The Failure To Prioritize Will Accelerate Our National Decline

We need a hard-headed assessment of our national needs and capabilities, and we must radically reduce our obligations in order to restore our domestic strength...

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hen individuals fail to budget, they often must triage critical needs. The same thing happens with countries. Hence the rolling black-outs and crumbling infrastructure in much of the third world. The United States has also failed to budget and prioritize, and it is now realizing, in spite of wishful thinking, that it can’t have it all.

The failure to prioritize and think strategically is particularly apparent in the area of foreign policy. Even after losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, our national security establishment quickly pivoted to supporting Ukraine and then, when the Israel-Palestinian conflict reignited, also set out to fully support Israel. There was little soul-searching about the cause of those earlier failures. And there was a simultaneous push to gear up for “great power” conflict with China. Our defense establishment has a lot on its plate.

Setting aside our current Ukraine and Israel obligations, conducting them simultaneously is a symptom of a bigger problem: a failure to set priorities and a failure to recognize practical limits in our defense policy. The signs of this are everywhere. Our national security strategy documents consist of meaningless word salad about multiple competing objectives, and there is almost never an intelligent effort to rank them or connect one to another.

We are spending a fortune on defense, yet our defense capabilities are at an all-time low. The numbers of planes, ships, and personnel available are a fraction of those at the time of the victory in the First Gulf War. The entire procurement system is optimized for producing small numbers of delicate and bespoke weapon systems but does not appear to be able to produce the mountains of artillery shells and missiles needed to prosecute a modern war of attrition.

Early on in the Ukraine War, the United States raided its own reserves of artillery ammunition to give to the Ukrainians. The ammo was located at a large storage facility in Israel. While it was technically an American arms depot, its location suggested an important secondary purpose: it functioned as an iron reserve of ammunition for Israel to use in the event of a hot war. There was some grumbling about diverting this ammo to Ukraine when it was first proposed in early 2023, but it appears the distribution went forward.

By the time Hamas conducted the October 7 attacks, most of this ammunition was long gone. News reports make it clear that it will take years to replace what has already been used because all of our artillery ammunition is now made at a single plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

This week, the Biden Administration withheld some weapons earmarked for Israel, expressing concern over Israel’s proposed expansion of operations in light of the humanitarian catastrophe that has already occurred in Gaza. But I believe this is what the kids call “cope.”

Existing promises of arms and ammunition to Ukraine and Israel, as well as the requirements of our own forces, are simply impossible to fulfill. Lacking the ability to achieve all of these goals, the Biden administration depleted our reserves while pretending this was just slack and dead weight. Thus, the recent debate on the Ukraine funding bill always had an air of unreality, as if the only thing holding back the provision of arms and munitions for Ukraine was money rather than finite and hard-to-replenish supplies. Rather than pausing, we have given Ukraine everything we had and never stopped doing so.

While I believe some within the Biden Administration think that Israel has gone too far in its campaign in Gaza, it is also impossible at the moment to continue simultaneously arming Ukraine and Israel. So, the administration had to dress this up as a moral stand, lest American credibility be further degraded by our manifest weakness and exhaustion.

In other words, Biden’s withholding of arms from Israel is simply making a virtue of necessity for his own political gain. As between Israel and Ukraine, Israel’s needs are less critical. It does not presently face an existential threat, and the current war is an offensive campaign conducted almost entirely on enemy territory.

The Biden Administration’s invocation of human rights abuses is somehow less provocative and less damaging than saying our ammunition depots are dangerously empty. After all, if the latter is true, it means that if China invaded Taiwan or something similarly serious happened, we couldn’t do much, even if we wanted too.

Lately, the Biden presidency seems more and more like a shambolic reprise of the Jimmy Carter years. Both administrations were characterized by weakness abroad and crippling inflation at home, which together contributed to a thorough demoralization of the American people.

Today, Biden presides over a period of great national pessimism, as evidenced by widespread mental illness, lack of social mobility, and plummeting marriage and birth rates, among other signs of decline. If the pessimism of the Carter years mostly stemmed from the economy and specific government policies, today such pessimism seems more visceral and wide-ranging and less amenable to political solutions.

After all, countries and empires have a life cycle, and there are many instances in which the struggles and virtues of earlier generations led to great prosperity, which contained the seeds of that same society’s own self-destruction through decadence and corruption.

We have to adapt to reality, and the deficiencies of our defense industrial base and military should be a wake-up call. Self-congratulation and soothing narratives will not substitute for hard-headed assessment and resistance to the current system.

As it stands, our country lacks hard and soft power, our military is weaker in relative terms than at any point since the end of the Cold War, our economy is unbalanced and ill-suited to national defense and independence, and the social conditions of the country are becoming more degraded and proletarian every day. We need a serious national renewal, including a revival of the old morality of restraint, thrift, and the like, or this will not end well.

The debate about whether Biden “abandoned Israel” is really quite beside the point. This framing rests on the obsolete notion peddled by the neoconservatives that the United States is the “sole superpower,” which can easily control events around the world and has a moral obligation to do so in order to further liberal ends.

The obsessions with the overseas empire and the affairs of others are luxuries that our country can no longer afford. Most of this activity has nothing to do with security or prosperity. And it costs a fortune to boot. We need a hard-headed assessment of national needs and capabilities, and we must radically reduce our obligations in order to restore domestic strength.

Otherwise, the pretense of ordering events around the world through an interventionist foreign policy will instead accelerate our own collapse.✪

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