(Figured I'd keep up Peter’s “Hollow Men” motif.)
I used to be a nobody in the defense and aerospace world, and I've seen this movie before. George Bush the Elder declared a peace dividend and took a big whack at the Reagan Cold War military (by as much as half by some measures). Bill Clinton, still repeating the “we spend too much on defense platitudes” of the by then victorious non-Scoop-Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, went still further. George Bush, under Donald Rumsfeld and the rubric of the Revolution in Military Affairs, tried to do the same, but events intervened.
President Obama’s announced plans go back to this playbook—we’ll spend “smart” by using more electronics, fewer people, and just keep refurbishing the decades-old major weapons systems we use. War fatigue is surely a factor in the lack of public response, but the ice is getting thinner and thinner.
Several other factors are specifically at play—first, Barack Obama’s transformational agenda has been in the direction of a European-style social welfare state. As its prototypes have proven, they're a bottomless money pit in which there's always yet another a pressing social need that takes precedence over maintaining a serious military (and buys the votes of its recipients for its providers). Butter pushes out guns.
Second, government spending is so obscenely out of control and entitlement reform so politically untouchable, any feint in the direction of fiscal responsibility will necessarily touch discretionary spending and of course defense (particularly it seems under Democratic leadership, because of a vestigial, visceral, perhaps Vietnam-and-Cold War hostility to the military). So budgets begin to trump strategy on driving decision-making.
Third, and perhaps more controversially, it's entirely possible that it's not merely a budgetary choice but a strategic one, which is to say the president may be following through on his occasional allusions to making America a less hegemonic power (which takes a back seat as in Libya) by reducing her ability to succumb to the temptation of power projection by reducing the available power to project.
Unfortunately, this is a very poor environment for making these choices. Butter seems like a better answer than guns, but look at arteriosclerotic Europe. Even as military free-riders, they've been incapable of resisting the temptation to bankrupt themselves.
Letting budget dictate strategy is never good, and the genteel-decline theory à la Britain’s succumbing to the opium haze of fat entitlements and transferred responsibilities in the ’50s as Peter describes, can't work for us as the briefly unipolar power. First, we have no one to hand a liberal international order off too. Our allies who subscribe to our vision of a peaceful world with open trade are either too small (e.g., Australia, Israel) or too militarily enervated (Canada, NATO) to take a handoff, even in concert. It is this blunt reality that makes all the “we spend n times more…” arguments irrelevant. We and the responsibilities we've assumed are sui generis. If we fail, there's an immediate power vacuum, and all the likely contenders are illiberal regimes with a far greater willingness to use military force to achieve their goals than we.
Last, the smaller, smarter paradigm almost always leaves the military understaffed in the unglamorous combat arms which bear the brunt of most of the casualties when the shooting starts again, as it always does. Moreover, we're susceptible (as men ever are) to the fighting-the-last-war problem. Critical as the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan will be to us in the near and medium term, retooling the military to a “small war” paradigm (which is usually more or less equivalent to a one-largish war paradigm) too far will leave us vulnerable (again) to a large conventional conflict which we not only don't foresee but which we invite by making ourselves look vulnerable.
My sense has been for the past decade we should have been restoring military modernization and new-weapons programs as well as reforming (including cutting) a lot of the “tail” side of DoD and the services, which over time come to be indistinguishable from most government bureaucracies. My sense is that to provide a role as a guarantor of international peace and trade, as well as to defend ourselves, we probably need to commit something on the order of 5% of GDP to the military in peacetime. Not least to keep it peacetime (si vis pacem, as Hallmark says).
It's a dangerous world, and increasingly multipolar (as it had to become), yet we seem to believe that this increasing instability is manageable on the cheap, canceling the F-22 when China and Russia have rolled out maybe not quite fifth-generation but 4¾-generation planes which will cause our existing air superiority fighters serious problems; relying on the F-35 whose advocates admit it likely can't penetrate advanced Chinese and Russian air-defense systems [which will eventually be exported widely]; and allowing our blue-water navy to attritt to the point where a determined Chinese move tomorrow, not in ten years, could defeat our ability to keep any number of Asian sea lanes open.
We've been doing some smart things, like talking openly with Japan and India and less-openly with Vietnam and Burma about managing an increasingly assertive China without a war breaking out, but ultimately—and to the understandable chagrin and frustration of many Americans—our ability to live in a world governed by something even vaguely resembling a peaceful rule-governed order comes down to American taxpayers’ footing the huge bill for our uniquely important military. (As well as the bill for China’s military buildup aimed at us, thanks to our profligate debt, as Mark Steyn likes to point out. Also—huge as the bill is, it's dwarfed by entitlement spending, as if peace were the luxury and standard-of-living the necessity. Lovely thought, but when the former ends, the latter will crater as well…)
So, is the Obama plan the harbinger of doom? No, not in the short run, and things would remain fixable into the next president's term or so, but if it goes too long, you lose capacities that you unfortunately tend not to regain until the next shooting war breaks out, underprepared servicemen start dying, and you shovel whatever resources you can at the problem.
So, there's the threat. Can we avoid it and fix it? Sure, we're Americans. We're probably the most creative civilization in history, and certainly the most pragmatically capable since Rome, if we put our minds to it (though we don't seem to care to much these days). But we have to go at things empirically and make hard decisions, reshaping our government perhaps as dramatically as Harding's return to normalcy or Truman & Ike's Cold War state, and making sure we can keep the peace in the process. Everybody's ox will get gored, everyone will complain. But in the end we'll muddle through. Just so long as, you know, we can find a leader who can convince the public of this necessity. That can't be hard, right?