Commentary

Fred Thompson’s Defense Diatribe

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson may have set a modern record for the amount of sloppy thinking on defense policy in a single speech.  In remarks at the Citadel on Tuesday, Thompson proposed measures for a “revitalized” national defense.

The chief “pillar” of Thompson’s proposal is that the United States should not spend less than 4.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense—not including the vast sums committed each year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another crucial pillar is that the U.S. should expand Army and Marine Corps to form a “million-member” force.

4.5 percent of GDP is an astonishingly large sum. The U.S. already spends as much on the military as the rest of the world combined, but even that vast outlay apparently does not satisfy Thompson and others who want to lavish more money on the Pentagon. Under his plan—and a similar scheme advanced by the Heritage Foundation earlier this year— the U.S. military budget would soar by nearly $100 billion. The total would approach $600 billion—plus at least another $150 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse, the 4.5 percent figure is a floor; the actual defense budget of a Thompson administration could be even more.

Thompson’s approach turns proper defense budgeting on its head. Instead of crafting a defense strategy and then determining how much we need to spend to implement it, Thompson picks an arbitrary budget figure. He would apparently decide on policy priorities later.

To the extent he thinks about the specifics of security strategy at all, Thompson uncritically accepts all of Washington’s current defense commitments. But there are numerous obligations that reek of obsolescence. Why, for example, does the United States need to keep nearly 100,000 troops in Europe more than 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Thompson’s defense proposal is a case study in faulty thinking about important security issues.”

Similarly, why do we need to retain our security commitment to South Korea? When we made that pledge, South Korea was an impoverished country incapable of defending itself, and the Korean peninsula was only one theater in America’s global struggle against communism. Today, South Korea has twice the population and an economy 40 times bigger than that of its North Korean rival. It seems absurd on its face to continue subsidizing the defense of such a prosperous and capable country — especially when it is no longer part of a global security rivalry.

Yet there is no hint in Thompson’s defense manifesto that he is willing to consider terminating—or even downsizing—such obsolete commitments. Setting military spending at so high a level spares policymakers from having to make decisions about priorities. Instead, it encourages complacent, lazy thinking about strategy.

The second crucial pillar of Thompson’s proposal—the million-member ground force— may be even more worrisome than the overall spending figure. Due to its geographic position and technological prowess, America needs to focus on air and naval power to protect its legitimate security interests. A large ground force makes little strategic sense. The United States is not likely to wage a ground war against China, Russia or any other conceivable major strategic adversary.

Consequently, a million-member ground force is superfluous, unless Thompson is contemplating involving the United States in additional Iraq-style nation-building missions. But that is the last thing America needs to do. We have already spent a tragic amount of blood and treasure—nearly 3,900 casualties and well over $500 billion—in the Iraq misadventure. For the United States to pursue similar missions in the future would be an exercise in foreign policy masochism.

Thompson’s defense proposal is a case study in faulty thinking about important security issues. Throwing money at the Pentagon, complacently accepting a host of obsolete commitments to free-riding allies and embracing the folly of nation building is not what the next administration needs to do.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, is the author of seven books on international affairs. His next book, Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America, will be published in 2008.