June 14, 2010 3:19PM

How to Cut Military Spending

Several months ago, I co‐​authored an op‐​ed in Politico with Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network calling on the White House and Congress to include the Pentagon’s budget in any deficit reduction package.

because our national security rests on our economic health as well as on the strength of our military, a liberal and a libertarian can agree that the Pentagon should no longer get a pass.

That op‐​ed caught the attention of Congressman Barney Frank. He formed the Sustainable Defense Task Force, an ad hoc advisory panel to assemble a list of possible reductions in military spending that would not undermine essential U.S. security.

Last Friday, the task force presented its findings at a press conference at the Capitol. You can read the full report here [.pdf].

Ben Friedman and I collaborated on the portion of the report that makes the case for a new grand strategy of restraint that would allow for substantial cuts in military spending. Our op‐​ed in this morning’s Los Angeles Times focuses on one key theme: we spend too much because the U.S. military does too much.

A few excerpts:

The Cold War is over. While we were defending our allies in Europe and Asia, they got wealthy. The new status quo is that we offer them perpetual security subsidies — and risk being drawn into wars that do not serve our security interests.


By avoiding the occupation of failing states and shedding commitments to defend healthy ones, we could plan for far fewer wars, allowing cuts in force structure, manpower, procurement spending and operational costs. The resulting force would be more elite, less strained and far less expensive.


Our deficit problem is an opportunity to surrender the pretension that we are the world’s indispensable nation, preventing instability, shaping the international system and guiding history. We should be content to settle for being the big kid on the block that looks out for itself and occasionally helps friends in a bad spot. That approach would take advantage of the security we have, and save money we don’t.

As Cong. Frank explained at the press conference, if cutting defense was easy, we would have done it by now. Defense is a core function of government — any government. That might explain why conservatives, and even some libertarians, are more resistant to Pentagon spending cuts than they are to cuts at the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Education (etc.).

Yet much of what Washington does today isn’t defense, which means that the Pentagon’s budget shouldn’t escape scrutiny. The notion that we should close the budget deficit while leaving the military’s share off the table is untenable.

For one thing, it is a key driver of the enormous growth in government spending over the past decade; inflation‐​adjusted “national defense” outlays (including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) have grown by 86 percent since 1998.

What’s more, the phrase “national defense” is a misnomer, at worse, misleading, at best. We should ask “Defend whose nation?” Most of what Americans spend on our military today is focused on defending other countries that should defend themselves. Once that reality sinks in — and I think it has already — it shouldn’t be that hard to focus the public’s attention on what we spend on our military, and what we get in return.

For the sake of our fiscal health as well as our physical security, we can and should make responsible reductions in military spending. By drawing down the size of our military, reducing our global footprint, and adopting a more restrained grand strategy, we can achieve a sustainable level of military spending that keeps America safe and strong for a very long time to come.