defense spending: still spending

One thing to bear in mind about the free riders on the United States and its defense capabilities is to me the salient aspect of America’s defense budget in general: we could reduce our defensive budget by what would be in any other context massive amounts of money, and still remain absolutely, utterly militarily dominant. In other words, the amount we spend on the military and homeland defense is so enormous that very small percentages of reduction would result in huge amounts of money saved.

We’ve all seen the numbers; to say that the military of the United States dwarfs that of any other nation would be an extreme understatement. That advantage is not just paper power but translates into an enormous real-world advantage in fighting conventional wars. What’s more, in the most strategically important fields of conventional military conflict that face us, naval and air power, we are not only unmatched, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which our dominance could fade in the next three or four or five decades. Our advantage is just that big. You see this portrayed in various thought experiments of dubious worth– we could defeat any other air force even if we restricted ourselves to using ten year old technology, we could defeat any individual navy in the world using only our submarines, our navy could defeat the combined naval forces of every other nation on earth, etc. Dubious or not, the point is clear; we enjoy in the United States an advantage in military technology that is so vast, we could reasonably cut our military budget by 3% or 4% or 5%, save billions of dollars, and still remain effectively untouchable both in carrying out our own defense and the defense of our allies.

We’ve also all seen, in recent years, what looks like previously unheard of (post-Vietnam, anyway) vulnerabilities for our military apparatus, in the our continuing struggles within Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the setbacks have been real, they have also been of a particular kind, the failure to easily or effectively implement counterinsurgency. This quite likely has a lot less to do with the nature of the United States and its military than it has to do with the nature of counterinsurgency. As you’ve read before, counterinsurgency is hard. It has little to do with a given country’s military power and can’t be fixed by the application of more dollars or more technology. Whatever the conflicts that might face us in our defense of Canada, or Western Europe, or Japan, or the Caribbean, or any of the states we protect militarily, we are unlikely to encounter similar conditions to the ones we find when we attempt to colonize liberate largely-Islamic, economically and infrastructurally devastated failed states.

Note too that our nuclear budget is not included, generally, in defense statistics, as our armament is paid for by the Department of Energy. And while I am broadly opposed to our continued possession of nukes, the fact remains that we have them, and the size and capability of this arsenal gives us a strategic advantage which is difficult to overestimate. Even if we were faced with a situation where simply the promise of the use of American military power to defend a favored state wasn’t enough to deter an aggressor, the fact that we are capable of making a genuine threat of nuclear destruction to any other country makes such aggression unlikely.

So while Will Wilkinson makes a good case for the possibility of conflict in the Arctic Circle, it isn’t as though our decision is between cutting the military budget or defending Canada from Russian aggression. We can do both; in fact, it seems we can do both quite comfortably and easily. That’s a function of the breadth of our military dominance, and a clue to even the most hard-headed hawk that perhaps our military budget has grown to the point of diminishing pragmatic returns.

I mention all of this only because the stimulus and Obama’s budget have inspired a great deal of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction and budget balancing talk. And yet, predictably, there has been close to no agitation from either side for a serious review of the size of our military spending. No one is pointing out the obvious, that our military budget is extremely low-hanging fruit, when it comes to looking for areas to save. Government spending, and the reduction of same, always involves trade-offs, and the push to slow the growth of our debt imperils programs that have a net positive impact on our country, just as the failure to slow that growth could imperil our national fiscal health. But we have in the defense budget an enormous expenditure that could be reduced by a very small fraction and yet still produce hundreds of millions or billions in savings, and all while sacrificing next to nothing in terms of our ability to defend ourselves and project our power when necessary. To borrow a phrase from Dick Cheney, it’s a no brainer.

None of this is to even begin to invoke my own moral and political perspective on the issue of the American military, which is that it is in our ethical and practical self-interest to stop our campaign to spread our armed forces farther and farther across the globe in excursions of minimal use and zero moral value.

So I’m waiting to see if one of our budget hawks is willing to take on our military hawks. I’m waiting to see if some prominent conservative draws the very basic lines of logic necessary to see that the movement to reduce our spending should begin with defense. I continue to believe that people who talk a big game about government spending but who keep the defense budget permanently off-limits are not to be taken too seriously. I’m waiting to see who will step up, but I’m consistently disappointed. I’d like to see, for example, David Brooks use his prominence, visibility and notable hatred for the excesses of the Obama budget to start a national conversation about the inherently conservative value of reducing our defense budget. But I’m not holding my breath.

