One of the realizations that helped me to dispense of the neoconish foreign policy views of my youth is that for federal policymakers, the Pentagon is like a giant jobs program. Regardless of need, a military installation or armament factory can generally count on the unwavering support of the member of Congress who represents the district or state where the facility is located.
How much does the United States spend on the military relative to our allies? A lot.
Chuck Hagel’s first major speech as secretary of defense is receiving the sort of attention thatone would expect. But the real news will be made when the Obama administration’s budget hits the streets, reportedly on April 10th. As the saying goes, “show me the budget, and I’ll show you your priorities.”
American alliances are systems that transfer wealth from U.S. taxpayers and their debtors to citizens in wealthy allies. With Uncle Sam paying for those countries’ defense, their governments are free to use their own revenues for welfare programs or other domestic priorities. This is a sucker’s bet from an American perspective, but pretty great from the perspective of the citizen of a rich country who benefits from this largesse.
“The budget hawks have defeated the defense hawks.” So read one analyst’s verdict last Friday on the news that, despite months of dire warnings from the Obama administration and the Pentagon’s allies on Capitol Hill, automatic budget cuts to the U.S. Defense Department would go into effect after all. Bill Kristol, the influential editor of the Weekly Standard, was despondent, writing, “the Republican party has, at first reluctantly, then enthusiastically, joined the president on the road to irresponsibility.” But have fiscal scolds really vanquished their neoconservative rivals within the GOP?
Military spending will remain at roughly 2006 levels—$603 billion, higher than peak U.S. spending during the Cold War. Meanwhile, we live in a safer world. The Soviet Union has been dead for more than two decades; no other nation, or combination of nations, has emerged since that can pose a comparable threat. We should have a defense budget that reflects this reality.
Beltway politicians like to pretend that smaller spending increases amount to spending “cuts.” As Dan Mitchell has pointed out numerous times (see here for one example), that’s baseline budgeting baloney. Now that the 2011 Budget Control Act’s spending caps are in place, politicians are making an even more ridiculous claim: the so-called “cuts” have already occurred.
If the Senate confirms Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, he will confront a set of challenges similar to those faced by Charles E. Wilson in 1953, James Schlesinger in 1973 and Dick Cheney in 1991. In each of those cases, recent long and costly wars were drawing to a close, and traditional enemies were disappearing or being replaced.
A common trope of hawkish foreign policy writers is that America took a “holiday from history” by starting too few wars and trimming military spending in the 1990s. The unsubtle suggestion is that this holiday caused 9/11. But a better analogy would be that America, for decades, has taken a holiday from arithmetic, spending money like Jill Kelley at a JSOC mixer.
The fiscal cliff is looming and Washington is scrambling to reach a deal to avoid a Thelma and Louise ending in January. To start, policymakers need to identify spending cuts, and they could begin with Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) just-released report on wasteful and duplicative spending in the Pentagon. The report identifies savings totaling at least $67.9 billion over the next decade in the Department of Defense.