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In his exhaustive biography of Winston Churchill—which, incidentally, makes for splendid summer reading—the historian Roy Jenkins provides a gripping account of the future British Prime Minister’s lonely struggle during the 1930s to boost the defenses of the United Kingdom.
The main obstacle Churchill faced, Jenkins writes, was that “the climate of the time was profoundly anti-war and semi-pacifist.” While Hitler was energetically rearming Germany, British politicians of all stripes were worried that a corresponding shift on their part—to strengthen national security—would compromise them at the ballot box. The Nazi aggression that Churchill feared seemed too remote, given these day-to-day political pressures.
I thought of Churchill’s battle when I read, earlier this month, of British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond’s intention to transform British forces into a “smaller, integrated and more adaptable army than it is today.” Translated, that means massive, across-the-board cuts: once Hammond’s plans have been implemented—the target date is 2020—Britain will have just 82,000 soldiers available, and the British army will have shrunk to its smallest size since the Crimean War of 1853.
No two situations are exactly alike, of course, and the comparison with Churchill and the 1930s has its limits. Critically, neither Britain nor any other European country is facing the prospect of conquest from the outside, as was the case with the Nazis. Still, as Churchill understood so well, military planning has to be grounded on threat assessment. In the intervening years since the 9/11 atrocities, the threat from Islamist extremism and rogue states has shown itself to be very real. Moreover, just as we monitor the enemy, so the enemy monitors us: cutting defense budgets sends them an unmistakable signal that we have no stomach for a future fight.
As the British military analyst Rob Dover argued, the cuts would mean that there could not be a simultaneous British troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two theaters of war that have become emblematic of this century’s security challenges, from terrorist camps to murderous and unstable tyrants. “That’s not mid-sized military power stuff,” Dover asserted in a blog post. “That’s a serious diminution of the ability to project power and influence.”
It is a similar story elsewhere in Europe, where phrases like “war fatigue” have become ubiquitous in discussions of defense policy, and where military budgets have not been spared the continent-wide austerity drive. In Germany, the government has cut $10.4 billion dollars from the defense budget, following widespread unease over the participation of German troops in the NATO mission to Afghanistan. In France, the new socialist government plans to slash defense spending by 7 percent in 2013. When it comes to NATO spending, a massive 75 per cent of the total budget is now covered by the United States, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the alliance’s member states are European.
The argument is often made that today’s military confrontations don’t necessarily require a huge standing army. Fighting terrorism, it is frequently said, requires sleek, highly trained mobile units, while cyber warfare involves the mastering of technology, not battlefield strategy. But gaining the upper hand in these areas doesn't first require the slimming down of conventional forces.
Additionally, Europe’s allergy to foreign engagements places an extra burden upon the United States. As the military expert Max Boot has contended, this couldn’t come at a worse time, when you remember that the cutbacks to the American defense budget over 10 years amount to $450 billion. In an article for Commentary magazine, Boot pointed out that the U.S. Navy, “down from 546 ships in 1990 to 284 today (the lowest level since 1930), is finding it hard to fight Somali pirates, police the Persian Gulf, and deter Chinese expansion in the Western Pacific.”
Most importantly, history demonstrates that the enemy will invariably take advantage of a diminished will to fight. That’s what happened with Germany after the First World War, and, as Boot says, that’s what also happened on the Korean peninsula: In 1950, when U.S. troop levels had been downsized to just 1.4 million, the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung chose that moment to invade South Korea.
Today’s threats are no less pronounced. And just because we are not facing the risk of invasion doesn’t mean that we can’t be humbled or even defeated.
Take Iran. There are many reasons why the recent Moscow talks on its nuclear ambitions were a debacle, but one of them is surely that the Iranians are taking advantage of our war fatigue. If the Tehran regime perceives a reluctance to pursue the military option by noting where defense sits in our overall priorities, then it has no incentive to compromise.
Or take the much-vaunted “Arab Spring.” The bloodstained Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad offers a glimpse of a dark, uncertain future for the entire region. Most unsettling of all, if western nations carry on pretending that there’s a peace dividend to be drawn, we may not be in a position to influence what happens in the Middle East five or 10 years from now.
The implications of all this for Israel cannot be understated. Both the European governments and the Obama administration have been urging Israel to make further concessions to the Palestinians. Yet, through their defense cuts, they are inadvertently telling the Israelis to do the opposite.
Already, the Israelis are understandably wary of giving up more territory to the Palestinian Authority; they will be even more reluctant if they know that, down the line, they will have to face myriad threats from a hostile Middle East on their own. There are enough weak links in the west’s chain of defense; let’s not add another one, in the form of the State of Israel.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.