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.