Commentary

Cold War Is Over, So Trim the Military

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

The ink on the balanced budget agreement was barely dry when Republicans began looking for ways around it. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, prepared a floor fight to increase highway outlays, retreating only under pressure from Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Now Gingrich wants to bust the budget. The speaker is calling for more military spending. “We have lived off the Reagan buildup as long as we can,” Gingrich testified before the House Budget Committee. “The fact is that our defense structure is getting weaker, our equipment is getting obsolete, our troops are stretched too thin.” Only outlays well above the $270 billion budgeted for next year can ensure “that no one can compete with us.”

What dire circumstances have impelled the speaker to advocate higher military outlays? The cynical observer might point to an extra $2.5 billion to be spent next year for F-22s and C-130s, planes that the Air Force doesn’t want but that are partly built in Gingrich’s home state of Georgia.

There’s no other reason to hike defense spending. The U.S. dominates the world as never before. American ideals helped topple the Soviet empire. The U.S. possesses the largest and most productive economy, far outdistancing any rival, as well as undoubted military supremacy. The U.S. accounts for one-third of the world’s defense outlays and has the most advanced equipment, best variety of forces and largest number of allies. Indeed, the U.S. and its friends are responsible for 80% of world defense spending. Washington’s potential enemies—Cuba, Iraq, North Korea—are pathetic. Possible future rivals like China and Russia are years away from offering effective competition.

For all of the whining about defense “cuts,” all Congress has done is eliminate the Reagan defense buildup. Adjusted for inflation, U.S. military spending is about as much today as it was in 1980, 1975 and 1965. And this is without a war in Vietnam, an antagonistic Soviet Union or a communist ruled Eastern Europe.


Instead of deterring aggression by hegemonic communism, the American military has been policing chaotic Third World states and meddling in local civil wars. The answer is to avoid distant conflicts irrelevant to U.S. security, not hike military spending.


And Gingrich wants more? If one-third of global military outlay isn’t enough, how much is? Half? That way, if all of our allies turned against us—you just can’t trust the French, you know—we could combat the combination. But that wouldn’t guarantee an overwhelming victory. Perhaps we should strive for twice as much as everyone else combined. Or why not three times? Heck, let’s go for 95%. That might satisfy Gingrich’s apparent belief that military outlays should be inversely related to international dangers.

Congress should sharply cut, not increase, defense spending. With the end of the Cold War, America faces no serious conventional threats. An invasion from outer space is about as likely as a war involving the U.S. homeland.

Nor need Washington continue protecting its populous and prosperous allies. They are fully capable of responding to the ever-diminishing threats facing them. For instance, Britain, Germany and France spend more on the military than does Russia; Europe could take over responsibility for its own defense. Surely South Korea, with a gross domestic product running 24 times that of North Korea, is able to protect itself. Why should U.S. Marines be based in Japan, the world’s second-ranking economic power, which no longer faces significant military danger? Washington should start bringing home and demobilizing troops from overseas and shrinking the rest of its forces accordingly.

The Pentagon would still face challenges. Equipment is deteriorating and morale is sagging, because the U.S. has been deploying its forces more frequently than during the Cold War. Instead of deterring aggression by hegemonic communism, the American military has been policing chaotic Third World states and meddling in local civil wars. The answer is to avoid distant conflicts irrelevant to U.S. security, not hike military spending.

Moreover, the U.S. remains vulnerable to missiles, an ever more worrisome prospect as nuclear technologies spread. Thus, a real “defense” budget would include a serious effort to develop an effective defense against such attacks. But such a spending increase would be minor compared with the savings possible from scaling back existing forces.

Republicans who made their political careers attacking Democrats for alleged military weakness during the Cold War don’t seem to realize that we live in a new world. The Cold War is over. Dismantle the Cold War military.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.”