How Not To Cut Military Spending

The report of Rep. Barney Frank’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, issued in June, is a strange document. Titled “Debt, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward,” its first word is “conservatives,” which suggests that Mr. Frank’s intended audience is not Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, the people who actually control our debt, deficits, and defense. It begins with a quotation from Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution, whom the reports’ authors are careful to identify as a McCain-Palin foreign-policy adviser: “Conservatives need to hearken back to our Eisenhower heritage,” Schake writes, “and develop a defense leadership that understands military power is fundamentally premised on the solvency of the American government and the vibrancy of the U.S. economy.” This is followed by a second quotation, from John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, which of course is of no interest.

What we discover in this report is not a budgetary document, but a pacifists’ manifesto: significant policy changes masquerading as deficit-hawking and penny-pinching. Buried in the report’s vasty depths is an eight-paragraph disquisition on the “Logic of Restraint,” the ideological framework undergirding the report’s book-balancing exercise. In other words, the conclusions precede the premises.

In its opening shot, the report identifies 19 broad categories of potential savings, and its authors suggest that nearly $1 trillion can be sweated out of military spending over the coming decade. There are only four categories in which the savings add up to more than $100 billion, and examining those gives one a taste of the ideological particularism and wishful thinking at work here. The first of them is diminishing the U.S. nuclear arsenal for a savings of $113.5 billion. The second is reversing the growth in the Army and Marine Corps budgets that accompanied the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, saving $147 billion. The third is reducing the Navy’s fleet to 230 ships, saving $126.6 billion. And the final chunk comes in the nice round figure of $100 billion, to be realized by having Congress “require commensurate savings in command, support, and infrastructure,” which is to say — magic! Smaller line items do away with the Osprey helicopter program, two Air Force fighter wings, and 50,000 troops stationed in Europe and Asia.

The policy preferences expressed in this report, and the slightly cavalier approach to the subject, come as no surprise: The authors of the report include no leading minds from the armed forces or the Pentagon, but multiple representatives from the Project on Defense Alternatives, an envoy from Peace Action, and like-minded colleagues from the Center for American Progress, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the New America Foundation, etc. (There are two Cato Institute scholars on the panel as well, along with Prof. Prasannan Parthasarathi of Boston College, an expert on the British empire and the author of a highly regarded history of cotton textiles.)

The Pentagon’s budget is as bloated as any typical federal agency’s, and its operations as poorly administered. There is ample room for cuts in its budget. But there is not at present occasion for these cuts, which presuppose a major change in the military posture of the United States. As crucial as spending reform is — even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs calls the federal debt our top long-term national-security threat — we should not conduct a major rethinking of our national-defense policy under the cover of budget-balancing. That is a debate that deserves to be had on its own terms.

And it is a debate that deserves to be conducted honestly. Unhappily, the authors of this report engage in the usual Washington budgetary shenanigans, calculating that military spending is responsible for two-thirds of the growth in annual discretionary spending since 2001. The key is that word “discretionary,” which functions as a way to wall off Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from budgetary scrutiny. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution suggests that all spending is discretionary; certainly, all spending should be treated that way. It is inevitable that if one sets aside the largest items on the federal budget — the so-called entitlements — then the relative size of military spending will be exaggerated. In truth, defense spending represents about 20 percent of the budget; in the 2010 budget, the Department of Health and Human Services will spend $200 billion more than the Department of Defense, its budget 28 percent larger. As a share of GDP, we spend about twice as much on entitlements as we do on national defense. To exclude those facts from discussion of national defense as a fiscal issue is to present a distorted picture of federal spending.

For instance, the authors of the report propose to eliminate 24,000 personnel from the U.S. Army. Why that number? Which 24,000? Why Army personnel, and not OSHA or IRS or Interior Department staff? Paying 24,000 Army personnel for a year costs about one day’s worth of Social Security spending, probably a bit less. Talking about military spending out of the broader budget context is nonsensical, particularly given that national defense is one of the few theaters in which the federal government unquestionably is executing a legitimate sovereign responsibility, the measure of which is largely non-economic. Modest Medicare reform easily could save more money than reducing our nuclear arsenal and our missile-defense programs; but if Medicare is not up for discussion, and if one has a disinclination against nuclear munitions and missile defense to begin with, then why bother asking the question? On the other hand, what is the economic value of a single successful deployment of an antimissile interceptor? There are some gentlemen in Tehran promising to force the question.

This shoddy report is an opportunity missed, and particularly frustrating for those of us on the right who advocate a less expansive, and less expensive, national-security apparatus — those of us who share (disquieting as it is to acknowledge the commonality) Mr. Frank’s belief that the presence of thousands of U.S. troops in such non-hotspots as Germany is an extravagance and an invitation to excess. Likewise, those who are serious about setting America’s public finances aright will have to include reductions in military spending in their calculations — and the Pentagon’s budget is ripe with savings opportunities. But we must develop a sensible national-defense doctrine before working out the details of its economical implementation, rather than taking the covert, backward approach of using budget-balancing to overturn our existing arrangements. There is hard work to be done here, and Mr. Frank’s panel has failed to do it. There are many arguments for returning Mr. Frank and his party to the minority, and their inability to treat this serious issue seriously adds to them.

– Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review.

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