The Skeptics

What Cameron's Cuts Mean for Conservatives and Neocons

In the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) Max Boot laments that British Prime Minister David Cameron has chosen to cut the UK's defense budget by 8 percent. The cuts, documented here and here, affect the British military across the board.

I won't go into the details of Cameron's cuts here. I think many of the reductions make sense, though I question the direction that the Brits seem to be going with carriers (continuing to build two without plans to use them); I predict that the future of naval aviation will be built around smaller ships launching unmanned and remotely piloted vehicles. But that is a discussion for another time.

Of greater interest here is Boot's reaction, and the likely reaction of his "Defending Defense" fellow travelers. Just as the Heritage Foundation's Jim Carafano did on Monday, Boot closes with a warning to fiscal conservatives who believe that all forms of government spending are a legitimate target for deficit reduction:

Republicans expecting to take over one or both houses of Congress may be tempted to emulate the British example to deal with our own budget woes. But while Mr. Cameron's courageous cutbacks in bloated domestic spending should inspire admiration, his scything of defense—one of the core responsibilities of government—is an example that we would do well to avoid.(Emphasis added)

There are at least two explanations for why Cameron moved forward as he did, and neither is convenient for Mr. Boot. Indeed, it seems likely that Cameron's conservative cousins on this side of the Atlantic are prepared to scrutinize military spending in ways that make Max Boot very uncomfortable.

On the one hand, it could be that leaders in the UK still fancy their country a pillar of the West, with global interests that extend beyond the defense of the home islands. Cameron declared as much, promising that Britain would still "punch above its weight" despite the cuts. Boot intones that Cameron's "words ring hollow," but perhaps Cameron simply doesn't believe that military power is particularly useful in advancing British security interests?

If he has come to that conclusion, we all have Max Boot to thank (and George W. Bush, and Tony Blair, and the editors of the Weekly Standard, etc). After all, the limited utility of military power has been revealed in the very wars that they have so loudly championed -- the U.S. military succeeded in driving tin-pot dictators and petty tyrants from power in Baghdad and Kabul, but occupying foreign lands for nearly a decade has revealed the limits of this power, and have coincided with an erosion of American security.

Boot fixes on a second explanation for why Cameron has chosen to cut military spending: the British feel free to make these moves confident that the United States will always be there to back them up. Boot writes:

The fact that British defense capabilities are in steep decline means that even more of the burden of defending what used to be called the Free World will fall on our overstretched armed forces. The British can cut back secure in the knowledge that Uncle Sam will protect them if anything goes truly wrong.

In Boot's telling, Cameron's decision inevitably places a heavier burden on the shoulders of American taxpayers and American troops.

But why should Americans perform a function for other governments that they are obligated by tradition, law and reason to perform for themselves? Defense is, as Boot notes, "one of the core responsibilities of government." I would go one better: defense is one of the only legitimate responsibilities for government. So why does Max Boot think that Americans should simply resign themselves to take on this burden, doing for others what they should do for themselves?

I suspect that he fears that most Americans are not comfortable with the role that he and his neoconservative allies have preached for nearly two decades, hence his preemptive shot across the bow of the incoming congressional class that will have been elected on a platform of reducing the burden of government. True, the public is easily swayed, and not inclined to vote on foreign policy matters, in general, but as I noted here on Monday, it seems unlikely that the same Tea Partiers who want the U.S. government to do less in the United States are anxious to do more everywhere else. And, indeed, such sentiments are not confined to conservatives and constitutionalists who are keenly aware of government's inherent limitations. Recent surveys by the Chicago Council of on Global Affairs (.pdf) and the Pew Research Center (here) definitively demonstrate that the public writ large is anxious to shed the role of global policeman.

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