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Bernard I. Finel Headshot

Time to Stop Playing Politics on Defense

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The past couple of decades have been disheartening with respect to the politicization of defense policy. In 1992, then-Governor Clinton pledged to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military. Regardless of the substance of the issue, it was inappropriate to seek to make political gains from proposing a change in military rules. The decision, ultimately, ought to have been made on the basis of whether it would strengthen or weaken the American military as a policy instrument. It should have been made in consultation with military and Congressional leaders and implemented as a change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Over the past seven years, playing politics with defense has been an entrenched policy of the Bush administration. The administration has sought to deflect criticism of its handling of the Iraq War by arguing that we must "support the troops" as if supporting the troops and praising the president were synonymous.

Many of us had hoped that we might be able to turn the page on this fractious approach to policy. Unfortunately, some analysts at the Heritage Foundation seem to want to politicize defense even further and seek to use national security as a cudgel to push through unpopular changes to entitlement programs.

Under the rubric of "4 percent for Freedom" a group of conservative analysts is proposing that we ought to increase annual U.S. defense spending by as much as $150 billion above current plans by 2013. They claim we need this level of spending to keep America safe. But, in reality, the goal of dramatically increasing defense spending has little to do with American security and much to do with American politics.

Not only is this proposal designed to cast anyone opposed to such a dramatic increase in spending as being against "the troops," if passed it would serve the secondary purpose of creating a budget crisis that would justify slashing domestic entitlement programs.

This may seem like good politics to conservative strategists, but it is profoundly dishonest. At some point, we will need to get serious about national defense. Getting serious means having a nuanced conversation with the American people about national security and the American role in the world as well as the price we, as a nation, are willing to pay for it.

There are significant needs, but we can only address those needs if we leave politics behind and work to build a durable consensus between the parties rather than seeking to turn every issue into a source of partisan advantages. Our troops deserve better.