The presidential debates are testing the limits of Dickens' "worst of times." Republicans, with extreme cases of historical amnesia, condemn the past seven years of the Obama administration as among the worst in our history. Surely, at least one or two must recall George W. Bush's catastrophic war on terror and the consequences of the 2003 Iraq war. 

The Democratic side pits the inconceivable against the incredulous — an independent democratic socialist challenging a credibility-impaired old hand whose use of e-mails for convenience may derail her campaign.

Regarding national defense, the Democratic side has been blessedly silent so far. If their debate was as ill-informed and distorted as the GOP's, Americans would be even more depressed about the future of the nation. Indeed, Republicans are not only resurrecting the term "know-nothing," virtually all their candidates are relying on Voltaire's view of "lies, damn lies and statistics" in their defense diatribes.

Their mantra is "to rebuild" America's military. The allegation is that President Barack Obama has systemically shrunk the nation's forces to dangerously low levels. After all, this is smallest Navy since John Paul Jones' era or at least before World War II. The Army will contract to 450,000 active duty soldiers or less. And the Air Force has been almost cut numerically in half since the halcyon days of Desert Storm.

This "know-nothingness" is not only dead wrong. It is insulting and misleading. Consider a few of the facts and realities that are conveniently ignored or denied.

First, ask any serving American general or private today as to which is the best military in the world. The unequivocal answer is the US. Of course imperfections and shortcomings exist. The most dangerous is uncontrollable internal cost growth that, if not checked now, will ultimately produce a "hollow force" reminiscent of the post-Vietnam War period. Yet no candidate is prepared to address this danger, preferring instead to regurgitate uninformed sound bites.

Second, even if the Army dropped below 450,000 active duty ranks, the reserves and the National Guard are more than half a million strong. And no one mentions a small detachment something called the US Marine Corps, consisting of about 175,000, yielding a total active duty ground force of 625,000. That gives the nation a total active duty ground forces of 625,000. If that level is insufficient, then critics need to explain why more forces are needed and where or how they will be used and funded. 

Third, it is true that the Navy has about 280 ships and the Air Force around 4,000 aircraft. By the end of World War II, the Navy had about 6,800 ships. Does anyone doubt what the outcome would be if believe that if today’s Navy or Air Force went to war against the numerically superior forces the nation had in 1945. So as Voltaire said, statistics can easily be turned into damn lies., there would be any doubt to the outcome?

Fourth, the nation will spend about $600 billion this year on defense. That is more relatively and absolutely than was spent during the height of the Reagan defense buildup. If we need to "rebuild" the military, Republicans must explain in specific terms the reasons for an even stronger military. None of the candidates has remotely addressed any of these points.

Fifth, the administration opposed sequestration that mandated defense cuts and was imposed by Republican "tea partiers" in the House of Representatives. Republican candidates should acknowledge the cause of sequestration and explain how each will deal with GOP deficit hawks.

As for "carpet bombing" and other hysterical sound bites uninformed by fact, none would survive a vetting even at the most junior military course level. Bluster may suit a reality TV show or video war game. But if one of the candidates who made these dangerous statements were to become commander in chief, squandering the nation's blood and treasure in pursuit of sound bites would be an outrage.

Can a fact-based debate regarding defense occur at least where lives are at stake? The answer is, sadly, no. From Jack Kennedy who promised "to bear any burden and pay any price" and to close non-existent "missile gaps," to George W. Bush who was out "to change the geostrategic landscape of the Middle East," presidents too often allow misinformed or uninformed sound bites to pass for policy.

2016 will be no different. Voltaire will be correct. And the nation will be the bill payer for this know-nothingness.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist; chairman of the Killowen Group, which that advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's DC's Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. (BENS).  His latest book is A Handful of Bullets:  How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.

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