Defending Defense Badly

Monday was budget day, where the President sends Congress the budget he would like it to pass and reporters and analysts scurry around reacting, as if the he were issuing stunning edicts rather than predictable suggestions . Due to a Healy-esque aversion to this species of DC pageantry, I was not planning to comment.

Then I read this oped in Politico where James Fly and John Noonan of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative flack for the President’s defense budget.  It demonstrates the intellectual poverty of the case for current defense spending so well that I decided to discuss it.

Fly and Noonan first claim that the White House wants to cut defense spending by $78 billion over five years, repeating the President’s talking point and labeling the reduction “deep and far-reaching.” But as Chris Preble wrote earlier, the cut is to the rate of spending growth. Neither Obama nor Secretary Gates has ever proposed cutting actual defense spending. In the unlikely event that the administration’s new five-year spending plan holds up, the non-war portion of Pentagon spending will cost taxpayers $2.918 trillion from fiscal year 2012 to 2016, rather than last year’s proposed $2.994 trillion, a reduction of 2.5 percent. We will still spend more on the non-war Pentagon budget, even adjusting for inflation, than we did in the prior five years, which was the most ever. Some cut.

The oped dutifully repeats Gates’ claim that he canceled procurement programs worth more than $300 billion in 2009. It does not say that that’s a speculative lifetime spending estimate, that new programs replaced those canceled, and that other Pentagon spending categories, like personnel, have grown more rapidly than procurement, eating any savings.

When they try their own arguments, Fly and Noonan do even worse. They write that “it is worth asking whether other federal agencies or domestic entitlement programs have been forced to reduce their budgets to the same extent that the Pentagon has over the past two years.” Though they mean to imply otherwise, the answer, since they asked, is yes, more. As they could have figured out by looking at OMB’s historical outlay table, total non-defense discretionary spending has not grown over the last two years. Defense has.

It gets worse. Fly and Noonan complain that we lack a military that can handle “any unanticipated contingency, which cancould [sic] emerge at any time.” We could triple defense spending, reinstitute the draft, and still not meet that standard. What if we had to occupy India? And why is instability anywhere always our problem?

Of course they also mention China, noting that it wants to use its military to assert “its long-term interests” and recently tested a stealth fighter. Given that we spend almost as much researching, developing and testing new weapons as China spends on its whole military, that we have far more advanced stealth and surveillance technology, that we have eleven carriers while China has one that they can’t really operate, and that we have no good reason for war with China, the Chinese’s effort to build a military that can protect their interests is unalarming, reasonable and a terrible argument for our current defense budget.

Beyond China, Fly and Noonan make no effort to justify military spending with specific threats. They just assert that the world is “volatile” and the “strategic landscape” grows “increasingly perilous.” Actually the world has been getting less volatile for several decades, if we measure volatility by the frequency and human cost of wars. And even if that were not true, why should our military aim, quixotically, at pacifying all war, rather than self-defense?  Strategy is a product of our making, not a landscape we passively confront.  National security threats to Americans are quite limited in historical context, and mostly avoidable. A less activist stance would avoid the peril we now increase by having defense commitments in so many unstable places.