It happens after every war. America disarms. And so invites the next attack, and next war. The same haphazard pattern is emerging now -- even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, much as this administration pretends they are in order to cut the defense budget.
On both those fronts, the enemy is rushing to fill the vacuum left by the American withdrawal. This country's retreat has allowed al-Qaida, its branches and assorted allies and successors, whether the Taliban in Afghanistan or freelance terrorists in Iraq, to advance. At this rate, it may be only a matter of time before the next Benghazi or even the next September 11th, yet this administration has already sounded retreat. And taken not a scalpel but a meat axe to the national defense budget.
Out will go various weapons systems good, bad and in-between, including the A-10 Warthog jet and flying fortress, aka the American infantryman's best friend -- well, next to his rifle. Who needs a defense, anyway?
How sum up this retreat from the world and reality in general in a few concise words? A senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, one Randy Forbes (R-Va.), came close: "It is very difficult for anyone to say with a straight face this budget will defend this country."
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Second Place goes to Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who noted that "Washington is trying to balance the budget on the backs of those who have suffered the most." Veterans of those conflicts haven't sounded as bitter since the fall of Fallujah, which the Taliban have just re-occupied after its liberation cost so much in American blood.
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Leave it to our still new secretary of "defense" to rationalize all these cuts. Chuck Hagel sounded like the last of the straight-faced kidders when he said that slicing away at the defense budget would strengthen the country's defenses. The pity is that he may not have been kidding at all but being perfectly serious. Which explains why, as long as he's in office, he'll sound like the new secretary of defense.
Mr. Hagel did mentioned in passing that, oh, yes, slashing away at American defenses might entail certain risks, but went on to explain, "We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted."
American dominance can no longer be taken for granted. What heartening news that would be for America's enemies and the enemies of freedom everywhere. Except -- though it may come as a surprise to our ever-new secretary of defense -- there has never been a time when American dominance could be taken for granted. Or should be. Nothing -- nothing -- can be assumed in war. Or in peace, for that matter. That's a tried and tested recipe for defeat.
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Even now we can hear our old battery commander chewing out some hapless and hopeless sergeant: "You assumed?!" Question mark, exclamation point. The sergeant wasn't a sergeant for long after that. Unfortunately, our current secretary of defense seems to have tenure. Ditto, the less than commanding figure who is currently commander-in-chief of our armed forces, which are now to be less well armed. (The applause you hear in the background comes from capitals like Teheran, Beijing and Moscow, those well-known citadels of freedom.)
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American dominance can no longer be taken for granted. As if it ever could have been. There was no taking victory for granted in any of America's wars. Going back to the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, which, to borrow a phrase often attributed to the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic wars, was "a damned close-run thing." Thank goodness the French fleet arrived in the nick of time off Yorktown to save the day, and the American cause.
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American dominance was scarcely assured during the War of 1812, either, or in our own Civil War, whichever American side you were on. The same goes for the Second World Catastrophe, which this country entered formally only after being caught unprepared at Pearl Harbor.
By then, being caught unprepared had become something of an American tradition. A tradition maintained up to September 11, 2001, and which our current administration seems determined to renew. Indeed, it may be the only thing Obama, Kerry, Hagel and Careless Company, LLC, may be determined about. As this latest defense budget of theirs demonstrates.
American dominance can no longer be taken for granted. It certainly couldn't be in the happy-days-are-here-again years leading up to the Korean War, when the Truman administration was so bent on disarming America that our meager forces were woefully unprepared for that war, too. Indeed, the closest parallel to Chuck Hagel's course as the nation's secretary of defense may be that followed by Harry Truman's incompetent secretary of defense, one Louis A. Johnson, whose idea of defense was to slash, cut and generally shrink the armed forces of the United States.
The result: Our troops paid for those years of deliberate neglect in blood and suffering. At frozen-over places with names like Chosin and Heartbreak Ridge and Pork Chop Hill. ... The Forgotten War was forgotten even while it was still going on. And the Best and Brightest did no better at strategizing in Vietnam with all its rules of (non)engagement, which might as well have been rules for defeat.
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And now The Hon. Charles Hagel, secretary of what is called defense by this administration, assures us: "We are entering an era where American dominance ... can no longer be taken for granted." No words could be less assuring, or so complete and concise a summation of this administration's absence of historical perspective or constancy of purpose in foreign policy. The result has been a kind of isolationism-by-accident, for not even that outcome seems planned. For now American foreign policy with all its Pivots and Resets seems a completely ad-hoc, make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair, as feckless as it is pretentious.
It was said, and rightly so, that the previous president was widely hated. And so George W. Bush was -- by every aspiring tyrant and ambitious terrorist and enemy of freedom in the world. This president isn't hated, he's just ignored and despised, for he's become the personification of weakness and drift in American foreign policy. He abandons one ally after another and courts one tyrant after another. As high an opinion as he may have of himself, the world has lost respect for him, friend and foe alike.
It is said in the president's defense that he's really leading -- from behind. There are only two things wrong with that assertion: (1) He's not leading, and (2) he's so far behind he's not even in the picture.
So welcome back to the Carter Years, or even the Twenties and Thirties, the years of Harding and Stimson and the Kellogg-Briand Treaty to simply outlaw war, the years of the Gathering Storm in general. The view from here may be bleak, but it is terribly, terribly familiar.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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