President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates’ $534 billion defense budget proposal is aimed at building a "21st-century military," that is, a military designed to fight asymmetrical "small wars," conduct anti-terrorism operations, and battle insurgencies. It shuffles a significant number of pieces around the chessboard, to be sure, but like its predecessors, it is an enormous waste of resources and wealth.
If we took a radically different, need-based approach to defense funding, and asked ourselves about the legitimate, just, and necessary aims of American power, and how much money we must allocate to defense to accomplish those aims, it is unlikely that we would wind up where we are now, with 20 percent of our national budget allocated to defense and accounting for a shameful 45 percent of the world’s spending on war and preparation for war.
In fact, the amount of money our government pours into "defense" is so large that it must be disguised even from a public perpetually eager to spend more to "keep America safe"; the actual defense budget does not include the development and maintenance of nuclear warheads (which is funded by the Department of Energy) or the funding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense funding is not, as it stands, based on our national security needs, and Obama’s budget does little to change that basic fact. By need I mean real necessity, necessity related to actual (not imagined or invented) national security interests, rather than the political need to appease the defense industry and its dependents.
We can best understand this idea of necessity by looking closely at the opportunity costs of defense spending: for every dollar we spend on defense, other needs go unmet. And perhaps these needs, the needs of the impoverished and the jobless, the need of children for good schools and of communities for infrastructure, are more real than the "needs" invented to rationalize our spending on the latest technologies of war.
Obama’s changes to the defense budget make sense in many ways; the budget is, relative to its predecessors, pragmatic and forward-looking. It is one more example of how Obama’s strategy of putting some of America’s best academics and thinkers in the same room as its best politicians can lead to improvements in policy. But these improvements are too often on the margins of policy; they do not strike at the heart of the issue, which is: why must the U.S. spend 20 percent of its public wealth on war? Are we really so insecure, so endangered?
Insofar as Obama and Gates are shaking up the military-industrial status quo, they deserve some credit. But the simple fact that their defense budget represents an increase in an already criminal level of funding for warmaking and its instruments demonstrates that whatever special interests are threatened by the new budget, this budget will create new special interests of its own.
What is needed is a dramatic cut in defense spending. To think that this would represent a decrease, rather than an increase, in America’s security is a reflex rather than the product of reflection; the safest world is one in which spending on war is minimized as much as possible.