Commentary

Jim Talent’s Untalented Defense Analysis

Jim Talent believes that the Heritage Foundation’s proposal to spend a minimum of 4 percent of GDP on the military has to be correct because the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders also believe that such a spending figure is justified. Indeed, he notes that there “is no dispute within the defense community over the need to increase defense spending substantially.” Unlike Mr. Talent, most of us are neither surprised nor unduly impressed that officials of a government bureaucracy would like to maximize the budget of their bureaucracy. I would venture to say that leaders of the Department of Education or the Department of Agriculture undoubtedly feel the same about their organization’s funding level.

The real issue is whether 4 percent of GDP (much less Fred Thompson’s even more generous proposal for a floor of 4.5 percent) is justified given America’s legitimate security needs. A nation that spends as much on the military as the rest of the world combined, has weak and friendly neighbors and faces no serious peer competitor anywhere in the world for at least the next 15 to twenty years should not have to increase military spending from its already lofty height.

Nor is it necessary to greatly boost spending to combat Al-Qaeda and its ilk. With the exception of the war in Afghanistan, most of the increased military outlays over the past six years have had nothing to do with countering that threat. The Pentagon and its allies simply exploited the public’s fears following 9/11 to fund items that the Department of Defense had had on its wish list for many years. Much of the campaign against Al-Qaeda consists of glorified law enforcement, not large-scale military enterprises. Some of the most impressive successes against that organization have come in places such as Hamburg, London and Madrid. To be blunt, we don’t need to spend 4 or 4.5 percent of GDP on the military to counter a few thousand stateless fanatics. The hype employed by some conservative panic mongers to the contrary, the terrorist threat is not the functional equivalent of World War III, and we do not need to fund the military as though it is.

By adopting a more rigorous and judicious security strategy, a nation with America’s geographic and technological advantages should be able to make significant cuts in its military outlays, not increase them.

Mr. Talent and his colleagues at the Heritage Foundation are oblivious to that opportunity because they are unwilling to reconsider any of the security obligations the United States has accumulated over the past six decades. If we once had to defend a weak and war-ravaged democratic Europe from a powerful and aggressive Soviet Union, we must continue taking care of the continent’s security needs in the 21st century — even though democratic Europe is now rich and the Soviet Union no longer exits. The Heritage Foundation is the Will Rogers of security commitments; it has never met one it didn’t like. Not only do Heritage analysts want to retain all of America’s Cold War–era obligations, they urged Washington to undertake a host of murky new missions (as in the Balkans and Iraq) that are both dangerous and unrewarding.

Military spending levels should be based on an intelligent security strategy, not a reflexive adherence to an arbitrary percentage of GDP to fulfill obsolete or unwise obligations.”

Military spending levels should be based on an intelligent security strategy, not a reflexive adherence to an arbitrary percentage of GDP to fulfill obsolete or unwise obligations. The United States did not need to intervene in civil wars in the Balkans in the 1990s; America had no meaningful strategic or economic interests at stake in those conflicts. Likewise, nation-building missions in such places as Somalia, Haiti and Iraq are unnecessary and amount to strategic masochism. America does not need to defend prosperous countries, such as Japan, South Korea and the members of the European Union, which are (or certainly should be) capable of defending themselves and playing active security roles in their respective regions. The United States does not benefit by extending risky new defense commitments to an assortment of small client states around the world that add little or nothing to America’s security and well being.

Predictably, Mr. Talent trots out the “isolationist” canard to smear those of us who call for a more restrained security strategy. That shopworn attempt to stifle debate will not work any more. It is hardly isolationism to point out that America does not need to be — and should not aspire to be — a combination of global policeman and global social worker. Unfortunately, both Jim Talent and Fred Thompson apparently want America to embrace that role at whatever cost.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, 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.