It is misguided because none of the standard rationales for increasing the Pentagon’s budget—the grind of ongoing wars, the threats from rival states and terrorists, a “crisis” in military readiness—can justify the more than $600 billion that Americans already spend on defense, let alone a 10 percent increase.
Sadly, however, the budget proposal is not doomed because either party’s leadership rejects the arguments for an increase in military spending. They just disagree about how to enact it. Congress will probably muddle its way to a deal that provides a portion of the Pentagon request and pays for it through the war account and phony future savings, adding to the national debt.
But there is simply no good reason to spend a dollar more on defense, let alone grant Trump’s request. The administration still has not articulated a strategic rationale for its proposed buildup. The budget plan settles for platitudes about defeating terrorism and rebuilding the military, but its details do not privilege either goal. Efforts against the Islamic State, for example, are funded through the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, which Trump does not propose to increase. Trump’s requested new money would also go largely to conventional forces, not towards counterterrorism measures in Special Operations Command or the intelligence community.
President Trump claims the new budget will rebuild the “depleted” military. Testifying before the Senate this week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis argued that a crisis in military readiness demands a spending hike. But while readiness problems do exist, the “crisis” is a myth made for fundraising. A budget that reallocated funds to operational accounts could fix readiness problems without an increase in military spending. So would a defense strategy that asked less of the military. Trump’s buildup is actually likely to exacerbate readiness problems because it adds forces without providing sufficient funds to support them.
The other standard argument for increased military spending is that “the world is on fire,” as Senator John McCain puts it. Headlines about North Korean missiles, Chinese islands in the South China Sea, Russian aggression and Middle Eastern chaos are scary enough, people like McCain say, to justify more military buildup. But U.S. military spending does not necessarily cure these ills; in fact, it may end up aggravating them. Increased U.S. military power, for example, could encourage North Koreans to want more nuclear missiles rather than pacifying them.
A larger flaw in McCain’s argument, however, is that, by historical standards, not much is actually burning. And, more importantly, the United States does not need to go looking for fires to extinguish. The world remains far more peaceful by various measures than at almost any other point, and the United States still enjoys a privileged position: militarily powerful and distant from trouble. U.S. enemies are historically few and weak; U.S. defense spending is more than double what Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea collectively spend on their militaries; and U.S. forces remain vastly superior. North Korea and Iran are troublesome, but incapable of posing much direct threat to their neighbors, let alone the United States, especially considering nuclear deterrence. Russia threatens its neighbors, but with an oil‐dependent economy now about the size of Italy’s, it poses little danger to more economically stable nations further west.