02/02/2012 10:49 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Here are a few thoughts.

First, there will be no reduction in the current defense budget. The cuts in question are in fact reductions in future expenditure as called for in the Pentagon's spending plans. In nominal dollars, outlays in fact will rise somewhat. Whether they grow in constant dollars depends on the rate of inflation -- now quite low.

Second, there is no responsible way to assess the implications of these projected figures without rooting them in a rigorous analysis of security needs. The various strategic reviews that have appeared, providing the supposed justifications for the moneys requested, are not that. They are superficial, lowest common denominator committee products. For the most part, they are little more than cut and stitch versions of former reviews with only marginal modifications. In all honesty, they could be done by a good Masters student in a quality International Relations program.

Three, perceived military needs will grow to match the money available. Put succinctly, work expands to spend what's there. This is a truism for every big organization. An example is the creation of a costly Africa command whose justification is known only to those with imaginations enriched by a seeming infinitude of resources. Another minor, sui generis example is the hasty outfitting of a "mother ship" as an operating base for elite commando units in the Persian Gulf. This was explained to us by Lt. Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for the Navy's Fleet Forces Command. We have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than decade. We have long established bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and elsewhere. We have three aircraft carrier groups in the region. SEALs and Deltas have been active. Yet suddenly there is an urgent need for a refitted battle ship. Supposedly, Iran is the target. Having done everything possible to push Iran's back to the wall, we now belatedly realize that there is a good chance of war and that -- shockingly -- the Iranians might be so inconsiderate as to fight back. This is strategy on a par with that of the Europeans who, pressured by Washington, announce a boycott of Iranian oil to be put in place on July 1 so as to give the EU time to make other supply arrangements -- without imagining that the Iranians might impose an embargo at an earlier date more to their suiting. How can you trust people like that who aren't good sports? Kafka indeed.

Four, our leaders are not doing their job by failing to conduct a systematic critical appraisal of what are real security needs in the emerging world environment. That failure of responsibility begins and ends in the White House. Mr. Obama seems content to substitute casual thinking for in-depth analysis. His latest source of wisdom is Robert Kagan's new book, which has become his constant travel companion. Kagan is a close adviser to Mitt Romney. Bipartisanship at work -- as Mr. Obama doubtless sees it. Kagan consulted his fellow neo-conservatives and reached the predictable conclusion that the United States now and forevermore will be No. 1 in the strategic equivalent of the BSC football poll. So no need to change anything -- or do any serious critical rethinking of how the world is changing and our place in it.

Hence, the president in his State of the Union address gave ringing endorsement to the idea that "America Is Back." I guess that means it's 'Morning In The Oval Office." Unhappily, it's Cold Dawn everywhere outside it.

Let us remember Lao Tzu who said: Disordered times are full of loud patriots.

Washington's great budget debate is accompanied by the contrapuntal theme of deciding the fate of the defense budget.