WASHINGTON: This city’s fixation on how much stuff the Pentagon should buy is distracting us from the “core ideological struggle” against corrupt dictatorships, said the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Numerical targets like a 355-ship Navy — now enshrined in law — or a 500,000 active soldier Army are not only unaffordable “fantasy,” argues Rep. Adam Smith, Even if we could buy everything we envision, it still wouldn’t save us from self-inflicted wounds like a trade policy that’s alienating our allies.
Weapons aren’t the only way to win this kind of cold war, or even the best. “Great power rivalries do not have to mean an arms race, and they certainly don’t have to mean an armed conflict,” Smith said. “Diplomacy and alliances are enormously important.”
Yes, the United States needs a strong military for a new era of strategic competition with great power rivals like China and Russia, as envisioned in the National Defense Strategy, Smith told the McAleese/Credit Suisse conference this morning. But military strength is not enough, he argued. We need diplomacy, but we’re slashing the State Department budget by 29 percent. We need development programs, but China’s using aid and infrastructure to woo and entwine countries like Djibouti and Pakistan. We need allies and partners, but the rhetoric of America First, threats to withdraw from trade agreements, and Trump’s proposed tariffs are all pushing them away. Above all, we need a vision that’s true to our founding principles and can rally the world around us.
“I really think this is a core ideological struggle (against) what Russia and China envision, which is authoritarianism and, frankly, kleptocracy,” Smith said. “We are supposed to be the country that stands up and says political freedom and economic freedom is the path to a secure and prosperous world.”
This should be an easy choice between the United States and, say, Vladimir Putin‘s cabal of oligarchs or Xi Jinping‘s emerging presidency-for-life. Instead, said Smith, other countries’ views of the US are getting worse and worse.
“Trade wars do not cultivate allies,” Smith said pointedly. “We should have gotten rid of the America first thing a while ago… Well, duh, every country in the world puts their interests first, but when you announce as your policy ‘America First,’ what that says to the rest of the world is ‘go to hell.’”
Since 1917, America’s asymmetric advantage — the thing it has that its adversaries have never had — has been its allies. If you lose them, no amount of unilateral US firepower can make up for it.
Besides that, we can’t afford unlimited firepower anyway. “Most of those things, like the 355 ship Navy, are pure fantasy,” Smith said.
Even the Navy’s official 30-year plan tops out at 342 ships in 2041 and declines again thereafter. Navy officials now vaguely promise they’ll reach 355 sometime outside the 30-year period, in the 2050s. Smith scoffed: “We can barely predict what’s going to happen two months from now.”
While the recent budget deal sets spending levels for two years, Smith noted, an actual appropriations bill for 2018 won’t be passed until March 23rd — halfway through the fiscal year — and some Republicans are already attacking the domestic spending levels in the deal. In the longer term, with the GOP cutting taxes while not even proposing a bill to cut entitlements, he said, the fiscal outline just gets worse.
Assuming the budget deal holds, Smith said “so we bought ourselves 18 months of, quote, ‘certainty,’ end quote…then what? Then what do we do, because we are headed to $22 trillion dollars in debt. This puts us on a trajectory to have trillion dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see.”