Michael O’Hanlon and Frank Rose welcome a debate about the military budget, provided that there is no danger of actually reducing the budget:

A vigorous debate on defense is welcome, and those who want to raise fundamental questions about America’s role in the world including in the long war against terrorists have every right to do so. But a $200 billion cut is too much for a world with threats like today’s revanchist Russia, rising China, activist Iran, and nuclearizing North Korea.

O’Hanlon and Rose are trying to shut off the debate before it can even begin. If they welcome a vigorous debate, and they accept that others have a right to raise fundamental questions about the U.S. role in the world, they can’t rule out a significant reduction in military spending without first demonstrating that the current level is necessary for protecting the United States. They cite the usual list of adversaries as the main reason why the military budget cannot be cut, but to believe that requires exaggerating the threat from each one and overestimating the commitment that the U.S. needs to make around the world to counter all of them. The U.S. has been trying to do far too much in too many places for too long, and the exorbitant military budget is proof of that. Throwing more money at the Pentagon every year to perpetuate an overly militarized foreign policy and a forever war is not a sign of strength, and it encourages the U.S. to engage in reckless behavior that has little or nothing to do with the security of the United States. The U.S. needs to be disciplined in how it allocates resources for national security, and that requires being disciplined in setting priorities for what is most important. That means making choices and distinguishing between what is truly vital for the U.S. and what is optional. The U.S. cannot police the entire world on a reduced military budget, but then the U.S. shouldn’t be policing the world in the first place.

The authors don’t want Democratic presidential candidates to consider serious reductions in the military budget. Their reasons are less than convincing:

Democrats should avoid the temptation to move in the kind of McGovern-like anti-defense directions that doomed the party to political setbacks starting in the 1970s — and that would allow Donald Trump to run on a Reagan-like platform of being the main candidate who favors a strong national defense. Worse yet, such a platform could encourage the likes of Kim Jong-Un, as well as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, to smell American weakness and sense opportunity if a Democrat elected with an agenda to pull back from the world winds up in the White House.

O’Hanlon and Rose take for granted that throwing endless amounts of money at the Pentagon is the same as being “strong” on defense, and so they assume that calling for reduced military spending would be politically dangerous. That gets several things wrong. The country and the world are not the same as they were almost fifty years ago. The Cold War is over, and the actual threats that the U.S. faces are not nearly as great. The U.S. doesn’t need to be spending in excess of $700 billion every year. One way to bring that number down quickly is to end our involvement in the multiple wars that our government is currently fighting.

The authors worry that the leaders of other states will “smell weakness” if the U.S. cuts back on military spending, but the thing that really signals weakness is being mired in open-ended wars for decades at great expense and having a political class that’s too afraid of being called “weak” to end them. If the U.S. reduced its overall military spending but also stopped frittering away our resources in unnecessary wars, we would be in a stronger position than we are today with a bloated budget and the constant demands of war. Nothing has been more advantageous to other major powers than the almost twenty years that we have wasted giving ourselves self-inflicted wounds in the form of endless war, and nothing would be better for shoring up our position in the world than bringing those wars to a close. As George Kennan said, “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

O’Hanlon and Rose want Democratic candidates to remain forever in the “defensive crouch” on national security that has forced them to become an echo of their opponents and impoverished our policy debate as a result. I hope the 2020 candidates reject this advice and choose instead to offer a real alternative. I suspect most Americans would respond favorably to such an alternative, and after decades of a failed militarized foreign policy it is clear that we need to consider and pursue an alternative.

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