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Attack of the Pork Hawks

Conservative politicians want to cut spending—except for the military. Where that’s concerned, they sound like liberals. In fact, conservatives have adopted several liberal ploys to justify today’s bloated military budget.

First, big spenders on the right argue that Washington must continue doing everything that it has ever done abroad. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), one of the leading pork hawks, has denounced the idea of doing “less with less.”

Yet the Department of Defense spends most of its money to protect other nations, including those that are populous and prosperous. All together, the Europeans have a larger GDP and population than America and ten times the GDP and three times the population of Russia. South Korea has 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. Why is the U.S. taxpayer still paying for their protection, 67 years after World War II ended?

Even worse has been Washington’s foray into militarized nation-building. The Balkans remains a mess nearly two decades after Washington intervened. The Iraq War weakened America and strengthened Iran. The U.S. has been trying to create a competent, honest, and democratic central government in Kabul for a decade. None of these missions advances U.S. security.


But that raises the second excuse that phony conservatives use to justify a bloated Pentagon. Like liberals spending on education, these right-wingers equate money with results. Thus bigger Pentagon budgets mean increased national security. Only it’s not true: greater military spending is strategic waste on a grand scale.

While the world is dangerous, it is not particularly dangerous to America. The U.S. is surrounded by oceans east and west and friendly neighbors north and south. America is allied with every major industrialized state save Russia and China. Washington already has a thousand military installations around the world. The American navy is equivalent to that of next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to U.S. allies.

Washington spends as much as the rest of the world—and spends more, in real terms, than at any point during the Korean War, Vietnam War, or Cold War. America could spend less and still possess far larger and more capable forces than anyone else.

Such overcapacity actually encourages Washington to meddle in foreign conflicts that foolishly deplete our military capital. As a result, guys using AK-47s and improvised explosive devices tied down the world’s greatest power for years in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Terrorism remains a threat, but not an existential one like the old Soviet Russia. Moreover, Al-Qaeda has been wrecked by relatively inexpensive techniques short of conventional war: good intelligence, Special Forces strikes, international cooperation, financial sanctions. In contrast, the invasion of Iraq created an entirely new class of terrorists, some of whom have migrated to other conflicts, such as Libya and Syria.

The third idea spendthrift militarists have recycled from the liberals of yesteryear is using “baseline budgeting” to complain that Barack Obama has “cut” defense outlays. This is the same way Democrats once charged that Ronald Reagan drastically “cut” domestic spending—by reducing the rate of increase.

Total military outlays were $306 billion in 2001. Since then they have risen steadily, breaching the $700 billion barrier under Barack Obama in 2011. In real, inflation-adjusted terms, expenditures increased 74.5 percent over the last decade. In the Obama administration’s first two years inflation-adjusted military spending rose 16.8 percent. Outlays last year, in real terms, were 23.5 percent above the Korean War peak in 1953, 22.5 percent above the Vietnam War peak in 1968, and 35.8 percent above the Reagan build-up peak in 1989.

Spending will stop racing ahead this year but not because of real cuts: the administration has only proposed reducing planned increases over the coming decade by $487 billion. As former House Majority Leader Richard Armey observed, these “cuts” are “only from the bloated CBO baseline. This means that [Obama] is merely reducing projected military spending, as opposed to cutting current spending.”

If Congress does not trim overall spending by $1.2 trillion over the coming decade, the sequestration agreed to during last summer’s debt ceiling debate is supposed to kick in, with the equivalent amount in cuts divided equally between domestic and military outlays. This prospect has caused much neoconservative wailing and gnashing of teeth.

In fact, say Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center and Ben Friedman of the Cato Institute, non-war outlays would still increase, only “by about 10 percent today, as opposed to the 18 percent the administration wants.” (War expenses are exempted.) Overall, they figure, as a result of sequestration military expenditures would grow by 18 percent rather than 20 percent from now through 2021.

The present rate of growth is too much even for some hawks. “Under sequestration, the Defense Department would still be spending more money in 2021 than it is spending today,” adds Andrew McCarthy of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Moreover, that spending increase—not cut, increase—comes atop a decade-long spending bonanza.”

Yet some of the most prominent neoconservatives are scaremongers. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations cites an estimate that the combined effect of all “cuts” would result in a 31 percent drop in real military spending. But even if this “worst case” came to pass, real outlays would be at 2007 levels, which were 39 percent higher than in 2001. Moreover, the reduction would come when the U.S. was no longer fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. America would still lap the rest of the world in the global arms race.

The fourth tactic for conservatives addicted to military-industrial pixie dust is playing the “Washington Monument” game—threatening to kill the most important programs (in this case, weapon systems) first. Just as liberals, faced with demands for cuts to local budgets, will threaten schools, police, and fire departments first, pork hawks want to claim that DoD reductions must come out of indispensable programs. Again, that’s not true: military cutbacks should start with force structure, especially army units.

