An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Joint Chiefs of Lobbyists

Pentagon honchos loudly claim that national debt is the greatest security threat to America. They're dead wrong -- they just want more money for the military.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Bob Gates and Mike Mullen are not happy.

Bob Gates and Mike Mullen are not happy.

I don’t mean they are unhappy on a deep, metaphysical, soul-crushing level, but rather on the more mundane level of "they think the country is going to hell" and they’re not pleased about it. And why do they think this? It’s the national debt.

Both Mullen (the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Gates (the former defense secretary) have for several years now been publicly complaining about dysfunction in Washington, America’s growing red ink, and the potential impact on their beloved military institutions. Most recently they have been on a tear about the prospect of sequestration cuts taking a meat ax to the Pentagon’s budget. Two weeks ago at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)-sponsored confab focused on the debt crisis in America, they made the argument again. Mullen repeated his now oft-repeated assertion that growing debt is the "most significant threat to our national security," and Gates renewed his claim that this will lead to cutbacks in military spending that will weaken the military at a time when America is facing myriad foreign threats.

Both men are wrong. The U.S. national debt isn’t a security threat. Indeed, for all their high-minded rhetoric about the risks of growing indebtedness — and their image as elder statesmen above the grubbiness of politics — Mullen and Gates’s goal is rather mundane and parochial: ensure that U.S. military budgets stay on their current inflated course.

At its core, the fundamental problem with the debt/national security argument is that, well frankly, it doesn’t make much sense. National debt in and of itself isn’t a threat. It’s rather an issue of how that debt guides policy choices. So, for example, Mullen claims that "a nation with our current levels of unsustainable debt, being this far out of fiscal balance, cannot hope to sustain, for very long, its superiority from a military perspective or its influence in world affairs."

This is a highly dubious notion. There really is no reason a country even with unsustainable levels of debt (which isn’t actually the case with the United States, which I’ll get to later) can’t maintain military superiority or influence in world affairs. Over the last three years — as U.S. debt levels have risen dramatically — the United States has intervened in a war in Libya, surged in Afghanistan, and, with the notable exception of drawing down in Iraq has done very little to pull back from a leading role in global affairs. Moreover, given how historically low interest rates are, there’s reason to question the notion that America’s deficit is "unsustainable" or that it couldn’t be reversed by some good old economic growth and an expiration of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. If anything, the problem in America today is that the country is disinclined to take on more debt in order to grow the economy.

Although it’s certainly possible that more debt could mean a reduced U.S. role in the world, there’s nothing about this scenario that’s written in stone. Indeed, it should provide some comfort to Mullen that this year the House of Representatives took a sledgehammer to many social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid in order to spare the Pentagon the possibility of spending reductions. After all, if there is any lesson to take from how Congress handles military spending, it’s that the country’s elected representatives generally have the Pentagon’s back.

In fact, at its core, Mullen’s argument isn’t really an argument against debt. He’s not concerned about too much debt spending crowding out private-sector spending or about the long-term impact of debt on interest rates. He also seems largely unconcerned about the country’s high unemployment rate or its underperforming economy, all of which, ironically, would be made worse by adopting Mullen’s single-minded focus on debt, because spending cuts or broad-based tax cuts would almost certainly slow the economic recovery. Implicit in Mullen’s argument is that to avoid cuts to the Pentagon budget, either other parts of government spending must be cut — such as Social Security, Medicare, or other social safety net programs — or taxes must be raised.

Of course, one might be inclined to argue that a reduction in military spending may not necessarily be a bad thing, especially when one considers that even the sequestration cuts that Mullen and others have described in apocalyptic terms would only return the United States to fiscal 2007 defense-spending levels.

For Mullen’s argument to make any sense, he would actually need to identify why major reductions in military spending would put America at greater risk. For example, what emerging threat would the United States not be able to respond to because it suffered under the weight of around an 8 percent reduction from the current total Pentagon budget of $670 billion?

