On National Security, Can the Center Hold?

In domestic politics, the divisions roiling America enter new realms of extremism every week.

From traditional economic issues to culture wars, hate speech dominates, the integrity of elections is questioned, civil disobedience is constant, and the partisan abuse of major institutions have given the country the feel of a Third World banana republic. Though most Americans decry such polarization, they seem caught up in it.

Yet, in one area there is a broad bipartisan consensus; the need to strength national security in an increasingly dangerous world. One of the first acts of the new Republican-led House of Representative was to create a Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party with a wide mandate. The vote was 365-65. At the end of last year, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2023 was passed by the Democrat-controlled House 350-80. It authorized $45 billion more than President Biden had requested for defense spending, bringing the total to $857.9 billion. While much of this increase was to offset inflation, it also hiked funding for several current and emerging weapons programs. The Democrat-led Congress named this important bill for a retiring Republican senator, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a well-known hawk.

 China and Russia are explicit concerns. The NDAA establishes a defense modernization program for Taiwan. This includes up to $10 billion in Foreign Military Financing grants over the next five years and up to $2 billion in loans. It would create a regional contingency stockpile, allowing the U.S. to place weapons in Taiwan for use if a conflict erupts. To strengthen U.S. capabilities, construction of nine warships and two support ships is to begin this year and $1 billion is directed to improve the shipbuilding industrial base. The Navy will need to build more warships, faster, if it is to maintain naval superiority against a China that has the world’s largest shipyards dedicated to expanding its battle fleet.

The NDAA would extend and modify the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, authorizing $800 million this fiscal year. The program provides funds to pay the American defense industry to produce weapons to send to Ukraine, rather than drawing from current stockpiles which American forces may need.

A recurring problem since World War I has been underestimating what it takes to fight a modern war. The War on Terror was very low-level combat not unlike the colonial wars Great Britain fought before 1914. Shifting from low level to high level military operations requires a rapid boost in the production of ammunition. There was a scandal when British troops fighting in France ran short of artillery shells. We do not want that to happen in the Ukraine. The good news is Russian industry cannot keep up, either. It is having to import weapons from Iran. The U.S.-NATO economies tower over the much smaller and less advanced Russian economy. If mobilized, the Western alliance can isolate and overwhelm Moscow.

Though the bipartisan majorities supporting American strength and leadership appear robust, there are ideological critics on two fringes who must be contained. The 65 votes against the Select Committee on China were all Democrats from the “anti-imperialist” wing who not only want to avoid confrontation with Beijing but who doubt America has the moral authority to act given its alleged violent, racist, and exploitive rise to power. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) claimed that focusing on China will only "further embolden anti-Asian rhetoric and hate and put lives at risk." Yet, the people in the direct path of Beijing’s expansion are Asian, too, and the U.S. is offering an umbrella to protect them. The Committee’s long and cumbersome name was designed to make clear our concern is the tyrannical Communist Party of China, not the oppressed Chinese people. Some also liked to put a partisan edge on their criticism such as Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) who warned this could “go in an extreme Republican direction,” whatever that means.

Left-wing academics have also chimed in. Monica Duffy Toft and Sidita Kushi wrote an essay for the journal Foreign Affairs on “How China’s Rise Could Constrain American Interventionism.” They are critics of what they claim is the “militarization of U.S. foreign policy.” But how is the rise of a rival power armed to the teeth, threatening its neighbors with invasion supposed to “demilitarize” anything? What they really mean (and want) is for the U.S. to be intimidated by Beijing and pull back from world affairs. This is reminiscent of the lament Daniel Singer expressed in the October 14, 1991 issue of The Nation over the collapse of the USSR. Singer felt its demise was a bad thing because “the Soviet Union was the only potential external obstacle to the expansion of American imperialism.” It is a small step from hating your own country to embracing its enemies.

Toft and Kushi were quickly endorsed by the misnamed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft which was founded by a coalition of leftists and libertarians calling for “restraint” in U.S. policy. Restraint is the new term used by those who know the old term “isolationism” is unviable. This is the angle that endangers the Republican half of the bipartisan national security consensus. Last May, a stand-alone bill to provide $40 billion to Ukraine became law. The House vote was a bipartisan 368-57. But in this case all the nay votes were Republican. The modern GOP has been the stronger party on defense and foreign policy, and President Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. It is thus hard to understand why there would be any hesitation to defend a country being invaded by a former KGB officer who claims the USSR created Ukraine and should get it back.

Given that President Putin and Chairman Xi have declared a “no limits” strategic partnership against the West, there is no reason to view them differently as adversaries.

The Ukrainian cause is just and a look at the map confirms its strategic importance. The isolationists cannot contest the issue head-on. So other arguments are thrown up, but they are not persuasive. The first is that we cannot afford to help Ukraine given the large budget deficit driving inflation. The Federal budget for FY2023 is estimated at $5.8 trillion with a deficit over $1 trillion. The Ukraine War is not the cause of this. The trillions in runaway spending are on the domestic side of the ledger. It is a target-rich environment for those who sincerely want to cut waste, fraud, and abuse. What we cannot do is let bad money drive out good. Each outlay must be judged on its own merits, and Ukraine wins that decision.

The other false argument makes aid to Ukraine an either/or choice with other security issues. Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) in voting against the NDAA argued “It is clear this America-last Administration does not understand the real security threats to our country or how to address them. Our border is being overrun by the Mexican crime cartels, we are sending billions of dollars of military equipment and weaponry to Ukraine with no plan or exit strategy, and we are becoming increasingly dependent on countries who hate us for our energy supply.” Border security and energy independence are vital issues that need to be addressed, but that does mean we should not also address the Ukraine issue; that would only lengthen the list of threats we are not meeting. We must do more across the board, not less.

Critics on both extremes are trying to make foreign policy a partisan issue to pull more people to their side. This is a dangerous tactic. Our enemies consider all Americans to be their enemies (except for those they can subvert), and if they take down America, all who live here will suffer the consequences. Standing against common enemies should unite us and serve as part of the remedy for the plague of anarchy and division that it is wracking the country.


William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications. 

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