The Myth That America Spends Too Much on Defense
The Fiscal Year 2013 defense budget promises to slash $43 billion, leaving $662 billion to equip the world’s largest economic and strongest military power. Normally, cutting the defense budget could be justified considering America’s financial stress, if it were peacetime, and if the threats were relatively few and non-taxing.
We’ve all seen the statistic – “America spends more on defense than the next ten largest military budgets combined.” While true, the pre-eminent superpower checks in on defense spending at a meager 4.7% of GDP in 2010, ranking tenth overall.
But the threats of today and the future are very real: an aggressive Russia, rising China, militant Iran, and unstable Venezuela and North Korea. This is in addition to the comparatively modest terrorist threat in objective terms (not arguing that any loss of human life can be quantified; but scarcity of resources is a reality).
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Report sums up this picture:
The United States faces a complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate. The distribution of global political, economic, and military power is becoming more diffuse. The rise of China, the world’s most populous country, and India, the world’s largest democracy, will continue to shape an international system that is no longer easily defined—one in which the United States will remain the most powerful actor but must increasingly work with key allies and partners if it is to sustain stability and peace.
The proposed defense budget seems to acknowledge the shifting and unstable nature of current international relations, which sees an America that has overspent its military capital on relatively quixotic nation-building exercises in the Middle East and is thus less willing and financially able to keep up the routine.
That being said, the proposed defense bill is self-contradictory and dangerous in terms of how it claims to prepare America to defend itself in the future.
An overview from The Independent gives us a sketch of the “Obama Doctrine”:
The “Obama Doctrine” reflects three basic realities. First, the long post-9/11 wars are finally drawing to a close. The last US troops have already left Iraq, while American combat forces are due to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 (though a limited number may stay on as trainers and advisers).
Second, and as the President stressed in a major speech during his recent visit to Australia, America’s national interest is increasingly bound up with Asia, the world’s economic powerhouse, and where many countries are keen for a greater US commitment as a counterweight to China.
Third, and most important, are the domestic financial facts of life, at a moment when government spending on every front is under pressure. For years the Pentagon has been exempt – but no longer, as efforts multiply to rein in soaring federal budget deficits.
From a strategical standpoint, frankly, this is gibberish. Obama seems to want to appease his base by reducing military commitment in the Middle East, although he initiated American involvement in an undeclared war against Libya, military operations against Yemen and other countries, and has been feckless in conducting the war in Afghanistan. Obama’s policies have contributed to chaos and an ensuing political vacuum that has fostered increased power for Islamist movements.
Obama has thus wielded a double-edged sword: he has promoted more dangerous conditions in the Middle East, making it difficult for prudent and relatively favorable extraction; meanwhile, he is pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan at a precarious time in the region. If Obama had any strategical sense, he would have promoted stability in the region instead of democratic chaos; that is, if withdrawing U.S. troops from the region indeed were part of a well thought-out strategy, and not just election-year posturing.
The president’s actions have made the terrorism front more concerning in the long run, since extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as terrorist umbrella group Al Qaeda, will have readier access to state resources, making them far more formidable. This is not retrospective gainsaying; conservative analysts forewarned of the dangers of blindly supporting “democracy” movements in the region.
At the same time as the bill proposes to cut half a million troops, the defense outlook sees more U.S. involvement in Asia, a force “focused” on the principle of anti-terrorism, along with more funding for drones and cyber-security. It is unclear how focusing on terrorism, which would entail preparing troops for combat with light arms and urban combat, as well as unconventional warfare, would do anything to prepare them to counter a threat like the world’s largest standing army of 2.8 million, should China move in the region against an ally. Drones would be of scant value in such a confrontation. Cyber-security should be relegated to military intranet and communications only; the rest should be privatized, diffuse in architecture, and therefore more secure.
But the greatest national security threat, as Admiral Mike Mullen pointed out, is our national debt, which now stands at over $16 trillion. And the situation will only get worse, due to such economy-destroying measures as Obamacare, as our debt is projected at over $100 trillion for the foreseeable future. Government spending is at forty percent of GDP, compared with seven percent of GDP in 1902, and in total is about ten times the amount spent on one of the only Constitutionally legitimate functions of the U.S. government – defense. The biggest slice of that government expenditure pie is “welfare,” narrowly speaking, which at 6.5% of GDP is 13 times larger than it was in 1960.
In that interim, defense spending has plummeted as a percentage of GDP, as the graph below illustrates.
Therefore, those who claim that reigning in defense spending, short of cutting out the considerable graft and waste, is a regrettable but necessary measure in a time of national belt-tightening, are simply blowing smoke. The mind-boggling debt the U.S. has racked up will in fact be financing the armies of our adversaries, as author Mark Steyn warns:
Otherwise, by 2020 just the interest payments on the debt will be larger than the U.S. military budget. That’s not paying down the debt, but merely staying current on the servicing — like when you get your MasterCard statement and you can’t afford to pay off any of what you borrowed but you can just about cover the monthly interest charge. Except in this case the interest charge for U.S. taxpayers will be greater than the military budgets of China, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, India, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Spain, Turkey, and Israel combined.
When interest payments consume about 20 percent of federal revenues, that means a fifth of your taxes are entirely wasted. Pious celebrities often simper that they’d be willing to pay more in taxes for better government services. But a fifth of what you pay won’t be going to government services at all, unless by “government services” you mean the People’s Liberation Army of China, which will be entirely funded by U.S. taxpayers by about 2015.
In the big picture, slashing defense will make America less secure and do little to make it more prosperous. It is a relatively minor item, and we have to bear in mind that about $115 billion of the defense budget are well-deserved veterans benefits.
In foreign policy, the president as Commander-in-Chief is charged with showing leadership and helping to develop grand strategy and ordering principles for such tasks as developing a military budget. Our present president is neither interested in such a task nor capable of successfully executing it.