On Defense and Disasters

Posted on Tue 03/22/2011 by

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By James Carafano, Ph.D.

Foreign policy news last week flipped back and forth between Japan and Libya. The week started with attention riveted on the threat of nuclear contamination spreading to Tokyo and ended with a UN resolution and military intervention in Libya.

None of the news from Japan was good last week. The White House responded that the US would offer all possible aid. Some argued the president’s response was too tepid and represented a “lost opportunity” to show support for an important ally.

What cannot be questioned is that the president did lose another opportunity to turn a crisis into a “teachable” moment. The US is ill-prepared for catastrophes on the scale of what hit Japan.

(1) Sheltering in place is great for a lot of disasters (such as currently being ordered in Japan to avoid radiological contamination) but that means you need to bring food, etc., to people and you have to have a system for delivering that aid.

(2) Americans are disaster stupid. Most Americans have no basic individual knowledge of civil defense. People, for example, understand nothing about radiation dangers.

(3) The US military would be vital to catastrophic response (though the Pentagon has actually cut the number of troops for radiological disasters).

(4) The most important thing government brings to disaster is credibility; when that’s lost-everything starts to fall apart (sadly the US planning for these kind of “black swan” disasters is in terrible shape. Rather than remind America about these shortfalls and vow to address them, the president ignored them.

The UN Security Council resolution endorsing action in Libya dominated news at the close of the week. The decision of the US to participate in the operations leaves key questions unanswered.  The White House’s long-term strategy remains unclear. Nevertheless, over the weekend military strikes backed by the US were underway. Once again, however, the White House let another teachable moment pass by—the importance of maintaining trained and ready armed forces. Ironically, the administration continually fails to make the case for a strong national defense, even as it throws these forces into battle. There are some in Washington, including fierce advocates for operations in Libya, who want to gut the military. That would be a grave mistake. What the president should be telling the American people is that adequate defense funding is affordable. To sustain this force over time, however, requires addressing (1) mandatory federal government outlays that, if unchecked, will consume the entire federal budget; (2) defense manpower costs that will need to be controlled without cutting overall manning levels; and (3) wasteful, unnecessary, and inefficient defense expenditures.

Meanwhile, though overshadowed by other events, General David Petraeus reported to Congress on progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the released US citizen Raymond Davis, ending a tense diplomatic standoff. Both events represented cautious optimism for US efforts to defeat the Taliban and eliminate al Qaeda.

Finally, the President ended the week in his first trip to Latin America. This should have been an important trip for Obama. “The President’s trip is an important symbol of the continued need for strong U.S.–Latin American cooperation,” writes Heritage expert Ray Walser. “President Obama must use his visit to cement personal ties to the region’s democratic leaders, build public and private confidence in strong U.S. international leadership, and rediscover the foundations for a bipartisan U.S. policy at home.” Unfortunately, for the White House news from Libya overwhelmed attention to the trip.

The president’s grade for the week is “B” mostly for being overwhelmed by the myriad of challenges he faces, muddling through, but failing to demonstrate decisive leadership on any front.

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a leading expert in defense affairs, intelligence, military operations and strategy, and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

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