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March 18, 2009

Hey, Big Spender!


Charles Peña

Much has been made of President Obama's proclivity for big spending. There's the $787 billion stimulus bill, the $410 billion spending bill to keep the government running through the end of the fiscal year (filled with $7.7 billion in earmarks – meaning that it has nothing to do with keeping the government running), and a proposed $3.6 trillion federal budget for fiscal 2010, which would increase taxes for those earning more than $250,000 a year and shoot the federal deficit for 2009 to a record $1.75 trillion, or 12.3 percent of GDP, a level not seen since World War II. On top of all that, there's already a buzz in the air about a second stimulus package (though this is largely being put on the Democrats' doorstep, it's not without some Republican support).

While proponents of smaller, more limited government should be concerned with all of the above (not to mention the banking and automotive bailouts), defense spending has largely flown below the radar. The so-called fiscal 2010 topline budget for the Defense Department is $534 billion, which does not include supplemental spending for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (that would push defense spending to $644 billion in fiscal 2010, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation). Even though the base budget of $534 billion is $21 billion more than fiscal 2009, some are characterizing this is as a defense cut because it is less than the Pentagon's internally generated request of $584 billion. Predictably, Fox News led people down this primrose path which, of course, generated exactly the kind of discussion you would expect.

You have to ask yourself why we need to spend more than $500 billion (that's nearly one-third of the projected deficit) on the Defense Department. In particular, fiscal conservatives need to ask themselves why they are so outraged about Obama's spending yet seem relatively unconcerned about 14 percent of the total federal budget – and more than half of the discretionary budget – being lavished on the Pentagon.

Apparently, the president believes continuing to spend in excess of $500 billion is necessary to "maintain our military dominance." But, like Bush before him, whom exactly is Obama so worried about? The Soviet Union withered away nearly two decades ago. Although Russia maintains a nuclear arsenal capable of attacking the United States, our nuclear arsenal acts as a deterrent. Moreover, our relationship with Russia is not the same confrontational strategic stance we had toward the Soviet Union. Most importantly, Russia is not a conventional military threat to Europe or the United States (and the Europeans can afford to pay for their own defense if they feel having a military capability to offset Russia is necessary for their security).

Chinese military modernization is often cited as a threat, but even the Defense Department acknowledges that "much uncertainty surrounds China's future course, in particular in the area of its expanding military power and how that power might be used." The worst-case scenario, of course, is that China aspires to be a hegemonic strategic competitor in the mold of the former Soviet Union. While we shouldn't ignore the worst case, we also shouldn't let it drive our decision-making and planning if there's sound reason and evidence to believe it's not the most likely case (the problem that led to the decision to invade Iraq). According to Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, "I'm not sure why the Pentagon always uses a worst-case scenario when assessing the military threat from China, but it does." China bears watching, but we need to be careful about making the Chinese military threat a self-fulfilling prophecy. An equally (if not more) plausible scenario is that China aspires to be a regional power. As such, it might pose a potential threat to Taiwan, but U.S. security is not dependent on Taiwan's security. Most importantly, China does not possess conventional military power-projection capability to threaten the U.S. homeland.

Certainly, we can't be shaking in our boots over what's left of the Axis of Evil – Iran and North Korea (an irony of growing Chinese military capability is that it represents a power offset to North Korea) – or its lesser members, Cuba and Venezuela. None of these countries pose serious threats to the United States.

Yet even though U.S. defense spending nearly equals what the rest of the world combined spends, we continue to be told we are less than secure. That may be true for terrorist threats, against which it is impossible to be completely secure, but not for conventional military threats. The United States is in a unique geostrategic position, with friendly neighbors to the north and south and the vast moats of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to the west and east, respectively, which renders a military invasion nearly impossible. And the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a strong deterrent against current and would-be nuclear powers.

So why do we need to spend $500 billion-plus to maintain military dominance? Not to defend ourselves against threats, but to continue U.S. interventionist policy around the world. Although he was speaking specifically about China, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made it clear that the U.S. military is about interventionism when he testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee this past January: "Modernization in these areas could threaten America's primary means of projecting power and helping allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them."

As a candidate, Obama campaigned on change. As president – at least when it comes to defense spending – the more things change, the more things stay the same.

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  • Photo - George Cole

    Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
    Policy Institute
    , an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and The McLaughlin Group, as well as international television and radio. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.


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