Perhaps instead someone a little less prominent could start the dialogue and move the borders of respectability to the point that someone more prominent can start a national push. Matthew Continetti, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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11 thoughts on “defense spending: still spending

  1. If we save 3 to 5% of the military budget, what do we do with the savings, redistribute it to the unfortunate poor or reduce the tax burden for those who actually pay taxes.

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  2. If we save 3 to 5% of the military budget, what do we do with the savings, redistribute it to the unfortunate poor or reduce the tax burden for those who actually pay taxes.

    Well, let’s imagine. The budgeted amount for defense in 2008 was about $517 billion dollars. Note again, that doesn’t include the budgets for the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are appropriated separately, nor does it include nuclear weapons, nor does it include the Department of Homeland Security. So the actual amount we spend on defending the country is much higher.

    But let’s just stick with the budgeted figure. It’s my claim that we could reduce the defense budget by as much as 5% and still remain entirely unrivaled on a military level; we could still provide for our own defense and the defense of our allies. That five percent of the $517 billion is about $26 billion dollars.

    Where to put it, spending, tax cuts or paying down the debt? How about all three? The 2007 proposed increase in S-CHIP, vetoed by President Bush, would have cost about $7 billion a year. So let’s fund S-CHIP expansion, increase health care access for children, and please lefties like me. That leaves $18 billion. Let’s hand out an $8 billion payroll tax cut for working class and middle class families. That leaves $10 billion dollars to go towards slowing the accumulation of national debt, with a valuable social program and a payroll tax cut, all without ending the campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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  3. Freddie,

    Great post. I have only one slight amendment. The failure in Iraq/Afghanistan is not so much failure to put in counterinsurgency (which is dubious under the best of circumstances if not really a sham) but not following up the military victory with a political and economic settlement. What Barnett calls winning the peace. That requires an entire other force and an entire other cabinet-level position.

    Either that or we massively de-centralize our army (if we think we should return to a containment only policy) and focus much more effort on intelligence gathering and courts. Basically a legal paradigm. But with nuclear weapons, who cares what the size of our Air Force is? Yglesias is right on that one. Whose the enemy you need that kind of weaponry for?

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  4. Counterinsurgency is still another variant of thinking the problem is primarily military in nature, which therefore requires more military solutions.

    Barnett uses the example of what happens in a US city when the infrastructure goes out for a number of days. Day 1, candles outdoor card games with the neighbors, grilling, etc. Day 2, people staying mostly inside. Day 3 getting more nervous. Day 4 bad things usually start to happen.

    Analogically, in Iraq the US had basically 3-4 months to get the power on, the water running, and we blew it. After that point the peace is lost. Awakening or no Awakening. Better metrics, neato power point slides from Petraeus, whatever, it doesn’t matter. To quote Eminem: you only get one shot.

    Everything else is commentary.

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  5. I’m hurt that no one enjoyed my GI Joe comment… : (

    As for the budget, here’s a radical idea: Require that all military personnel under a certain rank or years be single. Think of the money saved simply by not having to fund family housing. Plus, it’s always been my opinion that men (and women) without a spouse and kids at home are better warriors.

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  6. “Require that all military personnel under a certain rank or years be single.”

    Hurray! A new argument against gay marriage. “We need these translators to not be married. For the sake of our nation.”

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  7. There seems to be a real tendency among military personnel to get hitched about 5 minutes after boot camp. Then the govt has to lay out significantly more in money for family housing. Requiring that enlisted personnel be single until they hit 10 years of service (or whatever the benchmark) or attain a certain rank seems like a smart idea.

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  8. In all seriousness, here is my problem with that:

    Marriage is not the cause of the problem. (copulation) is the problem.

    The question now comes: How do we want to deal with the (copulation) issue? Is it better to have the military personnel in something approaching a long-term monogamous relationship or would regular access to (professional copulators) be a better solution?

    Not (copulating) does not seem to be an option, particularly.

    On top of that, I can totally see how marriage is much more marketable, politically.

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