Neocons Fudge Numbers, Lose Party on Defense Budget
Posted by Jacob Stokes
It’s pretty tough to keep track of all the attempted sleights of hand being slung around the Beltway by establishment republicans about the defense budget right now, but one thing’s for sure: it’s a desperate attempt to enforce party dogma on an increasingly fissured movement.
First, the numbers sleight of hand. It’s one of those lies, damn lies and statistics-type things. In Monday’s op-ed by conservative poobahs Kristol, Feulner and Brooks, they revert to a number of conservative hobbyhorses, the most ridiculous of which is the idea that defense spending should be evaluated as a percentage of GDP rather than as a response to threats. Is there some magic ratio of GDP to defense spending that magically makes us “safe”? If so, what is it? And would they have made the same argument during the Cold War, even when the threat level is different?
Kristol et al use the ridiculous defense spending-to-GDP standard to claim that we’re not spending enough on defense. But as Larry Korb and Laura Conley of CAP point out:
Total defense spending in real terms is now higher than at any time since the end of World War II, more than throughout the entire Cold War, and even 10 percent higher than the peak of the Reagan defense buildup. The baseline defense budget has been growing in real terms for 13 straight years—the longest-ever period of sustained real growth in U.S. defense spending.
As a result, the portion of the world’s military expenditures the United States consumes compared to our potential adversaries has grown from 60 percent to 250 percent. This means that even if the United States were to cut its spending in half it would still be spending more than its current and potential adversaries. We are far beyond the point of diminishing returns in U.S. defense spending relative to our actual defense requirements.
So we’re spending more despite the reduced threat landscape that comes from having dumped the Soviet Union onto the ash heap of history? Kristol et al try to say we still face a similarly dangerous world: “…faced with a nuclear Iran, or a Chinese People's Liberation Army that can deny access to U.S. ships or aircraft in the Asian-Pacific region, there are many missions ahead.” Dan Drezner quickly cuts this down to size:
I'm about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don't equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And until I see another hostile country in the world that poses a military threat in Europe, the Middle East and Asia at the same time, I'm thinking that current defense spending should be lower than Cold War levels by a fair amount.
Okay, so I feel like we’ve established that the arguments have little policy merit, but what about the politics? As my boss Heather Hurlburt wrote before this stuff blew up, the defense budget was always a vulnerability for the GOP because of the libertarian, deficit-conscious wing, the old-fashioned moderates and pretty much every faction of the GOP that retains a desire for fiscal solvency. A civil war is brewing. As the longtime conservative strategist who has allied with the Tea Party Richard Viguerie has said: "We’re all on the same page until the polls close November 2." After that, "a massive, almost historic battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party begins." We’ve already seen desertions from the neocon dogma from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY), Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul and prospective GOP presidential candidate Mitch Daniels. And Rand Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) joined Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) on the bipartisan Sustainable Defense Task Force, which made suggestions on ways to include defense in budget cuts without sacrificing security.
By writing this op-ed Kristol et al, have – unwittingly, it seems – shined a light on these divides. And they have had to backtrack after Ben Domenech lambasted their efforts to make the rest of the party fall in line. Attempting to square this circle, RedState writes:
Such an alliance should not be interpreted as old-school Washington establishmentarians manning the bulwarks against a new, popular conservative grassroots movement, but rather a plea for the Tea Party to acknowledge the dilapidated condition of the US military, which is facing unheard of budget cuts and historically low spending during a time of a tough, protracted war against Islamic extremism.
No matter how the GOP tries to spin it, it’s going to tough to sell any true fiscal conservatives on a defense spending-to-GDP ratio because that is by very definition entitlement spending, the kind that can torpedo deficits.
And a final point, one that should be obvious, but it never hurts to remind: It is true that, despite our massive budgets, the military is stretched. I’ll grant that much to the Kristol et al. But it’s not because the American taxpayer has underfinanced them. It’s because for most of the decade we’ve been engaged in two wars, at a cost of $1 trillion in raw cash and an estimated $3 trillion when you factor in downstream costs. At least one of those wars, Iraq, was a complete mistake that caused us to ignore and arguably miss the window to win the second, Afghanistan. No amount of defense spending can prevent or paper over strategic blunders on the scale of Iraq.
Like I said, so many attempted sleights of hand and purposeful omissions here, most so transparent even wings of the GOP aren’t willing to go along with them.