Of Donkeys and Elephants: A Different Kind of Strength

“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” Weak. Lame. Liberal. These words are common reactions to this idea that national defense can be undergone without the use of arms. The suggestion that “intellect and decent purpose” could solve military conflict better than military power is to suggest weakness. It is made into a black and white issue: big military equals strong, small military equals weak. The thought that a small military equates weakness seems logical, but in reality is a devastatingly popular myth.

The above quote is not from some liberal politician suggesting diplomacy over bombs. It is from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential farewell address in 1961. In that address, this republican, five-star general president, one of the most decorated military heroes of American history, laments what he describes as an “immense military establishment,” that was “new in the American experience.” The appeal was surprising, as Eisenhower even seemed regretful of his support to the rise of a military machine.

Fast-forward about 50 years, and this question of military escalation or de-escalation remains prominent. Today, it is Mitt Romney who positions himself as the guardian of American military prowess, guaranteeing Americans that he will rebuild the Navy, modernize the military, and significantly increase the defense budget. As his website states: “It is America today that patrols the global commons and keeps them safe for trade and commerce.”

Whether it is something he actually believes in, or just something to excite his republican base, Romney consistently promises to elevate military spending in order to return America to “strength.” Obama, on the other hand proposes a “leaner” military, as he strives toward less international conflict, and less military spending.

The problems with the “strong” military defense approach are multifold. First of all, it is based upon a myth—that having a stronger military leads to more safety. In reality, the “strength” of the U.S. military has guaranteed it a central roll in all major international conflicts. The second problem is the obscenely excessive amount of money the military demands. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States accounted for more than 40 percent of the entire world’s “defense” spending. This issue of military spending should be central to the nation’s economic concerns. While Romney runs on cutting “unnecessary programs,” he insists on the grandest of unnecessary expenditures—the defense budget. At some point, Americans need to realize that it is not “weak” to cut the military. It is simply intelligent, practical, reasonable, and even peaceful.

It is not America’s role to, as Romney says, “patrol the global commons.” Consider the words of another great military hero of American history, George Washington: “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course…when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality…when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation.” Amidst his 18th-century rhetoric, Washington’s point is clear: America should stay out of international affairs, and will in this way have the unique ability to remain peaceful.

The continual vamping up of the military will lead to exponential growth of not only excessive spending, but violence, death, and suffering. To cut the military does not equal weakening America, but rather strengthening it by pulling it out of external affairs, and not putting military spending on credit, thus aggrandizing the national debt.

Listen to our past presidential military heroes. Their appeal is to not make “defense” into a military establishment that dominates American foreign affairs and puts the U.S. into a vicious cycle of conflict, war, and debt. Republicans would like you to think that Obama is a “weak” president, leading America toward military deficiency. I would propose he is leading America toward a much more reasonable approach to the military, hearkening to the calls of such “strong” presidents as Washington and Eisenhower.

BY NEIL WITZIG witzi013@d.umn.edu

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