Commentary

Will the Tea Tempest Storm the Pentagon?

Some hawks are getting defensive about the budget.

With a number of tea party-backed candidates victorious and on their way to Washington, there is much speculation about how they might affect foreign policy. “It’s hard to divine because they haven’t articulated clear views,” explains James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations. “We are left wondering: What exactly would they do?”

The tea party movement has no clear foreign policy agenda. It seems unlikely, however, that the same tea partyers who want the U.S. government to do less at home are anxious to do more everywhere else.

For example, the movement and its new representatives in Washington might prefer to avoid sending U.S. forces into unnecessary and futile wars. Accordingly, they might also realize that substantial reductions in military spending are strategically wise, fiscally prudent, and politically necessary.

The mere prospect that the incoming congressional class will cut military spending has some Beltway insiders manning the ramparts. Last month, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, and Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation joined forces in a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that military spending “is neither the true source of our fiscal woes, nor an appropriate target for indiscriminate budget-slashing in a still-dangerous world.”

It’s absurd to argue that there’s no room for cuts. The Pentagon’s budget has grown nearly 86 percent in real terms since 1998.

Ever-rising military spending is partly explained by the fact that its advocates — the individuals, companies, and politicians who depend on military projects — are highly motivated and adept at maintaining the status quo. These special interests have a right to fight in the American political system, but Beltway hawks should not enjoy a presumption that military spending necessarily advances national security. Much of it does not.

The nation needs to reconsider its overarching national security strategy as a first step toward limiting military spending. It’s appropriate that we spend money on our military to defend Americans against foreign threats to our lives, liberty, or property. But we spend much more than is necessary for our own security because Washington has chosen to defend other countries that are capable of defending themselves.

The challenge is to rethink what we want the military to do before we start cutting its budget. To make cuts without reviewing our strategic aims would only impose more burdens on our fighting men and women and their families.

But with a more focused foreign policy, such cuts would make sense even if this were an era of surpluses. And in a time when overall spending has to be cut, the Pentagon’s budget needs to be on the table.

The next Congress is likely to go after domestic spending and entitlements, which will be reflexively defended by its left-leaning members. If the tea party is serious about restraining federal spending, the candidates the movement helped elect are going to have to compromise with liberals and moderates. The Pentagon’s budget cannot be held sacrosanct in those negotiations.

Given their attention to fiscal realities and our government’s constitutional obligations, tea partyers are particularly well-suited to lead a movement for more foreign policy restraint and put a brake on global adventurism and massive military spending — hence the preemptive shot across their bow by a few Washington think-tankers.

Will the tea party’s candidates side with the Washington consensus when they move inside the Beltway? Or will they stay true to their small-government principles and remind Washington insiders that the Constitution provides for “the common defence” of ourselves and our posterity, not of the entire world? We will find out soon enough.

Christopher A. Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, where John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government.