Last week President Obama, flanked by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scissored the nation’s defense budget by $500 billion. The latest tatters of the defense budget join the pile already accumulating from cuts made earlier. By the time it’s all done, almost $1 trillion will be eliminated from the Pentagon budget.
Obama said the reductions are being made to respond to changing geopolitical situations. A new defense doctrine will characterize this aborning era when, in the President’s words, America is “turning the page on a decade of war.”
The Obama Administration is right in assessing the need for a new strategic paradigm in our turbulent world. All administrations must continually ask the big questions of fundamental doctrine and strategy.
Unfortunately – perhaps dangerously so – President Obama is sliding toward the dark side of unilateralism. This wistful doctrine rests on the assumption that if we lay down our arms our enemies will holster their guns. True, President Obama is not calling for unilateral disarmament, but can he really assume the nation’s adversaries will redefine their strategic goals simply because we reframe our defense doctrine?
There is a fine line between naiveté and recklessness. In the Cold War era the balance had to be struck between the extremes of unilateral disarmament on the one hand, and pre-emption on the other. The equilibrium was held – sometimes tenuously – by the deterrence doctrine. We would seek to negotiate mutual weapons reductions with our adversaries, but maintain the defensive strength to restrain the threat of a pre-emotive strike launched against us.
It was the strength that made the conversation possible!
So what will be the strategic balancing dynamic now? To be unable to answer that question leads to deadly recklessness.
Deterrence is a theme in Romans 13, which provides foundational truth regarding the authority God entrusts to civil governments. Paul writes that “rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”
A nation’s government is to strike “fear” in adversaries whose purposes are “evil.” The Greek term translated “fear” is “phobos,” which carries the strong idea of terror and severe dread. “Kakos,” the Greek word rendered in Romans 1 as “evil,” refers to harm and doing harm. There are regimes whose goals are destruction of human rights, not only for their own populations, but for other nations as well. They aim at the suppression of freedom and forceful control of their people. Given the chance, they will extend this globally, by brute force.
Thus nations wishing freedom, peace, and opportunity for their people do “not bear the sword for nothing.” In fact, in defense of liberty, that protective weaponry becomes a tool of “ministry,” says Romans 13:4.
Governments, however, must weigh their own motives for arming themselves. The emphasis in Romans 13 is on defense through deterrence, not domination and conquest. What is defended must be worthy of defense – freedom, peace, the dignity of the individual, opportunity for all citizens, and their qualitative well-being.
This reality struck me powerfully one night in the 1970s in Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Changing planes, I spotted a long line of people waiting to board a flight for Seattle. They wore tee shirts bearing the name of a refugee resettlement camp in Thailand. Many carried bags emblazoned with the Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols. I realized they were Cambodian refugees.
Their faces beamed with hope and anticipation of the new life awaiting them in the United States. There they would find sanctuary from the communist Khmer Rouge and cruel oppressors of their ilk.
At the very end of the line was a teenage boy. He spotted me, and with a huge smile, gave me “thumbs up.” I returned the smile and the signal of hope and encouragement. I teared up. Those refugees were on their way to a nation with arms big enough to embrace them, and muscle strong enough to shelter them.
If we severely degrade our defenses, the good intention of pursuing peace becomes the reckless abandonment that is the dark side of unilateralism. And we betray the young Cambodian man and all the others who have streamed into America for sanctuary.