George F. Will has called neoconservatism “a spectacularly misnamed radicalism” whose adherents are “the most radical people in this town.” (It is a shame that the Heritage Foundation has fallen so far from its sensible opposition to the neoconservative vision and evidently bought into the neoconservative program in toto.)
Like other radicals, however, they are pretty good at politics, which is clear from reading their latest offering, a talking points document [.pdf] produced by the “Defending Defense” initiative intended to demonstrate that U.S. military spending is not that large and should not be cut.
I have several things to say about the document, but all of the internet sniping and providing adversarial quotes to journalists probably aren’t the best way to adjudicate the debate. To that end, on behalf of my colleagues I extend the offer of an open, public, live debate to the Defending Defense people: Let’s debate the security of the United States, the strategy to best protect it, and the resources needed to fund the strategy. Any time, any place.
The overarching problem in this debate is that the big spenders keep inserting the red herring of defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP into the debate. This is relevant only as it pertains to their claim that “current levels of defense spending are affordable,” but last time I checked the mere fact that something wouldn’t, in itself, bankrupt the country is not a sufficient conservative justification for a government program.
The logic of basing the military budget on a percentage of GDP would imply that security and economic growth are inversely related. Of course, the simple fact is that economic growth does not pose a threat to the United States and economic contraction does not make us safer. During World War II we spent roughly 40 percent of GDP on our military, and given where we were, that seems sensible to this analyst. But the “given where we were” part of that sentence is doing a lot of work. Where are we today? What are the threats we face? How should we deal with them? How much would it cost to do so? Answers to those questions should provide the grounding for our military budget, not the deeply unconservative justification that “it won’t bankrupt us.”
Another point: It might sound pedantic, but many of what they characterize as “myths” can’t be myths. They might be wrong. They might be poor analytic points. But they can’t be “myths.” To correct just a few of what they call “myths”:
“Pentagon budgets were a “gusher” of new money in the Bush Administration.”
- A metaphor can’t be a myth.
“The United States should not be ‘the world’s policeman.’”
- Preferences aren’t myths.
“Defense spending should focus primarily on ‘winning the wars we’re in.’”
- Again, preferences aren’t myths.
Myths are mistaken empirical claims that people believe, or the stories surrounding mistaken empirical claims that cause people to believe them. For example, lots of people think President Obama signed the TARP. That’s a myth. President Bush did it. The way the neoconservatives are using the word “myth” in the document is something more like “argument I disagree with.”
But let’s take these “myths” one by one and have a look at the analysis.
1) “Additional defense spending is unnecessary as the United States already spends more on defense than half the world combined.”
Interestingly, the authors nowhere argue that additional military spending is necessary, although they strongly imply that it is. In 2005 Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt wanted 5 percent of GDP to go to defense, which today would be roughly $730 billion. It wasn’t clear whether they wanted to keep the supplementals going with the 5 percent comprising just the base budget, but with the wars we’re already spending roughly $730 billion on the military as it is. (Also, just a factual correction, the best estimate is that we spend just under what the rest of the world spends combined, not just over.)
The authors also spirit in a normative claim in the first sentence to fend off scrutiny: “No other country in the world has the enduring vital national interests of the United States, and therefore the U.S. military has global reach and responsibilities.” Given the weight hung around this claim, it would have been good if the authors could have offered even a superficial defense of it. They did not.
Instead, they move on to observing that using purchasing power parity, Chinese defense spending is closer to $150 billion than the $78 billion that market exchange rates would indicate. This is solid analysis. I am glad to see that someone has convinced Heritage president Ed Feulner, a leader of “Defending Defense,” to distance himself from his problematic 2007 judgment that “Beijing’s military spending, in purchasing power parity terms, would be around $450 billion - about what America spends.” (Maybe he read my blog post correcting him.)
2) “Pentagon budgets were a ‘gusher’ of new money in the Bush Administration.”
Again, “a gusher” is in the eye of the beholder. For facts, you should turn to the study authored by my colleagues Ben Friedman and Chris Preble. There they point out that U.S. military spending has risen by 50 percent over the last 12 years, not including inflation or the wars. If you include the wars, U.S. military spending has increased by more than 80 percent since 1998. Military spending constitutes 23 percent of the federal budget. That’s real money where I come from.
3) “Cutting waste and excess from the Pentagon budget will provide sufficient funds to make up for shortfalls.”
Depending on whether we change our grand strategy, this is definitely true. Our foreign policy is insolvent today. Given our commitments, defense spending is too low, but the commitments are the problem. We could spend less with fewer commitments and still be safe.
4) “Current levels of defense spending are unaffordable.”
Even though the rhetoric the authors assemble to knock down this claim isn’t very good, I agree with them. (I agree based primarily on Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth’s excellent book, which makes a strong case that the United States can afford a massive military budget.) Big, fabulously wealthy countries like ours can afford to do lots of expensive things, like Medicare Part D or funding a chunk of the defense of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Israel ourselves. But it doesn’t mean we should, necessarily.
5) “The United States should not be ‘the world’s policeman.’”
Again, this is a preference, not a myth. But the authors’ central defense of the implied claim that we should be the world’s policeman comes in the argument that “the cost of preserving America’s role in the world is far less than would be the cost of having to fight to recover it or, still greater, the cost of losing it altogether. While many Americans would prefer to see our allies and partners play a larger part in securing the blessings of our common liberty, no president of either political party has backed away from America’s global leadership role —a bipartisan consensus that remains strong evidence that American leadership is still necessary to protect the nation’s vital interests.”
This argument, in turn, is based on an unstated theoretical premise, which is that when America isn’t somewhere, all hell breaks loose, and that when all hell breaks loose, it tends to land on our heads. The balance of power doesn’t work, we live in a bandwagoning world not a balancing world, and therefore if we aren’t everywhere, chaos will be, and if chaos is everywhere, it’s going to hit us eventually.
I think this is a silly claim, and I also think the theoretical roots of neoconservative foreign-policy thought are underdeveloped, but it would be good if an actual neoconservative could speak for himself about his own theory of international politics rather than allowing others to try to assemble coherent theoretical groundings for his ideas.
6) “Defense spending should focus primarily on ‘winning the wars we’re in.’”
This might be a surprising area of agreement, but as someone who has long thought that the wars we’re in are dumb (and deeply unconservative), I believe strongly that focusing our defense dollars on winning the wars we’re in is a dumb idea.
Again, though, there’s lots left to discuss, so let’s hope AEI, Heritage, or the Foreign Policy Initiative will agree to a debate.