Squaring the Pentagon

America’s promiscuous foreign policy has spawned a gargantuan defense budget. If we restrained ourselves, we could direct that money elsewhere.

President Barack Obama has unveiled his new budget, which proposes continued increases in military outlays. What for? The United States is spending far too much on the Pentagon.

There is no more important federal role than providing for the common defense. But what is required for defense depends upon circumstances. Military requirements in 1900 differed dramatically from those in 1940 and in 1980. What are the requirements today?

The latest Pentagon budget suggests that the United States is embattled and isolated, its territory threatened and its future imperiled. The Obama administration has proposed a $40 billion (8 percent) hike in military outlays in 2010 to $527.7 billion. (Counting Iraq and Afghanistan will push annual military spending up to around $700 billion.) President Obama plans to continue increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps.

This proposal comes on top of a 75 percent increase in real military outlays under the Bush administration. Today, Washington possesses the world's most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, most powerful air force, most dominating navy and most effective army. America accounts for roughly half of global military outlays. Observes the Cato Institute's Ben Friedman: "Add the wars, nuclear weapons research, veterans, and homeland security, and you get about $750 billion. That is more than six times what China spends, 10 times what Russia spends and 70 times what Iran, North Korea and Syria spend combined."

Nevertheless, Pentagon officials and conservative activists are complaining about defense "cuts" since the new administration has reduced the Pentagon's request for even more money. Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace even contends that the Obama administration is signaling that "the American retreat has begun."

Thus, a mix of officials, lobbyists, and analysts advocate spending a fixed percentage of GDP on the military, irrespective of circumstance. Both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen advocate setting a spending floor of 4 percent of GDP. Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association says the 4 percent floor should be "front and center for any new president's agenda." Former Missouri Senator James Talent has been promoting the same number. The Heritage Foundation calls this the "4% for Freedom Solution." (Baseline spending currently runs 3.7 percent.)

Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments figures that a four percent rule would increase military outlays above current plans by between $1.4 and $1.7 trillion over the next decade. Even that isn't enough money for some uber-hawks. Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson wanted 4.5 percent of GDP. AEI's Gary Schmitt prefers five percent. The Wall Street Journal has editorialized for five to six percent. Former and potential GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee advocated six percent-more than a 50 percent hike over today's levels.

Whatever could justify such increases?

The United States already spends more on the military in real terms than it did during the cold war, even as the very hot Korean and Vietnam Wars raged. America devotes a lower percentage of its GDP to the military, but the U.S. economy is much greater today-six times (adjusting for inflation) as big as at the end of World War II. Total resources for defense are higher today than at any other point in over six decades.

Nevertheless, worries Admiral Mullen: "the four percent floor is . . . really important, given the world we're living in, given the threats that we see out there, the risks that are, in fact, global, not just in the Middle East." Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal believes that we are in what amounts to a new post-Locarno world like that before World War II, as the forces of darkness were gathering. AEI's Frederick Kagan argued that "American inattention to the world in the coming years could lead to a similarly devastating result" like World War II, since "the current international environment is by any comparison more dangerous for the U.S. than the one that led to World War II." Jim Talent contended: "We live in a multipolar world with threats that are highly unpredictable and therefore, taken as a whole, more dangerous than the threats we faced during the cold war." Representative John Shadegg claimed that "Our nation is facing the threat of Radical Islam, the gravest threat to our national security in history."

If these claims are true, then why spend only four percent of GDP on defense? Why not 9.4 percent, as during the Vietnam War? Or 14.2 percent, as during the Korean War? Or 37.8 percent, as during World War II? Or even more? After all, we can never be too safe.

The reason why not is simple. These apocalyptic claims are absurd.

There is no longer a Nazi Germany or imperial Japan. Nor even a fascist Italy. There is no more Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact. There is no longer an ideologically-aggressive Communist China allied with the Soviet Union. The patchwork of Third World states backed by the Soviet Union has dissolved. As Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, there is no there there in terms of traditional military threats.

At the same time, Washington spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined on our military. Sure, some small or poor states devote a larger percentage of their limited resources to defense, but their total outlays remain minuscule compared to those of America. That's not all, however. The United States is allied with every major industrialized state save China and Russia. America and other NATO members together account for about $1.05 trillion out of $1.470 trillion in world military expenditures. Adding Japan, South Korea, and Australia take the allied up to $1.15 trillion.