We have a superb military. It is very good at doing what a military is best at -- stopping bad things from happening. It is not very good at making good things happen in societies that are foreign to us. The best trained and armed young Americans cannot create democracy in Iraq or eliminate corruption in Afghanistan. And they certainly cannot bring harmony to troubled regions elsewhere.
The second rhetorical example of the Administration's inability to break entirely from a Cold War view of America as necessary for preserving freedom in all of the world comes from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta is one of the outstanding people with whom I have served in government. He was an extremely valuable member of Congress, with strong progressive values and a commitment to implementing them. He did an excellent job, first as Clinton's budget director and then as his chief of staff, in advancing those values, and he was a very good head of the CIA when he returned to service for Obama.
But upon becoming secretary of defense, he lost the sensible perspective that he once had. In one of his earliest speeches in the new post, he lamented the fact that America had "hollowed out" our military after every war, and he pledged not to do so again after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were brought to an end. Hollowing out the military appears to mean, to some people in the defense sphere, reducing military expenditures when you are no longer fighting a war rather than keeping spending levels at the capacity to devastate a fully armed Soviet Union, wage thermonuclear war, and maintain a significant troop presence in Europe long after there is a need to protect our allies against Stalin and his troops.
The hollowing-out argument is particularly odd coming from Panetta because, in the first iteration of this lament, he included the Cold War as one of the wars whose end brought on a shrinking of the military. The problem is that the Cold War ended just as the Clinton Administration was beginning. And the budget director in the Clinton Administration at the time was Leon Panetta. In other words, when Leon Panetta, secretary of defense in 2011, complains that the Clinton Administration hollowed out our military after the Cold War, he is blaming Leon Panetta, budget director in 1993. As it happens, Budget Director Panetta wins this argument against Defense Secretary Panetta. Proof of that victory lies in what happened next -- despite the supposed hollowing out of the military, the Clinton Administration was able to achieve a significant military success in southern Yugoslavia, and the Bush Administration, inheriting the same military from Clinton, had the force to dominate Iraq in a fairly short period of time.
Still the World's Strongest Military
To be clear, this is not an argument against America continuing to be the strongest nation in the world. I want us to maintain that status. To some of my liberal friends, this may seem xenophobic. But as I look at the other potential candidates for the role, I'm glad that it is our country that holds the title. (If Denmark had the military resources to do it, I would be perfectly content, but choosing among Russia, China, Indonesia, and us, I choose us.)