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Thornberry Remarks at The Heritage Foundation: Be Strong

Washington, May 28, 2014
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I appreciate the invitation to be with y’all today and have benefited from the Heritage Foundation’s insights on national security since I was a young defense staffer on the Hill in the early 1980’s. 

Those were exciting and contentious times.  We suffer from a bit of amnesia if we believe that Reagan’s defense build-up and his fight against communism, alongside Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II, were an inevitable triumph based on consensus policies.  In fact, Reagan’s policies were resisted here at home and in Europe every step of the way – viciously.  Just as steps we need to take today are resisted.

The effort at Heritage to look back a century at World War I is good and needed, partly for historical accuracy to prevent that kind of amnesia and partly because there seems to be an inevitable tendency to abuse history for current political ends – even recent history.

We tend to err in one of two ways.  Either we try to shoehorn whatever current problem we face into a historical analogy – often Munich, or Vietnam, or now Iraq – that seems to provide only one reasonable policy decision.  Or, we ignore the lessons of history and then fulfill Santayana’s warning by repeating the mistakes of the past.

No result is inevitable; it depends on the decisions that we and others make.  But, we can, if we are wise, learn principles from history that serve us well when applied to the unique circumstances of today.  And if I may shortcut to my bottom line conclusion, peace through strength is one of those principles we can and should relearn, keep fresh, and apply over and over. 

Some may ask whether this “slogan” really has any application in today’s world?  There are those who seem to believe that the national security challenges we face today are far too complicated for the simplistic approaches of a bygone era.  We need someone not tied to the past who is nimble and smart enough to find just the right balanced approach to every problem.

Today at West Point the President is said to begin an effort to explain his national security policy to us.  According to press reports, we, the American people don’t understand how deft the President’s polices of hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy really are.  The problem is us.  If we will let him educate us, then we will have a greater appreciation of his more sophisticated, nuanced maneuvering in the world.

Maneuver as he will, the United States today does face a wide, complex array of threats.  Mr. Putin has reminded us that Europe is not the serene, peaceful place many had assumed.  Despite the Administration’s best efforts to persuade us otherwise, terrorism has not gone away.  In fact, in many ways the terrorist threat we face today is more diverse and difficult than ever. 

I note a story in the New York Times a few days ago in which the new Director of the FBI admits that before he was sworn in and got access to the latest information, he underestimated the terrorist threat.

“I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become,” Mr. Comey said.  “There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

Boko Harem is just the latest to remind us of that.

The dangers posed by the outlaw states of North Korea and Iran are greater now than in some time.  Afghanistan, we will talk about in a minute, but we have to keep sight of the effects of our policy on the nuclear state next door, Pakistan.  The reemergence of Al Qaeda groups in Iraq coupled with the safe haven in Syria poses higher risks as Europeans and others travel there and back again.  New domains of warfare in cyber and outer space develop, and we struggle to keep up.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Asia with Majority Leader Cantor.  As we heard the same talking points from one high-ranking Chinese official after another, my heart sank.  They clearly see China as a rising power.  They clearly see the U.S. as a declining power.  They clearly have historical grievances that they think they are now in a position to correct.  And they clearly are aggressive and confident.  All of which made me think of Germany before World War I.  I do not see conflict with China as inevitable.  There are as many differences as similarities with the Kaiser’s Germany.  But, again it depends on what we do and how they view what we do.

The other point made clear from that trip is that friends and allies, as well as others who are not necessarily friends or allies, are watching us carefully to see whether the U.S. keeps its commitments and means what it says.  Today, there is reason to doubt – not only in Asia but in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia as well.

So maybe it is no surprise, but still it is rather unsettling, to see people like Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, write, “American foreign policy is in troubling disarray. …We are witnessing an accelerated movement toward a post-American world.”

Or David Brooks, in the New York Times, “All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying.”

