The Republican Party once claimed to oppose
wasteful government spending. Republicans criticized Democrats for pushing ever
more money for foreign aid and welfare, irrespective of results. When GOP candidates
advocated increased military outlays during the Cold War, they pointed to genuine
threats as justification.
Republicans are now the party of spend, spend, spend. Under a GOP president
and Congress, domestic outlays went up faster than at any time since President
Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Moreover, Republican presidential candidates
are seeking to outbid each other in demanding ever more military expenditures,
irrespective of need.
Of course, the unnecessary Iraq war, which has consumed hundreds of billions
in cash as well as thousands of lives, is one factor. Rather than include war
outlays in its formal budget proposals, the Bush administration has attempted
to disguise the cost by putting predictable spending into irregular supplementals.
Last spring the Bush administration proposed a mammoth $715 billion military
spending package: $481 billion for normal operations and $142 billion for Iraq
in 2008, plus $93 billion to cover war costs that year, in addition to $70 billion
for Iraq that was previously approved.
Unfortunately, no end of Iraq spending is in sight, since all GOP candidates
save Rep. Ron Paul want to continue the misguided conflict indefinitely. Indeed,
Sen. John McCain said it would be fine with him if America occupied Iraq for
another 100 years.
But Iraq is only a small factor for today's spendthrift hawks, who want
to lavish money on everything everywhere. American foreign policy determines
U.S. defense needs and thus military outlays. That is, the defense budget is
the price of America's foreign policy. The more interventionist the U.S. strategy,
the bigger and more expensive the military must be. So how much should the U.S.
spend on defense?
A lot more if one listens to the presidential contenders. Even some of
the Democrats have been playing a game of "me-too," proposing a military build-up
without putting a price tag on it. For instance, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)
advocates adding 92,000 personnel. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) promises "to
expand and modernize the military."
But the Republican candidates unashamedly propose spending more money,
lots more. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani advocates adding ten combat brigades plus
hardware. He puts no price on his plan. But Giuliani argues that "The idea of
a post-Cold War 'peace dividend' was a serious mistake – the product of wishful
thinking and the opposite of true realism." Apparently the Soviet Union never
was an important factor in U.S. defense planning. Thus, rebuilding the military,
as Giuliani put it, would undoubtedly cost a lot.
Former Governor Mitt Romney similarly believes that Americans have "let
down our defenses." Thus, he wrote, "We need to increase our investment in national
defense." He wants the U.S. to add at least 100,000 troops and commit to spend
"a minimum of four percent of GDP on national defense."
Also pushing a firm floor of four percent GDP for defense is the Heritage
Foundation and former Sen. Jim Talent. He and Mackenzie Eaglen cite the request
by various military leaders for more money, noting that "the number, size, and
duration of military deployments have increased dramatically since the end of
the Cold War." Thus, they conclude, "Policymakers who say that they support
a strong military should be judged by whether or not they support spending a
minimum of 4 percent of GDP on the regular defense budget over the next decade."
Heritage calls this the "4% for Freedom Solution."
Fred Thompson, another former Senator, and presidential candidate, would
up the ante. He echoes Giuliani in complaining of "one of the largest unilateral
reductions of military power in history." So he advocates an even larger troop
build-up, of nearly 300,000. And that means spending 4.5 percent of GDP on the
military, not counting the tens of billions necessary for Afghanistan and Iraq.
Well, at least he argued that we should spend all that money "carefully and
wisely," as the Pentagon and Uncle Sam always do, in a speech in South Carolina,
the site of Saturday's primary.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supports the Bush administration troop build-up
of nearly 100,000 and wants to raise the bet by adding another 150,000 personnel
for the Army and Marine Corps. He, like Giuliani, does not estimate costs. No
wonder he voted against the Bush tax cuts: who knows what other wars President
"Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran"
McCain would have to fund?
But these candidates are pikers compared to former Governor Mike Huckabee.
He advocates speeding up the administration's planned troop hike of 92,000.
Even more incredibly, he wrote: "Right now, we are spending about 3.9 percent
of our GDP on defense, compared with about six percent in 1986, under President
Ronald Reagan. We need to return to that six percent level." That would be $800
billion this year alone. Even if this figure included outlays for Afghanistan
and Iraq, it would reflect a truly massive military build-up.
What could possibly justify such huge increases in military spending? Jim
Talent spoke for all the spendthrift hawks when he wrote: "the situation facing
the U.S. military is grave." There are too few personnel. Too little new hardware.
Insufficient investment in modernization. And so on.
Talent puts much store in the fact that Pentagon officials want more money.
But as Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute points out: "most of us are
neither surprised nor unduly impressed that officials of a government bureaucracy
would like to maximize the budget of their bureaucracy. I would venture to say
that leaders of the Department of Education or the Department of Agriculture
undoubtedly feel the same about their organization's funding level."