With allies capable of defending themselves, the U.S. should not plan on fighting a major land war in Europe or Asia. And there should be no more nation-building. The U.S. should maintain superior air and naval forces, but in smaller numbers sufficient to prevent attack on America rather than to police the globe. Such a strategic readjustment does not mean the end of our ability to project force abroad: America would continue to act as an off-shore balancer capable of aiding friendly states against a hostile power seeking Eurasian hegemony. This would not only be more affordable but makes greater strategic sense than behaving as an in-region meddler determined to micromanage local conflicts.

Could the unexpected occur? Of course. Should the U.S. have a surge capacity in the event of an emergency? Certainly. Should Washington adjust its plans if international circumstances change? Definitely. But it makes no sense to maintain an oversized military for decades because someday a country like China might behave badly. When that time comes, a bloated Defense apparatus would be too slow and encumbered to act.

The fifth and last resort of Washington big-spenders is demagoguery. Advocates of a colossal military trash their opponents as “isolationists” who want to undermine America. Columnist Lurita Doan accused President Obama of seeking “to render our military neither well-armed nor well-planned.” New Zealand blogger Trevor Loudon—neoconservatives are nothing if not globalist—charged that “hard-bitten Leninists and disciplined Marxists” were behind plans to reduce U.S. military outlays.

Just look at the hype. Reductions in military spending, we are told, would be “totally destructive” and “very dangerous to the survival of the country,” would “destroy” the Pentagon, set America on a “perilous course,” be “dangerous and irresponsible,” leave America “in the greatest peril,” “would decimate our military,” threaten America’s “national security interests,” be “totally devastating,” send “a very horrible message” to America’s enemies, create the “threat of gutting national security,” “break” the military, “invite aggression,” cause “severe and irreversible impact,” leave America “teetering on the precipice of disaster,” cause “catastrophic damage,” “put our national security on the chopping block,” leave “a hollow force,” “disarm the United States unilaterally,” result in “American lives lost,” fail “to provide for the safety and security of our country,” and call “into question our nation’s ability to remain a free people.”

All of this from returning military outlays to 2007 levels.

The fundamental question is whether military spending should respond to the threat environment. Leading Republicans answer no: America must always and in every situation spend more.

Pork hawks routinely denounce the post-Cold War drawdown, a 27.8 percent drop in real outlays from peak to trough that was erased in just six years. The Soviet Union had disintegrated. The Warsaw Pact had dissolved. Maoism had disappeared from China. Colin Powell observed that he was running out of enemies—down to Kim Il-sung and Fidel Castro. Still the pork hawks wailed. And some go farther. Max Boot decries every previous drawdown, including after the Revolutionary War.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) complains that spending reductions would result in an America “that can go fewer places and do fewer things.” But what if going to most of those “places” and doing most of those “things” does not advance U.S. interests? Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has testified that military cutbacks might require reducing “our presence perhaps in Latin America, our presence in Africa.” So?

There are bad actors in the world, but they need not automatically be America’s problem. Gen. Robert H. Scales (ret.) argues that “We cannot pick our enemies; our enemies will pick us.” Actually, in recent years Washington has done most of the picking and attacking: Haiti, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Libya.

[1]Max Boot similarly asserts: “Certainly there has not been—nor is there likely to be—a decreased demand for the armed forces. They are constantly having new missions thrown their way, from defending our nation’s computer networks to deposing a dictator in Libya and providing relief to Japanese tsunami survivors.” None of these tasks justifies maintaining a titanic military in a constitutional republic facing a troubled future of deficits, debts, and unfunded liabilities.

Even those who say military outlays can never be cut must ultimately decide how much is enough. Half of the world’s outlays? Three-quarters? Four-fifths? Even if Washington could afford to spend ever more, the rest of the world might not go along with America’s plan. If the U.S. spends more to contain China, China is sure to ramp up its outlays to deter us. After all, Americans would not stand idly by if another country placed bases in Mexico and Canada, used its fleets to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and both coasts, and casually talked of war to contain American ambitions. China will act no differently.

America is more secure today than at any point since before World War II. Military outlays should be reduced accordingly.

That will require scaling back Washington’s international objectives. But the U.S. should stop garrisoning the globe, subsidizing rich friends, and reconstructing poor enemies. Instead, it’s about time Washington focused on defending America and its people.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Attack of the Pork Hawks"

#1 Comment By Jim Evans On February 6, 2012 @ 9:51 am

Just so.

#2 Comment By Enoch Root On February 6, 2012 @ 10:26 am

Still- I know weapons systems are more expensive per unit, but it sure seems we are getting less bang for the gigabuck.

#3 Comment By M. South On February 6, 2012 @ 9:55 pm

These guys are more liberal than the most egregious liberals.

As Ronald Reagan put it, he’s say they were spending like drunken sailors, and this time they WOULD be drunken sailors.

#4 Comment By Chris On February 6, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

I agree with much of the article. One point that might be pork hawk talk is the discussion of US military hardware – such as our naval fleet, aging air force planes, etc.

