Memo to Obama:

Send in the military

By Heather Hurlburt

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 r. President, we’ve just had an election where your national security policies were barely contested—they may have been the only policies that weren’t. But the conventional wisdom about where national security belongs in the State of the Union probably hasn’t changed since I worked on one a decade ago. It goes at the end: salute the troops, nod to trade, and then circle back to the domestic economic agenda that holds all the public attention. This year, however, I suggest you start with national security—and talk about our military precisely for the sake of changing the domestic debate.

The military is now the most respected institution in American life, and by far the most respected part of government. But relatively few Americans recognize that military planners at the Pentagon consider “domestic issues” to be front-burner strategic concerns.For a pragmatic—even progressive—approach on issues from education to energy to deficit reduction, they may be your greatest ally. But the American people won’t know that unless you tell them.

What they do know is that we are fighting two protracted wars abroad, contending with a nuclear North Korea and a nuclear-aspiring Iran, and seeming to stand still while China and others enjoy an economic and strategic surge. Domestically, they know we are struggling to create new jobs, succumbing to a spirit of lowered expectations, and mired in an era of divisive politics. But those are just the immediate-term realities that we face as Americans. The public looks to you for a way to see beyond them with a vision of the future—and the part of our government that has the resources and the remit to think most rigorously about the long view is our military. In your speech, Mr. President, you should use the military’s hard-nosed assessments of the future to bolster your own vision, and to inspire Congress and the American people to take decisive action.

Begin by pointing out that the Pentagon sees our faltering economy as one of the greatest long-term threats facing the country. In a recent speech, Defense Secretary Gates echoed the sentiments of Dwight D. Eisenhower, insisting that the United States “could only be as militarily strong as it was economically dynamic and fiscally sound.” Our generals look at China and see that country’s burgeoning industries giving it strategic power far beyond its still-modest but growing military might. They realize in turn that America’s military strength, though still unrivaled in the world, cannot be sustained without prosperity at home.

Explain that military leaders worry about the raw materials for economic success just as American families do. Last year, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton and former Secretary of the Navy John Dalton wrote that “[t]he most important long-term investment we can make for a strong military is in the health and education of the American people.” The point doesn’t stop with soldiers: if we can’t field enough well-educated young men and women for our armed forces, we certainly can’t field enough innovators, scientists, and entrepreneurs to compete with China, India, and Europe.

Now that you’ve described our military as grappling with some of the same domestic problems that matter to most Americans, you can highlight its responses—some of which reveal the true hardness of supposedly soft progressive aims. While Congress has fought ineffectively over energy and climate bills, the Pentagon has begun researching next-generation fuels for tanks and battleships and even portable insulation for forward operating bases in Afghanistan, while placing solar arrays on Air Force hangars and wind farms on Army bases. Here’s Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn: “In the military we learn quickly that reducing threats and vulnerabilities is essential well before you get into harm’s way. Our dependence on all fossil fuels poses threats to the military mission and the country at large.” And in a similarly pragmatic approach to an ideologically charged issue, Gates and Mullen, as well as about 70 percent of America’s service members, have recently gone on record as saying that letting gays and lesbians serve openly will strengthen, not weaken our armed forces.

Explain that the military also understands the strategic importance of fiscal responsibility—and is willing to make sacrifices for it. The current chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said again and again that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Honoring that assessment, he and Secretary Gates have both urged that the military share in the hard process of budget cutting.

Of course, as the saying goes, not all problems have military solutions (indeed, intellectuals in the defense establishment are increasingly the ones who are saying so). And there are limits, in a democracy, to how much an elected leader should rely on the military to promote the priorities of civilian governance. But when the most highly respected institution in government has a carefully considered vision of the future that so well complements your own, why not leverage its expertise? Ask your fellow civilian leaders to show some of the same kind of leadership we expect from our military. To invest in the infrastructure, energy sources, and citizens of the future instead of splurging on tax cuts for the wealthy today. To live within our means—even if that entails cutting some weapons systems—while setting economic growth as our first priority. That way, the state of our union will remain not only secure, but strong.

Photo: Getty Images"

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Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network. She served in the Clinton administration as a special assistant and speechwriter to President Clinton, speechwriter to Secretaries of State Albright and Christopher, and member of the State Department’s policy planning staff.  
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