Stephen M. Walt

Cutting the DoD’s budget request is a step in the right direction

Cutting the DoD’s budget request is a step in the right direction

Obama’s plan to cut the Department of Defense’s budget request by roughly ten percent is a step in the direction of a more sensible foreign and defense policy. But as one would expect, the proposal has some neoconservatives up in arms, insisting Robert Gates be given the full budget he requested and predicting the worst if he doesn’t get it. This view ignores the lessons of the past eight years and the developments of the past six months. And while they might be right that the U.S. military is over-extended, let’s not forget that it was the neoconservative policies that these same pundits promoted that got us into our present fix.

Strategy is about relating means and ends. From that perspective, it doesn’t make sense to spend as much as we did when the economy seemed to be healthy. Nor does it make sense to pursue the overly ambitious and misguided foreign policy that we tried (unsuccessfully) to pursue under President Bush. Given the results of those policies and our current financial plight, this stubborn defense of the budgetary status quo has a head-in-the-sand quality that would be laughable if the issues weren’t so important.

A prominent example is Robert Kagan’s recent warning against any attempt to cut the U.S. defense budget. He opposes any trimming even though the United States spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world put together and even though the U.S. economy is facing its biggest crisis since the Great Depression. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald has already shown that Kagan’s claim that the Obama administration was planning to cut actual U.S. defense spending (as opposed to the budget request) is simply bogus, and the rest of Kagan’s argument is no better.

First, he declares that we should maintain the current level of defense spending in order to stimulate the economy. This argument would be more convincing if Kagan hadn’t been just as big a fan of defense expenditures back when the economy was growing rapidly. In 1996, for example, in the midst of the Clinton-era economic boom, Kagan and fellow neo-con William Kristol recommended that the United States increase its defense spending by 25 percent! The pattern is clear: Kagan thinks big defense budgets are essential when the economy is in trouble, but he likes them just as much when the economy is fine. For him to invoke a Keynesian justification now is disingenuous at best.

Second, he claims that cutting defense spending will make it harder to get our allies to do more. Does he know about the theory of collective goods and the phenomenon of free-riding? Why should our European or Asian allies spend more as long as Uncle Sucker is still willing to do the heavy lifting? As long as they know we’re still from Mars, they’re gonna keep living on Venus. The only way to get our allies to do more is to stop trying to do it all ourselves.

Third, he suggests that defense cuts will undermine our bargaining leverage with Moscow on issues like arms reductions and missile defense. This is the old “bargaining chip” theory that we heard throughout the Cold War: we have to spend money we don’t have on systems we don’t need so that we can persuade the Russians to give up something they can’t afford either. The reality is that missile defenses have been a quixotic waste of money for decades, and Russia will be more likely to give up more of its own aging arsenal once they aren’t worried that we are building missile defenses in an attempt to gain some sort of first-strike capability.

Kagan also warns that cutting defense spending will inevitably lead the Senate to authorize cuts in foreign aid. Depending on which aid programs got cut, that might not be such a bad thing. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already stated that investing more resources in non-military international affairs programs would actually enhance U.S. security. Working together, I’ll bet he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will make a compelling case for the money. And a dollar saved on defense is a dollar freed up for other purposes.

National security is obviously important, but the Department of Defense should not be exempt from the sacrifices that we all have to make over the next few years. I’m not talking isolationism or radical disarmament here; just the prudent adjustment of ends and means. A country can’t squander more than a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mismanage a lot of other aspects of its foreign policy, and then suffer a financial meltdown without paying a price. And one of the ways we pay that price is by scaling back our ambitions and investing the remaining resources as prudently as we can.  I’ll bet that’s what Kagan would do if he lost his job and had less money to spend; he just doesn’t want the country to follow the same basic principle.

The good news is that United States is sufficiently strong and secure that we can make adjustments without placing our freedom in jeopardy. If you aren’t convinced, remember that we are still the only great power in our hemisphere, we have an array of wealthy and stable allies, we have a sizeable nuclear arsenal to deter any hostile state from attacking our territory directly, and we will have the world’s most powerful conventional forces for decades to come. Given that undeniable good fortune, it takes legions of full-time threat mongers to keep the American people nervous, when in fact almost any country would still be thrilled to swap places with us. And if you’re still worried, comfort yourself with the knowledge that if the United States spent only half of what it currently spends on defense (that is, if it devoted roughly the same percentage of GDP to defense that the rest of NATO does), it would still be spending 3-1/2 times more than Russia, six times more than Japan, and more than twice as much as China.

As I argued a few weeks ago, there are powerful political forces that will make it hard for Obama to make major cuts in defense spending, unless the economy continues to spiral downward. (And let’s hope it doesn’t!) But there is also little reason to think that modest reductions would jeopardize U.S. national security.

The sooner Americans came to terms with our present circumstances and start asking the DoD to make the same financial sacrifices that households are making all over the country, the better off we going to be.

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