The Skeptics

U.S. Grand Strategy and the Debt Crisis

There has been a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth surrounding the debt crisis, most recently about what it might mean for the U.S. military and for U.S. foreign policy.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon has gone on record opposing the Gang of Six proposal on the grounds that it might cut $800 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next ten years. According to McKeon, such proposals raise “serious implications for defense and would not allow us to perform our constitutional responsibility to provide for the safety and security of our country or keep faith with men and women in uniform.”

Does McKeon have a point? Current projections call for the United States to spend $6.037 trillion on the military between 2012 and 2021. Would spending 13.2 percent less than that amount undermine American security?

So far, there haven't been any actual cuts at the Pentagon. The Department of Defense has enjoyed an unbroken streak of rising budgets since 1998. In real, inflation-adjusted terms, U.S. taxpayers now spend more on national security than at any time since the end of World War II. An effort led by South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney to hold the DoD base budget to last year's levels failed. Mulvaney’s amendment, which would have cut $17 billion from the budget voted out of committee, attracted support from more than a quarter of the House GOP caucus, but was ultimately defeated. So the DoD base budget that emerged from the House continues its growth.

But it seems pretty clear that actual total spending will decline in coming years, especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close. Then what? You could argue that it is the Congress's job to fund the government's operations (including the military) and it's up to the executive to figure out how to use the force, but the process hasn’t worked that way for decades. Therefore, the executive bears most of the blame for failing to anticipate the budget crunch and seriously rethink roles and missions for the military. At a minimum, they should have started the process earlier. As an article in today’s Washington Post notes:

In April, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered a “comprehensive review” of Pentagon spending, saying he wanted to reconsider the department’s strategic priorities instead of just ordering across-the-board spending reductions.

The results of that review, however, are not scheduled to be released until February, which could render the Pentagon’s recommendations moot if Congress and the White House agree on a deal before then.

It should never have come to this. It would be a huge mistake to cut the Pentagon's budget without rethinking how and where we will use our military. We saw it happen in the 1990s. Fewer troops + less money + more missions = a hollow force.

So, what is the solution? McKeon, the Foreign Policy Initiative, the editors of the Weekly Standard, and a few others have made their case crystal clear: there should be no cuts in military spending, under any circumstances. We can't afford to shed any roles and missions. Everything that we do in the world is absolutely vital to U.S. national security.

But it appears that only a small minority harbor similar views, and their ranks are shrinking.

The other way to prevent a hollow force if military spending comes down is to take on fewer missions. I'd be a lot more willing to listen to those who warn of breaking our solemn oath to the troops if they weren’t the same people who are so anxious to deploy those troops hither and yon in the first place. The too-frequent use of U.S. military power, from the reckless war in Iraq, to the misguided and open-ended nation-building mission in Afghanistan, hasn’t just strained the force. Those wars have also undermined U.S. security, and saddled current and future generations of Americans under a mountain of debt.

We can responsibly maintain a smaller, less costly military if we resist the impulse to deploy our military wherever and whenever trouble erupts. Such restraint would encourage others to take primary responsibility for their defense. And it would put the United States, and the world, on a sustainable path for the future. It simply isn’t realistic to expect a single country to underwrite the security of the entire planet.

Americans might lament that it took a crisis to compel Washington to restrain its ambitions, and to align the nation’s goals to available means. As Ben Friedman and I argued last year, a strategic shift would make sense even if we weren't staring into a huge fiscal hole. But perhaps now, finally, that long-postponed discussion is about to take place.