Much has been made of President Obama's proclivity
for big spending. There's the $787
billion stimulus bill, the $410
billion spending bill to keep the government running through the end of
the fiscal year (filled with $7.7
billion in earmarks – meaning that it has nothing to do with keeping the
government running), and a proposed $3.6
trillion federal budget for fiscal 2010, which would increase taxes for
those earning more than $250,000 a year and shoot the federal deficit for 2009
to a record $1.75 trillion, or 12.3 percent of GDP, a level not seen since
World War II. On top of all that, there's already a buzz in the air about a
stimulus package (though this is largely being put
on the Democrats' doorstep, it's not without some Republican
While proponents of smaller, more limited government should be concerned
with all of the above (not to mention the banking
bailouts), defense spending has largely flown below the radar. The so-called
fiscal 2010 topline budget for the Defense Department is $534
billion, which does not include supplemental spending for military operations
in Iraq and Afghanistan (that would push defense spending to $644 billion in
fiscal 2010, according to the Center
for Arms Control and Nonproliferation). Even though the base budget of
$534 billion is $21 billion more than fiscal 2009, some are characterizing
this is as a defense cut because it is less than the Pentagon's internally
generated request of $584 billion. Predictably, Fox
News led people down this primrose path which, of course, generated exactly
the kind of discussion
you would expect.
You have to ask yourself why we need to spend more than $500 billion (that's
nearly one-third of the projected deficit) on the Defense Department. In particular,
fiscal conservatives need to ask themselves why they are so outraged about
Obama's spending yet seem relatively unconcerned about 14 percent of the total
federal budget – and more than half of the discretionary budget – being lavished
on the Pentagon.
Apparently, the president believes continuing to spend in excess of $500
billion is necessary to "maintain
our military dominance." But, like Bush before him, whom exactly is
Obama so worried about? The Soviet Union withered away nearly two decades ago.
Although Russia maintains a nuclear arsenal capable of attacking the United
States, our nuclear arsenal acts as a deterrent. Moreover, our relationship
with Russia is not the same confrontational strategic stance we had toward
the Soviet Union. Most importantly, Russia is not a conventional military threat
to Europe or the United States (and the Europeans can afford to pay for their
own defense if they feel having a military capability to offset Russia is necessary
for their security).
Chinese military modernization is often cited as a threat, but even the
Defense Department acknowledges
that "much uncertainty surrounds China's future course, in particular
in the area of its expanding military power and how that power might be used."
The worst-case scenario, of course, is that China aspires to be a hegemonic
strategic competitor in the mold of the former Soviet Union. While we shouldn't
ignore the worst case, we also shouldn't let it drive our decision-making and
planning if there's sound reason and evidence to believe it's not the most
likely case (the problem that led to the decision to invade Iraq). According
to Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies
at the Cato Institute, "I'm not sure why the Pentagon always uses a worst-case
scenario when assessing the military threat from China, but it does."
China bears watching, but we need to be careful about making the Chinese military
threat a self-fulfilling prophecy. An equally (if not more) plausible scenario
is that China aspires to be a regional power. As such, it might pose a potential
threat to Taiwan, but U.S. security is not dependent on Taiwan's security.
Most importantly, China does not possess conventional military power-projection
capability to threaten the U.S. homeland.
Certainly, we can't be shaking in our boots over what's left of the Axis
of Evil – Iran and North Korea (an irony of growing Chinese military capability
is that it represents a power offset to North Korea) – or its lesser members,
Cuba and Venezuela. None of these countries pose serious threats to the United
Yet even though U.S. defense spending nearly equals what the
rest of the world combined spends, we continue to be told we are less than
secure. That may be true for terrorist threats, against which it is impossible
to be completely secure, but not for conventional military threats. The United
States is in a unique geostrategic position, with friendly neighbors to the
north and south and the vast moats of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to the
west and east, respectively, which renders a military invasion nearly impossible.
And the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a strong deterrent against current
and would-be nuclear powers.
So why do we need to spend $500 billion-plus to maintain military dominance?
Not to defend ourselves against threats, but to continue U.S. interventionist
policy around the world. Although he was speaking specifically about China,
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made it clear that the U.S. military is about
interventionism when he testified
in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee this past January: "Modernization
in these areas could threaten America's primary means of projecting power and
helping allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks
that support them."
As a candidate, Obama campaigned on change. As president – at least when it
comes to defense spending – the more things change, the more things stay the