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Should We Cut Defense Spending?

August 5, 2010

While everyone is talking about “balancing the budget,” President Obama is also balancing something else: priorities.

While Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid present the gravest threats to America’s future financial capabilities, no budget has been overlooked, including U.S. defense and military intelligence spending. Accordingly, this has spawned a great debate over where to draw the line between protecting American interests and fiscal responsibility.

Some people believe that spending more than the world combined on defense and more than all other U.S. discretionary spending combined is irresponsible and excessive, especially as politicians and citizens alike are calling for government frugality. Members of both the left and the right have joined together in calling for the scaling down of the military budget, with the unlikely duo of far-left Democrat Barney Frank (D-MA) and libertarian hero Ron Paul (R-TX) leading the way. While many are critiquing the defense budget from a fiscal standpoint, Frank and Paul also argue that our extra spending is not providing much additional security. In a CNN interview, Frank said, “If we are to be told that what we have to do is keep [Afghanistan] from being a base for terrorism…Sudan, Somalia, [and] Yemen…will soon be bases for terrorism. If we were to withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and spend about two percent of what we spend on our troops on bolstering national security at home, we’d be safer.”

Others believe that accomplishing our domestic and international security objectives requires such formidable spending and perhaps more. According to a congressionally chartered bipartisan panel co-chaired by Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, and William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defense secretary, “there is a significant and growing gap between the ‘force structure’ of the military…and the missions it will be called on to perform in the future.” Additionally, the panel concluded that certain areas of defense, such as the Navy and cyber defense, need substantial funding increases to meet the demands of their current objectives.

Are we spending too much on defense?

The conservative Heritage Foundation released its own report on U.S. defense spending in July. The report opposes significant defense spending cuts, stating that, “The Administration is planning to cut the defense budget, even though the existing budget is inadequate to repair, rehabilitate, and replace equipment worn down in combat, much less diversify the force and build the capabilities required to maintain current margins of U.S. military superiority.” Furthermore, the report notes that defense spending as a percentage of GDP is relatively low compared to historical defense spending post-WWII, as illustrated in the graph to the right.  This suggests that the relative costs of our current militaristic dominance are fairly reasonable.

The problem with this thinking, even embodied in deficit-hawks like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and limited government advocate Sarah Palin, is that it assumes too broad a definition of U.S. security interests. Is it vital to our national security that the U.S. utilize interventionist tactics, such as regime changes and nation-building, to proliferate democracy abroad? Do we really need, as of late 2009, over 516,000 U.S. military service members in approximately 150 foreign countries, with 54,000 troops in Germany alone, to defend ourselves? Regardless of the size our economy dedicated to defense spending relative to the past, any extraneous funding that does not accomplish our goals is merely waste. A serious attempt to clearly define our security goals and analyze the cost-effectiveness of our operations and military superiority is in order, lest we find ourselves bankrupt and aimlessly pursuing endless conflict.

-Brett Gall

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