03/12/2013 03:10 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

Unhollowing the Force

Isn't it interesting that the arrival of the sequester was Armageddon, yet, more than a week later, we're still here? We don't know how long the sequester will last, but, for argument's sake, let's assume that its impact on the Department of Defense will be lengthy. What difference would it make?

A reorientation of our armed forces would be necessary, and, in conjunction, possibly a reorientation in our foreign policy. Currently, we are focused on fighting terror, and on trying to channel events overseas in such a way as to service our own concept of how the world should look.

Both missions are misguided. Take terrorism. It has been with us since the beginning of warfare. The Greeks and Romans used it. So did Genghis Khan, the Crusaders, the Inquisition; it was the Holocaust, My Lai, and U.S. troops raping and killing Iraqis. It is never going away, any more than is the common cold. To think that it can be defeated makes as much sense as banning war. Anyone who thinks that we have not had a major domestic attack since 9/11 because of our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan totally misreads what has really happened. If you want to thank anyone, thank the domestic intelligence services, including the NYPD, as well as the CIA.

Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan (both impossible) would simply shift terrorist training camps elsewhere. There are plenty of countries that don't have the kind of military power necessary to control all of their real estate. Just as bad, terrorists are sometimes welcomed, as they are in Iran and western Pakistan. Even we have trouble controlling our paramilitaries, and the worst terrorist event in this country's history predating 9/11 was homegrown. We would be better off staying on interior lines by concentrating on keeping terrorists out of the United States, than in trying to obliterate something that is never going away.

The second reason for keeping a large armed force is the idea of leading from the front. The United States, according to the hawks, should be responsible for getting Sunnis and Shi'ites to play nicely together, stopping tribal warfare in Africa, and rebuilding failed nations. It is flatly impossible. Since World War II, we have saved South Korea and Kuwait, and our aid helped guarantee Israel's survival. But the world's general landscape has not been altered. The Middle East and South Asia are a mess. We may have stopped genocide in the Balkans, but the region is still an economic basket case. Africa, if it is making progress as described in a recent edition of The Economist, is doing it on its own.

The simple fact is that a few hundred thousand infantrymen, no matter how finely trained and heavily supported, are not going to control the problems of seven billion people. If we cannot maintain a force as finely honed as ours under the weight of current budget cuts -- shrink the force, and shrink our foreign policy expectations with it.

We are already failing miserably at taking care of our casualties and veterans. Mental health resources are inadequate. Veterans are unemployed and homeless in alarming numbers. Congress is looking at every possible way to cut benefits. Our troops don't get rich during their service. Their small numbers, as well as their families, carry the burden of defense for the entire nation. Is it not ludicrous to try to ease our budget problems on their backs? Why not shrink the force to numbers that can be managed -- not merely from a training standpoint, but from a perspective of properly caring for those who perform society's most onerous job?

Meanwhile, weapons procurement is out of control, and skewed in inappropriate ways. In a world of drones, do we really need over 2,300 F-35 strike fighters? The plane's complexity has resulted in repeated delays due to technical failures. The result has been a cost spiral that is exacerbated as foreign buyers either drop out of the program, or lower the numbers of the planes they're going to buy, resulting in even higher costs for all concerned. Remember that the overpriced F-22, the most advanced interceptor ever built, has never fired a shot in anger, and has had persistent technical problems that have cost the lives of pilots. Meanwhile, the Navy violated just about every principle in the procurement handbook for the Littoral Combat Ship program as it kissed up to members of Congress just to keep funded a program considered misguided by many defense experts.

The U.S. military has a number of clearly circumscribed missions for which it should be designed. These include protection of the homeland, safeguarding commerce and sea lanes, and making sure that clearly defined national interests are looked after. We can no longer control a world where modern weapons are freely dispensed to even the most primitive and backward populations. It is questionable whether we could, even if we had the money, but we don't. The force will only remain hollow if we continue to try to keep it inflated to an unnecessary size. Let us instead begin to collapse the force through careful planning until it reaches a size that can be properly maintained. In the meantime, we need to adjust our foreign engagement to emphasize diplomacy and trade.

No country will ever again have the military power to have everything just the way it wants. It is time we adjusted to that reality, and refashioned our military accordingly.