Even Lech Walesa made news again yesterday by saying, “the world is disorganized and the superpower is not taking the lead.”  He says he intends to urge President Obama to lead or turn it over to a country that will.

These are not exactly your typical Obama-bashers.  Across the spectrum, there is concern that under Barack Obama, America is in withdrawal mode.  And there is fear that this President thinks and acts like he can make things happen in the world just by giving a speech – that he can protect America with his rhetoric alone.

Now, being a fan of Churchill and Reagan, I have a great appreciation for the power of effective communication.  But that communication must be backed by something and by someone willing to make the tough choices and then defend them.

What we say is important; what we do is more important.  Obama has taken “speak softly and carry a big stick” and turned it on its head.

More people are coming to realize that, unfortunately, more often than not for this Administration, short term political tactics take precedence over protecting longer term strategic interests.

David Ignatius, again not a typical Obama critic and someone who admits he sympathizes with many of Obama’s foreign policy goals, writes that the Benghazi emails “show that the Administration spent more time thinking about what to say than what to do.”

And he goes on to write, “Under Obama, the United States has suffered some real reputational damage. …This damage unfortunately has largely been self-inflicted by an administration that focuses too much on short-term messaging.”

Consistent with this short-term political focus is the unprecedented micromanagement of all aspects of national security by the White House staff.  From Secretary Gates’s book and other accounts, it is clear how frustrated people in the departments have been in trying to carry out their responsibilities.

The biggest scandal of Reagan’s presidency was about operations managed by the National Security Council staff.  And that happens every day in Obama’s White House.

So the President is going to educate us about how these critics are wrong and on how enlightened his policies truly are.  And what are the fruits of the Obama approach?  Aggressors are emboldened; friends are unsure; neutrals are making new calculations; and according to the yearly index published by Freedom House, freedom is in retreat, declining for the eighth consecutive year.

The Washington Post editorial board this morning writes:

“The Afghan decision would be understandable had Mr. Obama's previous choices proved out.  But what’s remarkable is that the results also have been consistent – consistently bad.”

The President loves to set up straw men arguments.  His opponents are either isolationist or interventionist.  And of course, he knocks down both extremes and comes right down the middle with the only reasonable answer.  That is an approach to argument that we could expect a law professor to make.  But that is not leadership.  The world does not operate in a split-the-difference, neither-this-nor-that mode.  The world wants to know, as the Economist magazine cover asked, “What will America fight for?”  What does America really stand for?  Can America be counted on? 

Yesterday the President announced that we would keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after December, cutting that number in half the next year, and pulling out completely by the end of 2016.  Am I the only one who suspects that the White House liked the sound of 9,800 far better than 10,000, so they made sure it was below double-digits?  Am I the only one who suspects that this is another example of the President calculating the minimum he can get by with to avoid disaster but that his heart is not in it?  Now if you are friend or ally of the U.S., does this decision give you more confidence in our friendship?  If you are one of the 9,800, do you believe that the President really supports your mission?

We started out talking about learning lessons from history.  The Washington Post points out this morning that we left Afghanistan once, which led to 9/11, and everyone said we won’t make that mistake again.

Even a President with rhetorical gifts cannot finesse his way out of military weakness or the loss of credibility in the world.

Power and influence in the world come from having capability plus the will to use it.  We acquire military capability in the annual defense budget.  Last week, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 325 to 98.  Having bipartisan support, the President promptly threatened to veto the bill because we rejected, as did the Senate Armed Services Committee, many of the Administration’s proposals.

For four years in a row, they have sent Congress budgets hiding the full effect of their cuts by including proposals that they know neither the House nor Senate, neither Republicans nor Democrats will accept.

Defense spending this year is 17% of the federal budget, the lowest since before World War II.  Does Congress bear some of responsibility for declining budgets and military capability?  Yes – both houses and both parties, although I believe that Mr. Putin and others have helped awaken many Republicans to why we have always put defense first.

