There are good reasons for the U.S. to draw down military spending and shrink its armed forces: if the world has become a substantially more peaceful place, for instance; if our adversaries have left the stage; if our allies have grown substantially stronger; if we discover we can attain similar levels of security at much lower cost.
None of those things, all reasonable observers must concede, has happened over the past few years. Indeed, just the opposite, for the most part: Our allies, with rare exceptions, have shown little interest in rearming, our adversaries have grown much stronger, new asymmetric threats require expensive countermeasures, and the world is objectively less secure.
While the president’s budget will aim to spend over the next ten years about $100 billion more than sequester levels of funding, this is still insufficient to meet America’s goals. The headline numbers are not deceptive: An army with just 450,000 troops, a navy with fewer than 300 ships, and an air force with just 187 of the fighters it will rely on for the next 50 years can’t do what we wanted it to do just a few years ago.
The budget is an announcement of American retreat. That is doubly true when combined with the Obama administration’s generally weak diplomatic posture. While we need our allies to invest more in defense, they are not capable of filling the gap we are opening — and certainly less likely to try to when America isn’t doing its best to back them up. Only one substantial ally, Japan, is investing in its military, and its efforts would be more effective and more helpful to stability if they were done in concert with American military support rather than Joe Biden diplomacy.
Some of the details of Hagel’s budget are sensible, including base closures and reforms to military compensation. But as he outlined, these are far from enough to close the gap between the military’s present capabilities and its projected funding. He could have gone even further in the compensation category: Personnel costs have exploded at the Pentagon, and, as entitlements constrain the larger federal budget, are squeezing out the programs we want and need the Pentagon to fund. Some reforms to compensation would even benefit current or future servicemen, but voting to do so would be politically perilous for Congress. The problem is that Hagel’s description of his plans — he pretends that projected spending can fit the Pentagon’s strategy when the Pentagon’s strategy has been written to fit projected spending — won’t persuade anyone to take such votes for the sake of funding the strategic capabilities America needs.
If advocates of defense retrenchment believe the United States’ interests have changed over the past 20 years so that they don’t demand securing the Pacific, or protecting our interests in the Middle East, they should explain why. If the consequences of these developments to the security of the world and America itself are made clear, we suspect Americans won’t buy it, which is why the salesmen for this peace dividend argue it’s a budgetary necessity, rather than a strategic option.
Voters are understandably concerned about the high levels of debt carried by the federal government — especially our future spending trajectory — and conservatives are rightly concerned by the size of our federal government. Sequestration, in fact, was a rare successful effort to restrain discretionary federal spending. But the past couple of years and today’s announcement reflect what we have maintained all along: The sequester brings welcome spending discipline at home but deals a devastating blow to the federal government’s capacity to carry out its most fundamental responsibility.
Peace dividends are risky bets. Never more so when there isn’t any peace to pay for them.