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the president’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

Declining power, a reviled reputation, modesty, and leading from behind: Obama sees his task as shepherding what he deems to be this deeply imperfect nation – one he repeatedly apologized for during the early months of his presidency — through its inevitable descent.

Unfortunately for us, with Obama at the helm, America’s decline is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. You need look no further than the defense budget for confirmation of that.