Even granting the case for increased military spending, the level should
be determined by the security needs of the moment. There is no reason a priori
to believe that the right amount will constitute 4.0 or 4.5 or 6.0 percent this
year, next year, or beyond. The economy's size and growth are unrelated to national
security threats. Comparisons with the GDP percentage years or decades ago are
meaningless given how the U.S. economy has grown: Between 1960 and 2005 real
GDP more than quadrupled. Has the world really gotten four times as dangerous,
requiring a fourfold increase in defense outlays, which would have resulted
from tying military spending to GDP?
Anyway, if the world is so dangerous, then why should the U.S. not spend
even more? During the early years of the Cold War military expenditures broke
ten percent of GDP. During the Korean War defense spending hit 14.2 percent
of GDP. During World War II military outlays peaked at 37.8 percent of GDP.
So perhaps Washington should maintain military outlays at ten percent of GDP.
After all, the world is dangerous and we are rich. That would be almost $1.4
trillion for the military this year, almost triple the rest of the world. But
how could we be sure that was enough? Fourteen percent would be safer. And what's
a paltry $2 trillion among friends? Still, even that seems risky, given how
the GOP contenders view the world – the U.S. as a helpless midget being swarmed
by evildoers. Why not go for the World War II level? Surely $5 trillion is not
too much to spend to be secure!
By advocating an arbitrary and artificial spending level, these conservatives
sound like liberals on domestic policy: spend money, as much money as possible,
irrespective of need or effectiveness. Yet how can anyone seriously argue that
the U.S. military is weak and in dire need of more money? Today America devotes
about 4.1 percent of GDP to the military. The U.S. is committing more than a
half trillion dollars to defense, not just the most of any country, but roughly
as much as the rest of the world combined – even more, 57 percent of outlays
in 2008, according to the organization Global Security.
That is an extraordinary number. Richard Betts of Columbia University notes
that such levels "cannot be justified based on any actual threats that the U.S.
armed forces might plausibly be expected to encounter. The military capabilities
of the United States need to be kept comfortably superior to those of present
and potential enemies. But they should be measured relatively, against those
enemies' capabilities, and not against the limits of what is technologically
possible or based on some vague urge to have more."
Nevertheless, argued Fred Thompson, we are in "a New World, all right – with
new threats rising up in place of old," most notably that of terrorism. Thus,
"we have asked our military to take on an ever-greater role in our defense"
but provided it with less money.
Even more dramatic is Talent's claim:
"The world today is, on balance, at least as dangerous as it was
at the end of the Cold War. The U.S. is no longer in danger of a massive
nuclear attack, nor is a major land war in Europe likely, but the threats
we face are no less serious. America is engaged in a war against terrorism
that will last for years. The danger of a rogue missile attack is greater
than ever. China is emerging as a peer competitor much faster than most
of us expected, and Russia's brief experiment with democracy is failing."
Actually, Talent doesn't believe the world is at least as dangerous as
before. He believes that we are at even greater risk. He explained: "We live
in a multipolar world with threats that are highly unpredictable and therefore,
taken as a whole, more dangerous than the threats we faced during the Cold War."
This is not a serious argument. Those years of competing nuclear arsenals,
armored divisions, air wings, and carrier groups? That time of having to defend
war-ravaged allies from an aggressive Soviet Union, unpredictable Maoist China,
and various European and Third World communist satellites? Child's play compared
to confronting Osama bin Laden with his vast legions and armaments, lapping
at America's shores. It is depressing to think that Talent once served in the
There are three fundamental problems with the "America as helpless midget"
thesis. The first is that today's threat environment is nothing like that during
the Cold War. To claim that today's dangers "are no less serious" than before
is frankly bizarre. Terrorism, a la 9/11, is horrid, but the potential consequences
are nothing like that of even a small nuclear strike. Moreover, such terrorism
is best met by a combination of sophisticated intelligence, international cooperation,
law enforcement, and special forces rather than huge militaries and preventive
wars. "The hype employed by some conservative panic mongers to the contrary,
the terrorist threat is not the functional equivalent of World War III, and
we do not need to fund the military as though it is" observed Carpenter.
The threat of nuclear terrorism or a rogue state missile attack is real – though
thankfully very unlikely – and must be guarded against. But, again, there is
no comparison with the possibility of a full-scale nuclear exchange incinerating
the planet. The Soviet Union had the means to destroy America; the U.S. and
the USSR came dangerously close to conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis;
the two countries spent decades sparring around the globe, luckily avoiding
a multitude of tripwires for war.
Moreover, the possibility of a serious conventional conflict, which could
be as destructive as a small nuclear strike – witness the impact of World War
II – is essentially zero. Whatever the vagaries of Russian politics today, there
is no prospect of the Red Army rolling from Moscow to the Atlantic. Russia has
neither the will nor the ability to do so, under Vladimir Putin or anyone else.
Putin wants a strong, assertive Russia, not another world war with Russian cities
again reduced to rubble. His countrymen are no different.
Nor is a more assertive China any substitute for aggressive hegemonic communism
exemplified by Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao Zedong's China, several Warsaw
Pact countries, and a gaggle of Third World revolutionary states. Beijing is
decades away from being a peer competitor of America: Estimates of Chinese military
spending vary, but the most authoritative top out around $125 billion. Thus,
the "worst case" wins Beijing second place in the world, but still barely a
quarter of American outlays.
