Secretary Gates's Farewell Tour

May 24, 2011 Topic: DefenseGrand StrategySecurity Blog Brand: The Skeptics

Secretary Gates's Farewell Tour

Putting out all the world's fires is one expensive job. So why does America insist on doing it?

 On Sunday, in a commencement address to the University of Notre Dame, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned the graduating seniors that in a time of global uncertainty, and with multiple threats around the world, the United States cannot risk cutting military spending simply to address the federal government’s fiscal situation. We are staring, as he put it, at “a complex and unpredictable international security environment,” with our national security at stake around the world, from Afghanistan to the revolutions in the Middle East, to new rising powers, and everything in between.

Today, Secretary Gates will give another speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Following his speech, I am on a panel that will discuss the secretary’s comments. The event will be streamed live here.

My first question for Secretary Gates: When has the world not faced “a complex and unpredictable international security environment?” This blanket statement is a common attempt by the secretary to argue for maintaining the current level of spending, yet it tells us nothing about how serious the current threats in the world are and how significant they are to the vital interests of the United States. There are no relevant comparisons made. The United States faces more serious threats now as compared to when? Certainly the threats are not as severe as the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War? The secretary and others who argue for the status quo in military spending do not want to answer tough questions about specific threats. It is difficult to explain to the average American taxpayer how stationing tens of thousands of troops in wealthy European countries directly affects their security.

And it is precisely this line of reasoning—that it is the job of the United States to put out every fire in the world—that cries out for scrutiny. And one hopes that President Obama’s review of the “roles and missions” will do that. As my colleague Ben Friedman points out in a recent Cato podcast , the United States needs to examine trade-offs in military spending.

In responding to Secretary Gates’s speech at Notre Dame, Ben points out that he is essentially arguing that we have no way to discern threats, and no way to guard against unpredictably. Therefore, we must spend as much as we do—or more—to deal with threats, essentially all threats. To do otherwise would be risky. But this assumes, incorrectly, that there is no risk, or less risk, to overspending.

In the end, a budget that does not force trade-offs leads to a strategy that is incapable of prioritizing. It assumes the United States can take on any mission, and that all are necessary. Listen to the rest of the podcast below.