One of the memorable slogans from the Reagan administration was "peace through strength." President Ronald Reagan believed a strong defense was a safeguard against enemy attacks and the best hope of victory should America go to war.
President Barack Obama is taking the opposite approach. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently announced cuts in defense spending of $487 billion over the next 10 years. Supposedly, these cuts will reduce the federal deficit, but Congress always finds new ways to spend money, so I am not optimistic.
The cuts were announced before critical questions were asked: What is America's role in the world in the 21st century? Where does the military fit into that role? The administration thinks a sleeker, more mobile military -- like SEAL Team Six, which has had recent successes taking out Osama bin Laden and rescuing hostages from Somali pirates -- is the way to go, but even the highly-trained SEALs can't confront, say, a nuclear threat from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or China's increasing military power. The administration says it will preserve its manpower and weapons systems in the Middle East and shift resources to Asia.
Ships and planes take time to build. If America is not building them to ward off present and future threats, someone else -- like the Chinese -- will. The world does not remain stagnant and threats are not always obvious.
Rep. Todd Akin, chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, says he is "deeply concerned" by the announced defense reductions, including the elimination of "at least 12 new Navy ships over the next five years and retiring at least nine ships earlier than planned."
Mr. Akin also worries about what will happen to the estimated 100,000 soldiers and Marines who will become unemployed in a struggling economy.
According to the website U.S. Government Spending.com, http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/past_spending, defense spending fluctuated in the last century. It hit a peak of 42 percent of GDP during World War II, declining to 10 percent during the Cold War to about 5 percent today.
Reagan's defense buildup followed cuts during the Carter administration. Reagan increased defense spending from 5.6 percent of GDP in 1979 to 7 percent of GDP by 1986. President George W. Bush's administration increased defense spending from 3.6 percent of GDP near the end of the Clinton administration in 1999, to 6 percent in 2010, to confront Islamic extremism.
The Obama administration, usgovernmentspending.com adds, plans to drop defense spending to 4.6 percent of GDP by 2015.
Do these reductions parallel a decline in the threats against America and American interests? Quite the opposite. The administration engages in wishful thinking about the so-called "Arab spring," which is devolving into a religious tornado with the radical Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots in Egypt and elsewhere and the Taliban poised to regain control in Afghanistan.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have agreed that NATO should pull out all combat forces from Afghanistan by next year, not 2014 as planned. This can only encourage the Taliban, who have recently been sending signals they are not the bad guys most people rightly think they are.
A recent Wall Street Journal story noted that public statements by the Taliban make them sound more "moderate," adding, "The big unknown is whether this new rhetoric represents a meaningful transformation -- or is merely designed to sugarcoat the Taliban's real aims."
It's a safe bet to say it's the latter.
The "big unknown" is what a sound U.S. defense strategy should take into account. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it, "There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns ... there are some things we de not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."
It is to protect not only against the "known knowns," but the "unknown unknowns" that a credible defense strategy should be maintained. Cutting our defenses without a plan of action is an invitation to war.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.