Some analysts have argued that China gets much more for its money, based on
the economic comparisons of purchasing power parity versus exchange rate GDP
estimates. But the
analysis has limited applicability in measuring the quantity and quality
of military assets. Moreover, though China is improving its forces, it is starting
at a very low base – it has no aircraft carriers, for instance, compared to
12 for America. Beijing lacks the nuclear subs, large-scale blue water navy,
quality armored divisions, sophisticated air wings, and massive nuclear arsenal
possessed by America.
That doesn't mean China's military build-up is benign from Washington's
standpoint. But Beijing is concentrating on creating a military capable of deterring
American intervention, not attacking the U.S. Even the spendthrift hawks admit
as much. Writes Heritage's John J. Thacik, Jr., "The ultimate question must
be whether Beijing's leaders have any purpose in assembling a military machine
worthy of a superpower other than to have the strength to challenge the United
States' strategic position in Asia." But preserving U.S. predominance in Asia
is not the same as defending America. The "danger" that Talent, Thompson, and
others fearfully cite does not involve aggression against America. The spendthrift
hawks worry that the U.S. will be unable to attack countries on the neoconservative
enemy's list for one or another imagined offense. However, few, if any such
conflicts would involve vital American interests.
The second point is that preventive intervention in the name of promoting
U.S. security almost always worsens problems. Talent claimed: "In the end, it
would take a lot more than 4 percent of our GDP to defend a 'Fortress America' – an
America that allows dangers to fester and grow until they are strong enough
to attack us in our homeland."
If social engineering won't work in America, why should we expect it to
work overseas, despite different histories, cultures, ethnicities, religions,
traditions, and more? Economists have long analyzed the reasons government so
badly (mis)manages the economy, no matter how bright the analysts and dedicated
the politicians. Yet military intervention is even more problematic than economic
intervention. It is impossible to look years ahead and divine the likely intentions
and capabilities of other states. It is foolish to assume that bombing is the
best means to resolve "festering problems." War is always unpredictable and
almost always turns out far worse than expected – just look at the many occasions
when aggressors lost. The distant and inadvertent impacts of war often swallow
up the more predictable immediate effects.
Iraq is an obvious case in point. The Bush administration took the U.S.
into war based on a nonexistent threat. Rather than deliver worldly nirvana,
the U.S. occupation triggered bloody sectarian strife, generated regional instability,
and encouraged global terrorism. So much for Talent's strategy of intervening
early to save money.
Intervention is working almost as well in Pakistan. It's a wonderful theory:
micro-manage Pakistan's political and economic development so we won't have
to worry about nuclear proliferation, jihadist terrorism, authoritarian rule,
tribal antagonism, politics by assassination, ethnic and sectarian strife, rampant
anti-Americanism, and political instability. Great idea. We certainly wouldn't
want problems to fester, costing the U.S. more in the long-term. Absolutely.
Even the so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea possess minuscule
militaries compared to that of America, and can be deterred by existing forces.
Indeed, America's military budget is 30 times that of Cuba, Iran, Libya, North
Korea, Sudan, and Syria combined. Does Talent & Co. really believe that
spending as much as every other country combined isn't enough to prevent these,
along with other formidable military powers such as Burma and Somalia, from
Third, the U.S. is not alone in its fight for truth, justice, democracy,
and whatever else the spendthrift hawks claim to be promoting. Rather, America
is allied with every major industrialized state. Washington also is friendly
with most regional powers which aren't formal allies, such as Argentina, Brazil,
India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Europe possesses a much
larger population and a somewhat larger economy than America, let alone Russia.
Japan has the second largest economy on earth and a potent military; Australia,
Singapore, and the ASEAN states also are capable regional players able to cooperate
in matching China. South Korea has 40 times the GDP and twice the population
of the North.
So why can't America's allies and friends defend themselves and their regions?
Or do the spendthrift hawks believe that the U.S. has to protect itself from
its allies as well? That New Zealand, perhaps, has a burning desire to dominate
the globe and is plotting a preemptive strike against America?
In short, the problem of defense spending is a consequence of an hyper-interventionist
foreign policy. Argues Columbia's Betts: "Washington spends so much and yet
feels so insecure because U.S. policymakers have lost the ability to think clearly
about defense policy."
America protects prosperous and populous states from nonexistent, potential,
and unlikely threats. Washington attempts to remake failed states and reorder
unstable regions that are largely irrelevant to American security. Only occasionally
does the U.S. military actually defend this country against genuine dangers.
The point is not just that Washington cannot afford to be a global social engineer
and cop. But it is not in America's interest to be an international nag and
meddler, especially at such a high price. Even if promiscuous intervention did
not tend to turn out so badly, the American people have far better uses for
the lives and money currently being squandered by Washington's imperial policy.
America is by far the most powerful nation on earth. It would remain the
most powerful nation on earth even if it cut military outlays. What the U.S.
needs is not a bigger military budget, but a more restrained foreign policy.
That is, a foreign policy for a republic rather than an empire.