ZELINSKY: For a capable armed forces

On Point

“Why aren’t we intervening in Syria? It’s a humanitarian crisis!”

At a January Master’s Tea, a student asked that question of Sterling Professor Harold Koh, the recently retired legal adviser at the State Department. The questioner was emphatic, forceful — emotional even — in tone. For her, Syria is a moral issue with a solution: Innocents are being murdered daily, and “we” should stop it.

That student exemplifies a good swath of Yalies, liberal internationalists all. They think that we — “we” being the United Nations, which really means the United States — should prevent slaughter around the world. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. They passionately clamored for action in Darfur in the mid-2000s, or applauded the intervention in Libya two years ago.

But ask the same students about the federal budget — a hot topic that makes you a hit at cocktail parties — and they just as fervently support defense cuts. As they see it, the Pentagon is a bloated money-suck. “Do we really need 10 aircraft carriers at $4.5 billion a pop? Think of how many schools that money would build.” The same gung ho interventionist wants to shake the military-industrial behemoth for loose change with which to fund domestic agenda items.

These two political beliefs glaringly contradict: You cannot secure peace in areas of brutal conflict and simultaneously rob our armed forces of the tools they need to do the job. If Yalies really want to prevent the next Rwanda (and I think we do), then we should support a military that has the resources necessary to project power when crises arise.

Sadly, after 10 years of wartime mobilization, the military faces a time of immense austerity. Some in Congress seriously favor sequestration — a plan that slashes $500 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years. In a speech at Georgetown, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that sequestration would hinder our operational capacity. Fewer planes would fly; fewer ships would sail. And should another earthquake hit Japan or Haiti, or another Syria materialize, we would be left without adequate resources to bring aid relief or establish a U.N.-sanctioned humanitarian corridor for refugees.

Even if Congress does pass legislation to overturn sequestration, the Obama administration will prioritize entitlements over defense — despite the fact that the most severe reductions in the Pentagon cannot fund the fiscal nightmares that are Social Security and health care.

Is there room to trim the Defense Department? Of course. Any organization, especially a part of the government, wastes money. But if we gut our military hardware and capabilities, no Western country is going to pick up the mantle of humanitarianism. In 2011, the NATO alliance couldn’t establish a no-fly zone in Libya without U.S. command and control networks. In Mali today, American cargo planes support the French army’s fight against the Islamist rebels because France cannot reliably transport its own troops and gear to Africa.

Yes, other nations should share the burden, but only America has the wealth to truly secure peace when the need arises. And a peaceful world, a humane world is a world with fewer hot spots for terrorism, piracy and all of those nasty actors who threaten our safety and way of life.

So, Yalies who support humanitarian intervention in Syria — or anywhere else for that matter — should be up in arms. We should protest defense cuts with vigor. We should make it clear where our generation’s priorities lie: on the side of a strong, capable America dedicated to a safer world.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu .

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