In any case, few dispute that the national defense is a federal responsibility, a Washington responsibility: not to be farmed out to individuals, city councils, or governments in Sacramento, Des Moines, or Montpelier. In college terms, it is a core requirement, not an elective — though, to be sure, Congress and the president can elect to do almost whatever they like.
Last year’s Budget Control Act slashed about $500 billion from defense. It also included “sequestration” — a mechanism for automatic budget cuts, if Congress and the president are unable to reach an agreement. Half the cuts would fall on defense, though defense is only 19 percent of the budget. Entitlements would skate through. Defense would take a $500 billion hit on top of the identical hit it has just taken. This would alter the American standing dramatically. The defense budget, which is at 4.6 percent of GDP today, would be at 2.4 in ten years — the lowest percentage since 1940.
At the Eisenhower-Kennedy zenith, defense was at about 10 percent, and over 50 percent of the federal budget. In the last year of Carter, it was at 4.9 percent and 23 percent. Reagan ran on a military buildup, among other things. And he followed through. He did not consider defense part of ordinary budgeting: He thought it a necessity, not an option. His defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, had earned the nickname “Cap the Knife” as Nixon’s budget director. But he was happy and determined to spend on defense. As he saw it, you asked for what your security and strategy required, and if cuts needed to be made — well, let them come from elsewhere.
In those Reagan years, there was a bumper sticker: “Death is different.” It was a sticker protesting capital punishment. Some of us said, “Defense is different” — not just another line item.
Soon came the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the “peace dividend” — that bonanza of money that no longer needed to be spent on defense and could be devoted to light rail and the like. (The question of returning money to taxpayers never really arises.) The 1990s were our “holiday from history.” By the time Bill Clinton left office, defense was down to 3 percent of GDP and 16.5 percent of the budget. Weinberger charged that Clinton had “inexcusably hollowed out our military capability.” In 2000, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, ran on a beefing up. “Help is on the way,” they said.
Shortly after they took office, the holiday from history came to an awful end, and we were at war, in multiple ways.
These days, President Obama is eyeing a peace dividend, though we don’t use the phrase so much anymore. In his convention speech last September, he said, “I will use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work — rebuilding roads and bridges and schools and runways. Because after two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time to do some nation-building right here at home.” Big cheers and applause.
On the question of sequestration, no one has been more dire in his warnings than Obama’s own defense secretary, Leon Panetta (soon to leave office). “These cuts would, in fact, hollow out the force and inflict severe damage to our national defense.” They would be “devastating,” “a disaster,” and so on. Sequestration would leave us with “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest air force” we have ever had. And while we were reducing our military, “the threats to national security would not be reduced” — of course.