Obama's insecurity team

His national security nominees are weak as he seeks to cut defense spending

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The men President Barack Obama has chosen to lead his national security team send more shivers down the spines of our allies than our enemies.

So if Charles Emmerson is right in thinking the world in 2013 "eerily looks like the world of 1913, on the cusp of the Great War," that's not good.

The United States, like Britain 100 years ago, is in relative economic and military decline, Mr. Emmerson, a researcher for the British think tank Chatham House, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine Jan. 4. Hostile powers are rising and "jostling for position in the four corners of the world."

The president wants Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state; former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to take over for defense secretary from Leon Panetta and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to succeed Gen. David Petraeus as CIA director. All are more dovish than those they'll replace.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Brennan should win Senate confirmation without difficulty. They deserve some.

Mr. Kerry exaggerated his heroism to get medals, according to some naval officers who served with the senator in Vietnam. He promised to authorize release of his military records, but didn't release all of them until after he ran for president in 2004.

Mr. Brennan blew a British operation in Yemen with an inadvertent leak. He may have leaked classified information for partisan political purposes and may be involved in a cover-up of what happened in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on 9/11/2012.

Mr. Hagel may not be confirmed. Republicans oppose him because of his soft line on Iran, his hard line on Israel and his virulent criticism of President George W. Bush. Gays are upset by caustic remarks he's made about them, since retracted. He voted against the Kyoto climate change treaty, Global Warmers note. Some Jews, including Democrats, suspect he's anti-Semitic.

All three nominees are willfully blind to threats posed by an expansionist China, a nuclear Iran, surging Islamic fundamentalism. But all are nominally qualified. Only possibly in the case of Mr. Brennan is there another reason for denying the president who he wants in his Cabinet.

All faithfully reflect the views of President Barack Obama. And that's the big problem. Policy usually matters more than the people who execute it. So it may not matter much if they're confirmed or not. But confirmation fights are the best way to highlight the folly of policy.

We spent $721 billion on defense in fiscal year 2010. We are now on course to spend $566 billion during the fiscal year that begins in October. Over 10 years, President Obama would cut defense spending by $487 billion.

If we cut so much while potential adversaries -- China especially -- spend more, our technological edge will erode.

We postponed modernization of the Air Force and Navy during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy has fewer ships now than in 1916 and the Air Force is the smallest it's ever been. "Every T-38 trainer, KC-135 tanker and B-52 long-range strike aircraft is old enough to join AARP," notes the Air Force Association.

With threats mounting at an alarming rate, it would be foolish and dangerous to shrink the Air Force and Navy further or postpone modernization longer.

If in the next few weeks the president and Congress don't agree on meaningful restraints on domestic spending, "foolish and dangerous" will become "catastrophic." Budget sequestration would go into effect. Defense would be cut an additional $49 billion a year, on average, over 10 years.

To disarm unilaterally in the face of rising threats invites aggression, history teaches. But the president and his national security team pay little attention to history. They see our adversaries as they'd like them to be, not as they are. That's a mistake, Mr. Emmerson said.

"Thinking historically can remind us of the surprises that can knock states and societies off course and ... check our enthusiasm for believing that this time is different," he wrote. "The world of 1913, on the threshold of the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century yet by and large not expecting it, is a case in point."

If confirmation battles don't alert the president, his nominees and the American people to the folly of the course we're on, we may be on the threshold of the seminal catastrophe of the 21st century.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).


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