The Corner

Linking Defense Cuts to a Strategy of Restraint

In his most recent column, Jim Lacey makes the important point that national security strategy should shape military force structure, not the other way around. It rarely works that way in practice, as he notes, but we should still try. I agree. Strategy means prioritizing among competing security tools and, recent history notwithstanding, we are perfectly capable of strategizing when deficits pressure us. We can separate those areas and missions that are vital to U.S. security from those that are not and then adapt our forces for those missions. On all this, Lacey and I concur.

Lacey goes badly off the rails, however, when he accuses the Cato Institute of proposing to cut “military budgets without tying the cuts to any strategic plan.” He claims that “at no point does Cato even attempt to link any of its recommended cuts to any analysis of what we may need.” And he concludes, “This is cutting for cuts’ sake, and it makes no more sense than it would to just say we are going to cut every third item listed in the defense budget.”

You can tell just by our paper’s title, Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” that we do connect our force-structure proposals to a different grand strategy. Just by thumbing through the paper, you can see that more than a third of it is dedicated to explaining the strategic rationale, before we document what programs to cut and why. Or one could simply read the executive summary, which begins:

The United States needs a defense budget worthy of its name, one that protects Americans rather than wasting vast sums embroiling us in controversies remote from our interests. This paper outlines such a defense strategy and the substantial cuts in military spending that it allows. That strategy discourages the occupation of failing states and indefinite commitments to defend healthy ones. With fewer missions, the military can shrink its force structure … The resulting force would be more elite, less strained, and far less expensive. By avoiding needless military conflict and protecting our prosperity, these changes would make Americans more secure.

I disagree with Lacey about the nature of the threats facing the country and how best to deal with them. But no one who has read the Cato paper, which I co-wrote with Ben Friedman, could say that we ignored the latter point, which is strategy. We devote several pages to explaining why the United States should get out of the business of defending other countries that can defend themselves, quit trying to fix failed states, and stop pretending that global trade and stability depend on our overseas military actions. We also devote considerable ink to justifying the particular cuts we recommend. On pages 5–8 of our report, we do what Lacey claims we do not, which is explain the reasoning behind our recommended cuts to the ground forces, Air Force, Navy, and nuclear arsenal.

It is also a gross mischaracterization to say that our proposals amount to “cutting for cuts’ sake.” As we explain in the paper, we view strategic change as more important than cost savings:

We cannot . . . have considerable savings without thoroughgoing strategic change. There are efficiencies to be had in our military budget, but making large spending cuts without reducing commitments is a recipe for overburdening service members. Nor should we embrace strategic restraint simply for budgetary reasons. It is a security strategy first that offers the opportunity to save.

Our cuts flow from a strategy of military restraint, not the other way around.

— Christopher A. Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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