Is there a way to cut the military budget while replacing out of date, technologically inferior equipment (or soon to become) without massive spending? Is this even a reality (the aging equipment used to fight wars).

#5 Comment By rick On February 7, 2012 @ 5:40 am

people cost more than weapon systems…like you said. any real cuts means you have to cut units.

@ Chris:

you can replace old equipment with new equipment, but like the author mentioned, you do not need the latest and greatest contraption to be able to provide for one’s defense. the analogy he gave was the AK-47s and IEDs being able to defeat our forces.

and believe it or not, some old technologies are still effective against modern technologies. long wave radar can pick up stealth aircraft. and no matter what weapon a nation uses against a foe, they’re is no weapon that can defeat the idea that if you invade another’s country, then you will catch hell from it’s men wanting to kill you. this is why the taliban continue to fight…and should. invade the world, invite the world. the best way for us to save money, is to just leave people alone.

#6 Comment By ScuzzaMan On February 7, 2012 @ 5:47 am


Well, perhaps two modern carrier battle groups would suffice?

That would still be two more than any other nation possesses …

#7 Comment By Sean Gillhoolley On February 7, 2012 @ 9:01 am

Why is it when conservatives do negative things, they are acting like liberals? Liberals don’t want to spend wastefully, we just want to spend in a way that benefits the weakest amongst us the most. THAT is the major difference. Conservatives, at least those that populate the Republican party, have never had a serious problem with spending. Spend on the military, one of the three largest costs to the US taxpayer (the other two being medicare and social security), and conservatives (mostly) cannot get enough. More missile systems, more planes that will never work, more equipment to fight the last war. And even Ron Paul seems to have no problem feeding at the public trough…he just does that while claiming he is 100% opposed to pork. Liberals don’t want to spend, but we recognize that spending must be done to ensure that the weakest amongst us do not suffer unduly.

#8 Comment By Minny Sandle On February 7, 2012 @ 9:52 am

Thank goodness! A conservative against wasteful military spending. I have long been lonely as a fiscal conservative opposed to the wild and unjustifiable spending on the military. It is is pork spending and worse – it is profiteering on the misery and killing of innocent people. I never understood how so called Christian conservatives could beat the drums of war. When did Jesus advocate bombing people and going to war? Oh that’s right, he didn’t. Anyway, leaving Jesus to Sunday, when did it become an imperative of conservatives to police “evil” around the world? It just doesn’t make any sense to me that the US military should be deployed for anything but the security of our boarders. (And as we all know, our boarders are anything but secure). Let Europe and Korea and the countries in the Pacific tend to their own security. Let the US taxpayer, and the US soldiers tend to the needs and the security of the people of the United States.

#9 Comment By RFN On February 7, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

Oh bullshit, Sean. Take that garbage somewhere else. And the pork throwaway line about Paul? Are you Soros or Obama funded? Liber…er Progress…er left statists spend because they like the power.

As for the article, it should be required reading for republicans who claim to be conservative.

#10 Comment By Marshall On February 7, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

@Sean – In attempt to defend liberal policies, you fell into one of the very traps the author pointed out (see fifth paragraph). Assuming institutionalized welfarism necessarily “benefits the weakest” is not at all dissimilar than claiming more military spending automatically results in stronger defense. Neither is true.

Also, Ron Paul is on record defending earmarks, thus is not “100% opposed to pork” as you proclaim. The earmark process merely allocates funds already appropriated. Assuming the bill passes, all the money WILL BE spent regardless of whether a representative earmarks a portion for their district or not. Besides, “Pork” represents a small fraction of overall spending and repeated attempts to make it a campaign issue serve only as a distraction. The problem is too much spending, not the relatively small sums appropriated by individual congressmen.


#11 Comment By Nergol On February 7, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

> Liberals don’t want to spend wastefully, we just want to spend in a way that benefits the weakest amongst us the most.

I didn’t know that unionized government workers constituted “the weakest among us”.

#12 Comment By Terri Lynn Sullivan On February 7, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

It is amazing how many American’s remain ignorant, believing our wars somehow keep our country “free and safe”. Time to move away from past bravados (false or not) written into our National Anthem, and reflect more on the fact at least five of our Founding Fathers highly warned of overgrown military industrial establishments and how anti-American it really is. The Pentagon is to America as Hitler was to Germany, and in fact, many studies/articles equate USA today to Nazi Germany back in 1939. The parables lay daunting. It seems almost a soul sickness…..a mental disorder of grand proportion…to hold onto this belief when there is so much information readily available to educate the masses on more sustainable thinking. I know it’s mostly in the less educated, less cultured rural areas people hold onto the notion war is a means on “defending” our nation from a partially plotted within “terrorist” attack that happened a decade ago…..but don’t those people have libraries and computers to google how the USA looks to the rest of the world, if they have not had opportunity to climb out from under their rural redneck rock?