How to Build a Strong National Defense We Can Afford

By Daniel L. Davis

Earlier this month, the president was warned that he must transform his strategy on defeating the Islamic State or he risks empowering Iran. “We’ve tried the hands-off, no-boots-on-the-ground approach for six years,” two foreign policy experts wrote, “and it has brought us to this unacceptable dilemma.” If the president adopted this advice, however, the result would not only fail to solve the dilemma, but would also continue the deterioration of America’s conventional military power and place at greater risk U.S. national security.

America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” published via the Institute for the Study of War, argues that the mission in Syria should be that the U.S., along with “willing and acceptable partners, seizes and secures a base of operations in southeastern Syria to expand American freedom of action in the region and build a new Syrian Sunni Arab partner by, with, and through which to conduct a population-centric counterinsurgency to destroy ISIS and al Qaeda, set conditions to prevent their reconstitution, and eventually resettle refugees.”

Such an aggressive expansion of military power would heft enormous strategic risk on America’s back with virtually no chance of improving our security. First, setting up a military base on the soil of a sovereign state—even one as hated as the Assad regime—is an overt act of war, which would be a violation of international law. Equally troubling, such an move would substantially increase the possibility of a direct military clash with Russia, Iran, and Syria. No interest on the ground in Syria is worth such risks.

The proposed strategy wrongly posits that the United States has the obligation to police the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and selected parts of Africa. Adherents to this way of thinking believe they are justified in enforcing outcomes of their choosing using armed drones, airstrikes, special operations missions, providing military assistance to preferred customers; sending trainers and advisors to militaries we wish to bolster; or in some cases by deploying the full might of the U.S. military.

These views are not only antithetical to traditional American values, but putting this policy into action fails to accomplish its direct objectives—more important, it depletes our national treasure, pointlessly sacrifices the blood of our citizens abroad, and endangers all U.S. citizens by creating enemies where they might otherwise not exist.

The United States is currently struggling under the weight of an unprecedented and growing national debt of $20 trillion. It is clear that the debt must be reduced or the weight of it may one day come crashing down on a U.S. economy that cannot sustain it.

Yet for all the cuts recommended by the White House, the size of the federal budget didn’t decrease because of offsetting increases in Pentagon and “hard power” spending.

One of the main reasons military leaders say they need a bigger defense budget is because the pace and “optempo” of missions abroad is stretching the forces to the breaking point. However, it is time for a new discussion—one that examines our foreign policy strategy with fresh eyes.

During my 21 years in the U.S. Army, I served in Germany, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and saw combat ranging from high intensity armored fighting, to a military trainer, and finally in traditional counterinsurgency battles. I can tell you without equivocation that America’s current foreign policy of intervening around the globe in places that aren’t vital to our national security interests is doing far more harm to America’s national security than any other single factor.

Russia, China, and even North Korea are modernizing and making their conventional forces more lethal, strengthening their anti-air defenses, and expanding their reach into space. The United States, on the other hand, continues to see its military edge decline. Without immediate and substantive changes, we will further erode our advantage.

The administration and Congress should make a long overdue change in foreign policy that not only eschews “national building” and “regime change” in the main, but also recognizes the losing strategy of using the U.S. military to try and solve internal political conflicts around the world.

Relieved of the burden of fighting perpetual battles to tilt the scales in civil wars in foreign lands, the U.S. Armed Forces could spend far less in operations, refocus their training and attention on preparing for genuinely existential threats, and once again restore the powerful deterrent that ensures the security of the nation.

The mentality of persistently employing lethal military power abroad has proven to be a bankrupt way of thinking. If not altered, it will soon cripple us financially, perhaps fatally weakening our national defense in the process. The time has come to jettison these failed policies and adopt a new way of thinking that restores military strength and protects our financial solvency. American citizens can only enjoy a strong national defense if we maintain a vibrant and prosperous economy.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on April 26, 2017. Read more HERE.