The Great Defense Budget Black Hole

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 U.S. Senate.

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 attacking America?

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.