Mullen offers little clue, arguing instead, at the CSIS event, that America’s "military missions and requirements abroad must and will continue" and that a budget decline "virtually guarantees that we would end up with a hollow force, a force unable to conduct its training, a force unable to maintain its equipment, and a force unable to fight."

Gates doesn’t do much better asserting that "while there’s no equivalent of the former Soviet Union looming on the horizon, I do believe the threats America faces today and down the road are, in many respects, more dangerous for their complexity, variety, unpredictability, and likelihood."

How these threats are more complex or dangerous to the United States than the possibility of planet-destroying thermonuclear war is left unstated — along with any possible explication of what these threats Gates warns of might actually be. It’s hard to take seriously an argument that argues debt is a serious national security threat because it will weaken the U.S. military when the proponents of this theory don’t even identify an overseas danger worthy of having such a large military.

The closest Gates comes to putting some meat on the bones of his argument is this: "We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people, and with ourselves … that a smaller, less ready, less modernized military will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things.… If our elected officials and body politic conclude that they truly want a diminished role for the United States in the world, then we can start paring back missions and ratcheting back the corresponding military investments in force structure." 

The problem with this assertion should be obvious: Gates conflates a "diminished role for the United States in the world" with paring back military missions. But would that necessarily be the case? One might imagine that the United States can play an active global role in areas other than military adventurism. Indeed, Mullen takes a similar tack asserting that America’s "tendency after war has always been to come home and isolate." (This sentence would make more sense if Mullen substituted the word always with never.)

With the possible exception of the post-World War I era, the United States has never truly "come home and isolated" itself; even in those years, the United States continued to play a role in global affairs, just not as a member of the League of Nations. After World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, the United States hardly isolated itself — if anything, quite the opposite.

Even today, after two disastrous, debt-widening wars enthusiastically supported by both Mullen and Gates, one is hard-pressed to identify a single example of the United States pulling back from "global leadership" or engagement. No one is talking about getting out of NATO or ending support in the Far East for South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan. If anything, the U.S. support for allies in the region is on the upswing.

In reality, the only single example that one could possibly identify of U.S. "retreat" would be cuts to the defense budget — and contrary to Gates and Mullen’s protestations, that is hardly a symbol of isolationism.

And at a time when the United States has just finished one war and is winding down another, reducing the military budget is not so much "retreat" as it is a prudent response to larger changes in the global environment and America’s overseas posture. It’s not surprising that the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former defense secretary would be opposed to such measures, but to argue that the debt is the root of the problem is to cloud the issue.

Indeed, this is what makes Gates and Mullen’s rhetoric on the challenges of burgeoning so noxious. Gates, in particular, likes to argue that America’s red ink represents a failure of political leadership in Washington, an adherence to parochial interests rather than doing what’s best for the country. If only politicians could learn to compromise, says Gates, we could solve the country’s problems.

But, of course, how one views the country’s best interests differs from party to party and from congressman to congressman, from senator to senator. There are those who believe that raising taxes is the worst possible sin, others who feel the same about cutting social insurance programs, and finally those, like Gates and Mullen, who believe the defense budget must be protected at all costs. They are, quite simply, just one more interest group lobbying for their perceived national interests.

As they are decrying others’ supposed parochialism, Gates and Mullen are engaging in the exact same activity by prizing national defense above other pressing issues of national concern.

Indeed, like so many politicians who criticize the country’s red ink, it’s hardly accidental that neither Mullen nor Gates describes how the country should get its fiscal house in order — just that it should. Apparently, being an "adult" in Washington doesn’t involve identifying who gets hurt by cutting the deficit, but, rather, criticizing those who don’t share the same fiscal priorities.

Because of their positions of national prominence — which are supposedly outside the realm of politics — Gates and Mullen are accorded great respect and treated as serious voices whose opinions are selflessly intended to knock some sense into those in Washington who refuse to act like adults.

But though their verdict of parochialism being the disease that ails Washington might be correct, both men — with their hoary defense of Pentagon budgets fueled by scaremongering claims about the result of reductions in military spending — are really just part of the problem.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.

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