The Checklist Manifesto
Five steps to getting the defense budget right.
Leaders from both branches of government and both political parties agree that the amount of money that the United States can and should spend on defense must be part of the discussion on how to reduce the federal deficit. But in their deliberations, they must keep in mind that they cannot buy perfect security. Even if the Obama administration and Congress were to give the Pentagon the entire federal budget or the whole gross domestic product, there would still be risks and unforeseen developments. But, in deciding how much of the nation’s scarce resources to allocate to national security, political and military leaders can minimize those risks by considering five interrelated factors.
First, leaders must realistically assess the actual threats the nation faces. National security threats are existential or they are not. Existential threats, like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, are those that threaten the very survival of the nation if they are not dealt with. The threats we face in the current post-Cold War environment — international terrorist networks, rogue regimes like Iran or North Korea, climate change, or a rising power like China — do not threaten the country’s existence. Moreover, many of these threats can be handled more effectively by the non-military components of the national security apparatus, such as the State Department or the Department of Homeland Security. Therefore, it is not necessary that the Department of Defense receive the same priority as it did during World War II or the Cold War.
Second, the nation’s leaders must decide what political and military strategy they should pursue to deal with the current threats. During the Cold War, the United States pursued a political strategy of containment that was backed up by military strategies ranging from massive retaliation to flexible response to Air-Land Battle. In the post-Cold War period, the Pentagon sized its forces to be able to fight two major regional contingencies simultaneously. After 9/11, the Bush administration embraced preventive war and counterinsurgency to address the threats of terrorism and rogue states (even though they were not existential threats). With the end of the war in Iraq and the twilight of the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has correctly ended the emphasis on counterinsurgency, correctly switched to counterterrorism, and adopted the newest military construct, Air-Sea Battle, as a response to the perceived threat of rising China. These changes will provide a more cost-effective way to deal militarily with current security challenges.
Third, leaders must assess the nation’s fiscal condition in deciding how much the government can spend on defense, because a nation cannot be strong abroad if it is not strong at home, and even our military leaders admit that the escalating federal debt is a threat to national security. President Eisenhower gave priority to balancing the budget and investing in infrastructure, such as the Federal Interstate Highway System, and he allocated the remainder to the Pentagon. President Kennedy increased defense spending as a means of stimulating the economy because there were few other discretionary government programs in the early 1960s. President Nixon cut defense spending significantly after the war in Vietnam in order to fund domestic programs like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Amtrak. Reagan increased defense spending by 28 percent in his first administration, but when supply-side economics did not work and the debt grew exponentially, he cut it by 10 percent in his second term, a drawdown continued by George H.W. Bush even before the end of the Cold War. President Clinton used the post-Cold War peace dividend to jumpstart the economy and pay down the federal debt. As a result, when George W. Bush took office, the United States accounted for one-third of the world’s military expenditures, one-third of the world’s economy, and the government was actually running a surplus. Yet he became the first wartime president to increase defense spending dramatically while simultaneously cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy. When he left, the U.S. share of the world’s military expenditures had increased to almost one-half, but its share of the world’s economy had dropped to one-fifth, and the nation experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. To deal with the mess created by Bush, Congress and the Obama administration agreed in 2011 to reduce the projected increases in non-war defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade as part of an attempt to rein in the federal deficit, a necessary step to reduce the percentage of GDP consumed by federal spending and a reasonable step given the fact that the defense budget has nearly doubled in the past decade.
Fourth, leaders should compare the defense budget to that of previous decades and to those of other countries, particularly those of our current or potential enemies. Even after the $487 billion reduction, the United States will still account for 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures and will spend more on defense than the next 15 nations combined, most of whom are our allies. Meanwhile, base — or non-war — defense spending is now higher than it was during the Cold War, adjusted for inflation. The country may be in a time of austerity, but the Pentagon is not.
Fifth, the political situation must be factored in. Eisenhower and Nixon could make drastic cuts in defense spending without political risk or pushback from Congress because of their reputation as tough Cold Warriors and the public’s frustration with the Korean and Vietnam wars, respectively. Kennedy and Reagan (in his first term) could increase defense spending because of the public’s concern with Soviet actions like the launching of Sputnik and the invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan in his second term and George H.W. Bush could make significant cuts in defense because of public concern over the rising federal deficit and their own reputations as military hawks. Clinton could continue the cuts started by President Bush because of the end of the Cold War, but was forced to increase defense spending in real terms in his second term because of pressure from the Republican-controlled Congress, which he found hard to resist because of the perception that he was weak on defense. Finally, after 9/11, George W. Bush could raise defense spending to levels not seen since World War II by exaggerating the threat posed by al Qaeda. He created such a climate of fear that the Democrat-controlled Senate did not object, despite the fact al Qaeda did not pose an existential threat and that he not only did not raise taxes to pay for the buildup or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but actually cut them.
These five factors all point to further significant reductions coming in the size of the Pentagon budget. We do not face an existential threat. The federal debt is increasing, as is the need for investment at home. The United States is adapting a less expansive military strategy, and defense expenditures remain at an all-time high. President Obama is seen as a strong military leader, and all available polling indicates that the American people support reducing the defense budget. Therefore, as part of a budget deal to reduce the deficit, avoid sequestration, and extend the middle-class tax cuts, defense spending can, should, and will be reduced significantly over the next decade.