Proving he has learned nothing, our chief executive last week vetoed the new Defense Authorization Act. That enactment pays the salaries of our troops and buys the bullets, beans and black oil they use to fight ISIS and al Qaeda. Unschooled and unskilled in defense matters, President Obama is a Grimm fairy tale of what happens when a community organizer in chief is horribly miscast as the commander in chief.
For one thing, Mr. Obama is not the sort of leader who plays nicely with others, like the bipartisan House and Senate majorities that passed the legislation. His lack of strategic vision is highlighted by the bill he just vetoed, which provides precisely the same $621 billion he originally requested. At just over 3 percent of gross domestic product, that is the lowest percentage of defense spending since the end of the Cold War, which – as you may have heard – is back again. If Mr. Obama considers it prudent to spend only three cents out of every dollar on our defenses, is he really fit to command at all? For that matter, if his budgetary judgments are left unchallenged by “we the people,” then does this nation really deserve the freedom we customarily take for granted?
It is far from clear whether we can even survive the remaining 15 months of an administration that ignores our increasingly outgunned and at-risk military establishment in favor of yet more social spending. As Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, the real issue is about more butter and even fewer guns: “The president is holding the military hostage to increase funding for Washington bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.” They also argue that fiscal impasse has become an entrenched part of the American political culture, with sequestration cutting “$1 trillion over ten years with no military rationale whatsoever.”
This is wretched public policy, of course, even during the best of times, but flat-out suicidal with our foreign policy collapsing and our enemies on the march.
If your name happens to be Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ali Khamenei or Kim Jong-un, what new judgments might you reach when debating whether to confront the once-vaunted American defense establishment? Would you still stand in awe of the traditional global superpower or would you, to adopt Chinese strategic parlance, discount American power as “a declining hegemon,” a paper tiger whose limelight has come and gone?
Would you be deterred by our high-tech weaponry or write it off as hopelessly hamstrung and hidebound against swarms of fanatical, elusive, low-tech challengers? Why not simply fix bayonets and press forward, persuaded by the inevitable hotheads that “we can take these guys”? When fiscal incompetence hardens into tradition, the only remaining questions are whether our defenses burn down or crumble at the first determined challenge.
Recent history contains abundant warnings about what can happen next, especially when ordinary decisions suddenly have life-or-death consequences. Egypt had been our strategic partner since the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger made nice with Anwar Sadat, adroitly snatched them out of the Soviet orbit and ushered in 40 years of peace between Egypt and Israel. But Barack Obama had barely taken office when he changed all that, embracing the Arab Spring and eventually backing the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. By 2013, Mr. Morsi’s regime had deteriorated into an Islamist dictatorship.
I was in Cairo shortly after 30 million Egyptians took to the streets and sparked a military overthrow of Mr. Morsi’s government. Over and over, ordinary Egyptians asked me, “What has happened to our friendship with the United States when Barack Obama occupies the Oval Office and supports our Muslim Brotherhood enemies? Doesn’t he know that these people are terrorists and your enemies too?” Naturally, the Obama White House took offense and, for a time, suspended all U.S. military aid. Today Egypt’s newfound friend and closest ally is Vladimir Putin. Having built the pyramids, the Egyptians are the first to understand that you can’t fix stupid.
The only thing you can do with stupid is change it, along with the seductive mindset that you can avoid its life-changing consequences. If you doubt that, then check out “I Remember Mama,” George Stevens’ classic movie of a poor Norwegian immigrant family. It celebrates what were once considered basic American values: love of family, hard work, respect and frugality. So why did Stevens produce his Oscar-winning film in 1948, when Americans were just beginning their postwar recovery? Maybe because he realized that Mama and her family values had forged the character of the Greatest Generation – and victory in World War II.
A version of this piece previously appeared on Washington Times