What the Supercommittee’s Failure Says About U.S. Foreign Policy

The so-called supercommittee has failed to come to an agreement on a package of spending cuts and/or tax increases that would add up to $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. Some inveterate spenders have portrayed the faux cuts as draconian, painful, and irresponsible, but they would have been quite modest relative to expected spending over the next ten years. Remember, according to Washington’s unique math, spending is “cut” when it increases less than previously projected. Several of my colleagues have weighed in on the tax and domestic spending aspects. I have some thoughts as it pertains to military spending.

The reason why this particular method for reining in out-of-control spending failed was both predictable and predicted. The Sword of Damocles known as sequestration – supposedly automatic spending cuts divided between the Pentagon and the rest of the discretionary budget – proved a particularly dull weapon. It was intended to force Democrats and Republicans to compromise, but few people believed that the cuts would actually occur, and Republicans, in particular, were working to exempt the Pentagon before the ink from August’s debt ceiling deal had dried. As former McCain adviser Kori Schake observed last month, it is difficult to see “how either the math or the politics work to bring federal spending into line with receipts if conservatives rule defense out of bounds.”

The politics might actually be tougher than the budgetary arithmetic. Not all conservatives believe that the Pentagon’s budget is sacrosanct, but those who wish to stick with the status quo, or dramatically increase military spending (as Mitt Romney wishes to do), have a story for the upcoming election that they believe will play well with voters. They will accuse the Democrats of wanting to “gut defense,” cut off funds for troops in harm’s way, and otherwise undermine American security. They will expect the public to ignore that much of what we spend on military is completely irrelevant to keeping us all safe – it is intended, instead, to make other countries feel safe, and therefore disinclined to spend more on their own defense.

Americans are ignorant of such things because the political class likes it that way. As SAIS Professor Michael Mandelbaum, one of the leading advocates for our current foreign policy, explained several years ago, Americans were opposed to playing the role of the world’s policeman, while other countries free ride on our largesse. And this shouldn’t surprise. “To make sacrifices largely for the benefit of others counts as charity,” Mandelbaum explained, ”and for Americans, as for other people, charity begins at home.” The solution for sustaining this state of affairs is simple: keep the people in the dark: ”The American role in the world,” Mandelbaum concluded, “may depend in part on Americans not scrutinizing it too closely.” Observes Christopher Fettweis in a recent book, “Democracy at home can apparently be a handicap to those who would promote it most fiercely abroad.”

President Obama and the Democrats are poorly positioned to capitalize on this disconnect between the public and the elites because they share the blame for a system in which Americans spend far more money on our military than do people in other countries. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats alike have presided over a considerable expansion of U.S. global commitments since the end of the Cold War. And that pattern has actually accelerated as the U.S. fiscal crisis has grown more dire. The president has just returned from a trip to Asia in which he implied that U.S. security commitments to wealthy, stable allies in the region would expand in coming years.

In other words, the president expects that U.S. taxpayers will spend even more money to defend countries that can defend themselves, and that he will pay no serious political price for making such promises.

Given that his Republican challenger – whoever that might be – is likely to criticize him for not doing enough to “reassure” the countries in Asia, he is probably correct.