Shadow Government

Stop spending so much on defense

The policy I would most strongly advocate President Obama changing is profligate spending, and conservatives should help him do that by supporting cuts in defense spending. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are important to our security; better protecting our country against attack and improving our game in cyber and space are crucial for our domestic well being; ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The policy I would most strongly advocate President Obama changing is profligate spending, and conservatives should help him do that by supporting cuts in defense spending. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are important to our security; better protecting our country against attack and improving our game in cyber and space are crucial for our domestic well being; maintaining a war-winning military is essential to shaping the international order in ways conducive to U.S. interests. And yet, the single biggest potential risk to the United States is continuing to spend money we don’t have. 

The historian Arnold Toyenbee assessed that civilizations die by suicide, not murder. That is, they decline when they stop responding creatively to challenges. We’re spending ourselves into suicide by not balancing our federal budget and developing a serious plan to address the $12,324,001,387,060 debt. The deficit alone — the difference between what our government receives in taxes and what it spends has tripled this year to $1.4 trillion. There is simply no excuse for a country as prosperous and protected as ours to behave so irresponsibly.

The Department of Defense is about to release a Fiscal Year 2011 budget request of $708 billion. It is tempting to give DOD a pass, to argue that since the president is shoveling money out the windows to bail out mendacious Wall Street and deservingly bankrupt auto makers, defense should reap a windfall. During the debate over stimulus spending last year, Martin Feldstein argued persuasively that the most efficient application of government spending would have been in defense, where the government needs to spend money anyway: increasing port and other homeland security, replacing equipment, and recruiting more people into military service. Existing programs and operations are conducive to a spike in spending that tails off within two years, reducing the prospect of ineffectual spending and corruption.

Instead, the administration allowed Congress to create a spending monstrosity with very little short-term benefit to our economy. The FY 2011 Defense budget needs now to be seen in light — or, more accurately, in the shadow of — the nearly $2 trillion in debt the U.S. government amassed last year. OMB has ostensibly instructed all departments to develop their FY 2011 budgets with an excursion detailing where they would take a 5 percent cut in spending. In this defense budget that would amount to a reduction of $35.4 billion; but there is almost no prospect DOD will be pressed to reduce its outlays.

The president is probably too vulnerable on national security issues — even before the close call of the Christmas bombing — to significantly cut defense spending. Conservatives should help him. We should avoid the easy slaps at the administration for being soft on national security if they responsibly trim defense spending. We should endorse the case for "smart power" and hold the administration accountable for failing to practice it (in the latest example, the White House’s inattention to developments in Iraq has once again resulted in a political setback — refusing Sunni candidates the chance to stand for election — that was easily predictable and could reignite sectarian violence). We must stop equating inputs such as "amount spent" to outputs. 

Americans rightly expect to have the world’s finest military. We should reinforce our comparative advantages and develop new ones to expand our supremacy. But equating that to an industrial age metric like "coal burned" makes us less creative, less responsive to changing circumstances. We must be more cost effective in our defense spending as in all other government spending. 

Defense has for too long lived immune from economics: Its leading strategists rarely have economic training or attempt to link currency values, trade balances, or tax policies. Conservatives need to hearken back to our Eisenhower heritage, and develop a defense leadership that understands military power is fundamentally premised on the solvency of the American government and the vibrancy of the U.S. economy. 

Robert Gates could and should have been that secretary of defense. He is the strongest, most capable secretary of defense. He is in command as well as control of the building. But he has chosen to submit a defense budget nearly triple the size of DOD’s spending in 2001. What a lost opportunity for the country.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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