By W. James Antle III
Cutting the Pentagon is a question of strategy—as well as fiscal sanity.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made an attempt to placate critics of his fiscal profligacy by proposing a three-year freeze in federal spending. Republicans immediately cried foul, noting that outlays would remain stuck at the administration’s bloated levels. The more serious among them also point out that Obama excluded the biggest entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—making his moratorium no exercise in spending restraint at all.
Yet there were fewer objections to the fourth category of spending Obama exempted: expenditures “related to our national security.” No one wants the federal government to pinch pennies when it comes to its paramount constitutional responsibility, protecting the physical security of the United States. But the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble and the National Security Network’s Heather Hurlbut argued shortly afterward in Politico that much of what is spent in the name of security serves no such purpose.
Even freezing defense spending at current levels would be an expensive bargain: the Pentagon’s base budget was $548.9 billion in fiscal 2011. That’s not counting the additional $182 billion requested that year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that have already cost the country $1 trillion. Costs can be expected to rise even more: inflation-adjusted military spending has increased by 60 percent over the past decade, prompting Preble and Hurlbut to write, “because our national security rests on our economic health as well as on the strength of our military, a liberal and a libertarian can agree that the Pentagon should no longer get a pass.”
Such agreement is easy enough to find among think-tank academics, especially those employed by institutions that specifically advocate limited government or scrutinize the military-industrial complex. But there’s far less appetite for it on Capitol Hill, especially among the Republican congressmen currently beating their chests about excessive government spending—though Democrats are seldom much better.
Congressmen Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Tex.) have set out to put defense cuts on the agenda through the recommendations of their Sustainable Defense Task Force, convened for the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. Trying to rein in military spending in an era of out-of-control deficits and debt, task force participants took aim squarely at what is most costly: the extent of America’s commitments abroad. Promising “a more efficient defense” and “realistic goals, sustainable strategy,” the group put out a report containing an ambitious list of more than a dozen possible cuts saving nearly $1 trillion in ten years.
The Frank-Paul collaboration would reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe and Asia by one-third and shrink our overall forces accordingly. Similar reductions would accompany withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy battle fleet would be cut from 286 ships to 230. F-35 fighter procurement would be reduced by 220 aircraft; the MV-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle would also be cut. The nuclear arsenal would be reduced, and there would be selective cuts to missile defense and space-based weapons.
Frank and Paul want the effort to be bipartisan, and they are joined by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The Sustainable Defense Task Force report appeals to conservatives early on, with the Hoover Institution’s Kori Schake writing, “Conservatives need to hearken back to our Eisenhower heritage.” The number of legislators who have signed on, particularly conservative ones, remains small—but it’s a start. Consider that Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “Roadmap,” widely regarded as a blueprint for tackling the looming entitlements crisis, has only nine cosponsors. On the other side, Frank told reporters that if more of his fellow Democrats don’t agree to look at the defense budget “then every other issue will suffer.”
Not everyone has embraced the task force’s handiwork. The Heritage Foundation’s Elizabeth Peturn warns “enacting such recommendations would have dramatic implications for U.S. military superiority, consequences hardly discussed.” National Review’s Kevin Williamson complained in a piece entitled “How Not to Cut Military Spending,” “What we discover in this report is not a budgetary document, but a pacifists’ manifesto.” The Sustainable Defense Task Force achieves its biggest savings by making sweeping changes in defense policy, not by canceling $700 toilet seats, and was written with the help of peace groups.
Unlike some of the report’s other critics, Williamson does not start with the premise that all defense budget cuts are necessarily bad. He identifies himself as one who shares “Mr. Frank’s belief that the presence of thousands of U.S. troops in such non-hotspots as Germany is an extravagance and an invitation to excess.” But he argues that cost-cutting should concentrate on dollars and cents, while reductions in the nuclear arsenal, for example, should be debated on their own merits. “The Pentagon’s budget is as bloated as any typical federal agency’s, and its operations as poorly administered,” Williamson writes. “There is ample room for cuts in its budget.”
Conservative reluctance to cut military spending is somewhat understandable. Unlike other “third rail” spending that is supposed to be off-limits to aspiring budget-cutters, national defense is a legitimate function of government. Entitlements are even more expensive than national defense, costing about twice as much. The Department of Health and Human Services has a budget about one-fifth larger than the Department of Defense, though some of the difference is due to accounting shenanigans.