What we see over and over again, however, is that there is never any substitute for Presidential leadership on matters of national security, and when it is lacking, American security suffers.

So where are we headed with the budget?  If we don’t find a way to replace the lower defense budget caps with something more reasonable, we are headed to the smallest army since before World War II.  To the smallest navy since 1931.  To the smallest air force since its inception.

We have already arrived at a nuclear weapons complex that is falling apart just as the challenges with these aging machines mount because the funding commitments that were made during ratification of the New START Treaty have not been kept.  And, of course, a national security space program dependent on Russian-made engines.

So, meanwhile, what is the rest of the world doing?  According to the Economist magazine, if you compare military spending over the last 10 years, (2004-13):

China is up 170%
Russia is up 110%
Even India is up 45%
U.S. is up only 12 %.
Britain, France, Italy – all declined.

Of course, it is not just about the total dollars spent; it is also about how that money is spent.  And we have a lot of work to do to see that we use our defense dollars wisely – that we get more defense out of the money we spend.  We have a bipartisan, bicameral effort underway to work with the Pentagon and with industry to reduce overhead and improve acquisition.

But on the bigger budget picture, the Administration resorts to political blamesmanship, accusing Congress of just being interested in parochial interests for not agreeing to their defense cuts.  Is there some of that?  Sure.  Is that the reason so many Members of Congress in both parties have real doubts and concerns about where this Administration is taking our country’s national security?  I don’t think so.

I disagree with many of the President’s proposals for two reasons.  One is I’m not sure they are well thought out.  Last year, he wanted to retire Global Hawk and keep U-2.  This year he proposed just the reverse.  How much confidence does that give us in the proposals?  I know this – the commanders in Korea say they need them both with the volatile nature of the new ruler in the North.

The other reason that I oppose many of the Administration proposals is that I am not willing to accept that we must have a smaller military and a smaller role in the world.  Most Republicans and many Democrats are not willing to throw up our hands in retreat and resign ourselves to a smaller military and a smaller role.  Because we know, that as the United States retreats, others will fill the void, and those others will not move the world toward greater freedom and greater prosperity.  The United States is exceptional in a way that no other nation in the world is.

The President also accuses Republicans of wanting to use military force in every situation.  I do not.  That is another of the President’s straw men arguments.

I believe in Smart Power.  I served on the Commission on Smart Power.  Our 2007 report talked about having available the full range of tools of national power and influence so that the right tool could be used in the right circumstance.  But some of those tools have to be big hammers.  In fact all of the tools – diplomacy, foreign aid, and strategic communications – are more effective if they have credible military power to back them up. 

But that’s the rub – we have to have the military power; it has to be credible; and we have to be credible about its use.  David Ignatius wrote that “The intangible factors of strength and credibility (so easy to mock) are, in fact, the glue of a rules-based international system.”  That’s what’s fraying – our strength and our credibility, and that’s the reason for the disarray.

Cutting through it all was Tony Blair whose advice to us is, “Don’t worry so much about being loved.  Just be strong. ...What the world needs now is for you to be strong.”  

Of course, no one said it better than Ronald Reagan, on Memorial Day 1986 at Arlington:

“And we owe them something, those boys. …We owe them a promise to look at the world with a steady gaze and, perhaps, a resigned toughness, knowing that we have adversaries in the world and challenges and the only way to meet them and maintain the peace is by staying strong.  That, of course, is the lesson of this century, a lesson learned in the Sudetenland, in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, in Cambodia.  If we really care about peace, we must stay strong.  If we really care about peace, we must, through our strength, demonstrate our unwillingness to accept an ending of the peace.  We must be strong enough to create peace where it does not exist and strong enough to protect it where it does.”

The theme of this month at Heritage is Protect America.  The way to do that – the only way to have peace for us the only way to have peace in the world -- is for America to be strong and for America to be credible.  Peace through strength – it applies as much now as it ever has.