The Corner

A Superior Defense

Fareed Zakaria takes to the pages of the Washington Post today to excoriate conservatives who believe with Adam Smith that “defense is superior to opulence.” The case he makes for cavalier cuts to the defense department rests on historical precedent, budget necessity and retrenchment abroad. His argument is by turns ahistorical, irresponsible and pusillanimous. To take these in order, if I may.

Zakaria begins his case by claiming that, if current projections hold, the defense budget would lose $600 billion to $700 billion over the next 10 years. “If so,” he comments gleefully, “let the guillotine fall. It would be a much-needed adjustment to an out-of-control military-industrial complex.” This is baffling. Timothy Garton Ash – no liberal imperialist, he – has chronicled historical U.S. defense spending in his book Free World as follows.

“The U.S. budget distinguishes between national defense and human resources, in which it includes education, training, employment, social services, social security, and health care – in short, the “social” functions of the state. It is interesting to track the ratio between them over the last sixty years. In 1945, the ratio was 89 percent on defense to 2 percent on social spending (the balance is accounted for by other budget categories). As late as 1970, America spent more on national defense than on social welfare. By the end of the cold war, however, the ratio was roughly 24:49 (defense: social), and in the last year of the Clinton administration it had fallen to 16:62. All the huge hikes in military spending under George W. Bush pushed that up to only an estimated 20:65 in 2004.” Am I missing something, or is the “military-industrial complex” within bounds?

As America begins to groan under the weight of its enormous public debt – exacerbated by the financial implosion of 2008 and unusually high expenditures, but long in coming as a result of the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security – that gap will only widen. It may be fair to argue that this trend, allowing for more redistribution of income and further aid to the disadvantaged, is salutary. It is sheer casuistry to argue that it is militarism run amok, and yet Zakaria must resort to this line in order to insinuate that defense outlays are the true source of our insolvency, a view belied by this graph from the Heritage Foundation. This is cynical complacency masquerading as brave objectivity, supporting the course that is popular and pointless while dealing with the course that is difficult and necessary only by ignoring it.

Zakaria continues: “It is not unprecedented for defense spending to fall substantially as we scale back or end military actions. After the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower cut defense spending 27 percent. Richard Nixon cut it 29 percent after Vietnam. As tensions declined in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan began scaling back his military spending, a process accelerated under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.” These are not, to put it mildly, the sort of precedents to which critics of American power should draw attention. In each instance, the defense cuts were false economies, inviting aggression from enemies that had to be repelled later at great expense. The Korean War was itself brought on by compressed American security guarantees, and its unsatisfactory resolution encouraged communist insurgencies elsewhere to expose the limits of American power. The drawdown after Vietnam crippled the force so drastically that, by the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, it forestalled the possibility of a successful rescue mission. And only a soi disant “realist” could dismiss the potent effect the post-Berlin Wall “peace dividend” had on jihadists seeking to drive the “far enemy” out of the Middle East.

Zakaria invokes the Pentagon’s “cradle-to-grave system of housing, subsidies, cost-plus procurement, early retirement and lifetime pension and health-care guarantees” to argue that “the U.S. defense establishment is the world’s largest socialist economy.” You can see his point. But if we do not have the stomach as a nation to break, or even alter, promises made to baby-boomers, I hardly see the argument for doing so to our sentinels and veterans. I do not mean to argue that there is not significant waste and redundancy at the Pentagon. On the contrary, given the extraordinary scope of the bureaucracy, even marginal inefficiencies are egregious. By all means: Identify and remove them – but with a scalpel, not a guillotine. Otherwise, vital military capacities will undoubtedly be put under further strain. This stands to reason, for the genuine purpose behind such impetuous cuts is, as Zakaria is good enough to admit, to “force a healthy rebalancing of American foreign policy.”

Those who still hold to the notion that we can escape our present security commitments – which is precisely what Zakaria means by a “healthy rebalancing” – without endangering the liberal global order are deluding themselves. The stark reality is that two wars remain unfinished, and a third one has barely begun – none of which can be aborted without doing severe damage to American political influence. The Arab revolutions that have already seen off two entrenched regimes, and have prompted virtually every remaining one to declare war on their populations, are nowhere near over and, whatever their fate, contain dangerous portents. Iran is making seemingly inexorable progress toward the acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Pakistan, with the bomb already in its arsenal, teeters on the brink of collapse. And next year, the People’s Republic of China – whose economy, if current trends persist, will surpass our own by the end of the decade – plans to increase spending on defense by 12.7% to fund the construction of a blue-water navy. The price to be paid for relinquishing a leading role in such a world would be heavy indeed. And bear in mind: these are only the foreseeable threats to international order and the global economy. Quelling them requires not just tepid American engagement, but assertive American leadership. The old Roman maxim famously held that if you want peace, prepare for war. This is not a view that finds favor anywhere today, I realize, but in this crisis conservatives – and discerning liberals, too – should not fail to recognize its truth, and march to the beat of the battle drums.


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