Yet defense is by far the biggest discretionary spending program, vastly larger than the combined price tag of those earmarks Republicans so frequently rail against. Past expansions of the social welfare state were paid for by relative declines in military spending—and that is the goal of some Democratic defense-cutters today. But now the welfare-warfare state grows in tandem, a fiscally unsustainable situation. Moreover, if Republicans want to preserve the Reagan and Bush tax cuts they will have to control more than nondefense discretionary spending. With entitlement reform politically perilous, they might be forced to put the Pentagon on a diet.
That will require conservatives to stop thinking of the military as if it’s an honorary member of the private sector rather than a government program. Too often they exempt it from cost-benefit analysis and other reasonable standards they would impose on the rest of the federal budget. Preble, a Sustainable Defense Task Force member, notes that security spending “can be just as likely to result in the misallocation of resources as other public programs.”
“If we were really talking about cutting spending that defends the United States, I’d agree with the objections,” he continues. “But so much of what we spend is for policing other countries rather than protecting our own.” And if Paul and Frank begin their budget review with certain ideological premises about the U.S. military posture, so do their detractors: advocates of the status quo assume a military involved in all the world’s hot spots in order to eliminate any conceivable threat. “If that is what our military’s role is,” Preble says, “then no, we are not spending enough on defense.”
Of course, such a view of the military’s role applies the precautionary principle that conservatives wisely reject when it comes to environmental policy. “The US spends vast amounts on defences against threats unlikely to affect Americans,” writes Preble’s Cato colleague Benjamin Friedman. “Experts, defence officials and politicians justify those expenditures by saying they are necessary to protect the public from worst-case dangers.” But the result can be refighting old wars, making us less safe as well as less financially secure.
Even fiscal conservatives outside of the think-tank world have started examining these contradictions. The more consistent Tea Party candidates in this year’s election did not take defense spending off the table, even if they preferred to concentrate on domestic targets like Obamacare, the stimulus, and the Wall Street bailout. Neither has Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination on an austerity platform.
“When Bush arrived we were spending $300 billion on national defense, and he thought that was plenty,” Daniels said in an interview with the hawkish Weekly Standard, of all places. “Now it’s what, $800 billion?” He later told a writer from Commentary that he would “ask questions about the extent of our commitments” abroad. “If we go broke,” Daniels argued, “no one will follow a pauper.”
It’s enough of a shift to elicit a reaction from hawks who want to increase the defense budget. Arthur Brooks, Edwin Feulner, and William Kristol took to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to argue military spending should be restored to something more like its Cold War Reagan-era peak of 6.2 percent of GDP. Kristol edits the Standard, while Brooks and Feulner are presidents of the two largest conservative movement think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, respectively.
Their argument is that national debt “is a beast that has not principally been fattened on a diet of Pentagon spending.” They conclude, “A weaker, cheaper military will not solve our financial woes.” Other hawks fear that even a Republican Congress might cut the military budget. “One thing that any new Republican majority in Congress will have to resist is the siren song to cut defense spending,” wrote John Guardiano. “Unfortunately, that temptation is real and growing.”
It’s not as unlikely as it first seems: Republicans have frequently presided over reductions in military spending, with Ronald Reagan’s late Cold War defense buildup and George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 being the exceptions. These tendencies among conservatives were on display in the 1990s, when national-security hawks sparred with budget hawks inside the GOP. (House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich tried to square the circle by proclaiming himself “a cheap hawk.”) The result was a larger contingent of Republican congressmen who were skeptical of military adventurism, especially wars launched for humanitarian purposes by Democratic commanders-in-chief.
The debate isn’t simply between conservatives who would increase defense spending and those willing to entertain cuts. The latter group is not homogeneous. Many Republicans are happy to squeeze the usual suspects—waste, fraud, and abuse—out of the Pentagon’s budget. Usually this is a dodge, though there is in fact a great deal of waste. Procurement reform is particularly popular because it can save billions without altering policy, reducing the number of troops, or cutting anyone’s pay. But purchasing practices have been changed as recently as last year to only modest effect.
Many traditional conservatives favor a strong military that is used sparingly. But Preble argues—at book-length in The Power Problem—that the military’s size encourages politicians to use force as a first resort. According to this view, rethinking what constitutes defense is not the same as issuing some pie-in-the-sky pacifist manifesto; rather it is the only way to control the Pentagon’s budget.
While the Frank-Paul plan is unlikely to pass in its present form, the state of the federal budget will force legislators to look for budget cuts in unusual places. That’s likely to lead to more Republican scrutiny of defense spending. Ultimately, however, budget-cutters will find the republic-versus-empire debate cannot be avoided.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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