Commentary

Drop Pretension to Supremacy

With the Senate close to voting on the defense authorization bill, Congress is poised to pass the largest military budget since World War II — roughly $550 billion, excluding funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign it, pending resolution of minor disputes like funding for the alternative Joint Strike Fighter engine.

Despite Obama’s professed concern about the huge budget deficit, the president has taken no meaningful steps to rein in military spending. Citing the need for austerity, Pentagon officials have a goal of 1 percent real growth in the Defense Department budget over the next decade. Not exactly a revolution of fiscal discipline.

Hawks and defense industry trade groups say this spending is essential to U.S. security. But much of Washington’s military spending is geared toward defending others and toward the dubious proposition that global stability depends on U.S. military deployments.

Washington confuses what it wants from its military (global primacy or hegemony) with what it needs (safety).”

If our military had less to do, the Pentagon could spend less — at least $1.22 trillion less over the next 10 years, according to a Cato Institute report released Tuesday.

Washington confuses what it wants from its military (global primacy or hegemony) with what it needs (safety).

Policymakers exaggerate the capability of existing enemies and invent new ones by defining traditional foreign troubles — geopolitical competition among states and instability within them, for example — as major U.S. security threats. In nearly all cases, they are not.

Geography, wealth and nuclear weapons provide us with a degree of safety that our ancestors would envy. Sending large armies to occupy — and try to manage the politics of — hostile Muslim countries is not effective counterterrorism policy. In most cases, it is counterproductive.

Substantially reducing military spending means reducing U.S. ambitions. By shedding missions, the Pentagon could cut force structure — reducing personnel, weapons and vehicles procured and operational costs. The resulting force would be more elite, less strained and far less expensive.

Making large spending cuts without reducing military commitments is a recipe for overburdening service members. Nor should Washington embrace strategic restraint just for budgetary reasons. A force reduction strategy would make sense even without deficits, however, because it could enhance security.

It would reduce the possibility of fighting unnecessary wars, limit the number of countries that build up their military to balance U.S. forces, remove an impetus for nuclear weapons proliferation and prevent foreign peoples from resenting us for occupying their countries.

Because a less active military can make conventional and counterinsurgency warfare less likely, we recommend cutting the Army and Marine Corps by roughly one-third. Fewer missions, along with advances in strike technology, would also allow for reductions in the Air Force and Navy.

For reasons of economy, even under the current strategic posture, we recommend deep cuts in nuclear weapons and missile defense spending. Additional savings could be found by cutting overhead and intelligence spending, reducing military construction costs and canceling several weapons systems.

We could also reform military pay and benefits as the wars wind down, and reduce strains on service members, by slowing the rate of pay raises and allowing premiums and co-pays for military health care to rise when costs do.

Inside the Beltway, these proposals may look radical. But what is really radical is the ambition that now justifies the size of the U.S. military: the idea that America should use its military to secure rich states in perpetuity; arrest disorder in several poor ones simultaneously; police the oceans, skies and space; and spend the better part of a trillion dollars a year to those ends.

Given the strategy we advocate, our proposals are cautious. Yet even steeper cuts would still leave the United States with a large margin of superiority over all rivals.

If Washington sheds its pretensions that America is the indispensable nation, guiding history and protecting all nations, even greater savings are possible.

Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security at the Cato Institute. Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at Cato. They are members of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, an ad hoc advisory panel created by Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas).