Writing in the Washington Post last week, Robert Kagan argues that for all the emphasis we’re placing on new challenges in the year, much of our work will involve well-established ideas. Among them: “Military force matters: At a time when all we hear about is “soft” and “smart” power, it is ironic that some of the toughest challenges in the coming year will be about old-fashioned hard, dumb military power. Will Israel use force against Iran? Will the United States? Will Washington and its allies end up playing a role in Syria to protect civilians as they did in Libya? Similar questions exist for Asia. . . .Conventional wisdom now puts too much weight on “soft” power. We should not overestimate how much the world loves us because of our virtues, nor underestimate how much our influence still depends on hard power and our ability to provide protection in a pinch.”

My problem in understanding whether Kagan’s advice is right or wrong is the same problem I have in reacting to the Pentagon’s recalibration of America’s strategic vision of the the future: I just don’t understand anymore what America gets for its military expenditures. I literally do not know. What does China do or not do because we have a powerful military? What does Russia do or not do? What does any country do or not do? What does our vast arsenal of nuclear weapons obtain for us that would not otherwsise come our way? And what can we reasonably expect our military might to accomplish?

There was a time when ordinary Americans were given explanations for military expenditures. We had to protect against Soviet tanks coming through the Fulda Gap. We had to defend ourselves against ICMB strikes. We had to resist communist expansion throughout the world. We could not allow the Soviets to place missiles in Cuba. Whether these explanations were bogus or not, exaggerated or not, explanations were made.

I don’t know what we ought to be concerned with right now. Ethiopian pirates? Crazy North Koreans? A nuclear Iran that wants to do what? Whatever the threat is, how does having a million men at arms address it.

I would love to hear our government talk about the threats they envision that will be addressed by arms. Where do they think we might engage China? Do they think we’re going to have to invade Iran? What do our guarantees to Israel require us to do, and do these guarantees give us any sway over the Israeli government’s policies? Are we still vulnerable to realistic threats of terror from Islamic fundamentalists, and what percentage of our forces is devoted to fighting those threats?

Absent these explanations, what it seems is that we’re past a lot of Cold War era threats, and that we don’t have very many current threats that justify our present levels of spending, but that we don’t know what might be coming, so we need to stay strong. The problem with that notion is that while it may seem prudent, the reality is that if you have an army sitting around, people start thinking of ways to use it, and before long, you’re in Iraq. It’s good that the president wants to cut eight percent of the Pentagon budget, but I’d like him to explain why he thinks he needs the other 92 percent.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

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Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.