Stop Squandering “Defense” Dollars on Rich Allies and Failed States

America accounts for nearly 40 percent of globe’s military outlays, but Washington hawks believe that the federal government never spends enough on the Pentagon.  The United States should scale back its international responsibilities and cut Pentagon outlays accordingly.

Military expenditures are the price of Washington’s foreign policy.  And the cost is high—about $627 billion budgeted this year, before counting extra expenditures for the latest Mideast war. 

The war lobby minimizes the magnitude of America’s military spending through statistical legerdemain:  real outlays have been falling and account for a lower percentage of GDP.

But the United States leads the world in military spending and is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia.  America and its allies collectively account for two-thirds of the globe’s military expenditures.

While Washington’s inflation-adjusted outlays have recently dropped, they previously rose significantly—almost 165 percent between 1998 and 2011.  It is only natural for expenditures to fall as Washington wound down two wars. 

Moreover, the percentage of GDP is irrelevant.  America’s GDP this year is almost seven times that in 1952, at the height of the Korean War.  Today’s GDP is roughly 3.5 times that in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War and almost twice that in 1989, the peak of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War military build-up.  Washington today spends more in real resources on the military than in any of those years.

Early in the Cold War, Washington had good reason to bear much of the burden of defending the “free world.”  But no longer.  The fact that the world is dangerous does not mean it is particularly dangerous for Americans. 

Terrorism remains the most pressing security threat, but does not pose an existential danger. Washington must spend better, not more, in response. 

The People’s Republic of China is becoming more powerful, but is no replacement for the Soviet Union.  The PRC remains a relatively poor nation beset with economic and political challenges.  It has but one ally, North Korea, while America is friends with most of Beijing’s neighbors.  The United States remains well ahead of the PRC militarily.

Russia has reverted to a pre-1914 Great Power which is most concerned about border security and national respect.  Moscow’s potential military ambitions are limited to its former republics. Europe alone has eight times the GDP and three times the population of Russia.

Beyond these two large powers, there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.  North Korea should be contained by the Republic of Korea, which has roughly 40 times the North’s GDP. No one wants Iran to have nuclear weapons, but there is no evidence that it is suicidal and would strike America. 

Syria’s implosion is of only minor relevance to U.S. security. The Islamic State has little ability to harm Washington other than killing Americans who fall into its hands. 

Challenges in these and other nations may warrant some form of U.S. involvement, but not primarily military action. 

Mitt Romney declared that “our military is tasked with many more missions than those of other nations.”  Actually, no one “tasks” America with such jobs.  Rather, Washington takes on these roles voluntarily—indeed, it shoves aside other nations.

Reducing Washington’s security objectives and armed forces does not mean becoming a pushover.  The United States should maintain the world’s most powerful and innovative military on earth, and doing so won’t be cheap.  But Washington could protect America while spending far less.

As I noted in my new column on Forbes online:  “Washington’s policy of promiscuous foreign intervention would be foolish even if it was not costly.  But it is both.” 

The United States should scale back its international objectives and adjust its force structure accordingly.  Returning to a foreign policy of a republic would be both safer and cheaper.