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It is increasingly likely that the Republican party, in league with more conservative Democrats, will have a decisive say in Congress following November’s elections. The GOP could even be in the majority in the House. With this possibility in sight, the primary focus of conservatives has been the repeal of the recently enacted health care legislation. Given the magnitude of the bill and its impact on both health care and the economy, this is perfectly reasonable. But health care is not the only matter that should come under review if a new working majority of conservatives results from the upcoming elections. Equally important are the Obama administration’s plans for America’s military.
The president’s proposed budgets call for an ever-increasing piece of the federal pie to go to domestic programs and a decreasing amount to national defense. The Obama administration has already flattened out the defense budget this year, while domestic spending has exploded; in last year’s stimulus, virtually every federal program got significant additional money except defense.
Some comment that this is because the Pentagon got its big boost after 9/11. But the total defense budget has increased since 2001 only in the sense that the country paid for fighting two extended wars. The core defense budget–the cost of raising, training, and equipping the military–has barely grown. As a percentage of the GDP, the core defense budget has risen from 3 percent in 2000 to 3.5 percent today, with much of that change coming from increases in personnel and health costs associated with an all-volunteer force. In reality, the Bush team made little headway in filling the defense hole that had been dug by the Clinton administration over the previous eight years.
We have today an aging and shrinking Air Force and Navy, an Army that is overstretched, reserve forces that are far too “active” in their rate of deployment, and too few dollars to rebuild and modernize. And if the Obama domestic agenda is implemented, discretionary funds available to fund those who “fight our country’s battles/ In the air, on land, and sea” will shrink to a level at which maintaining the dominant military we have become accustomed to since the end of the Cold War will almost certainly be a thing of the past. Indeed, the Obama administration’s projected budgets have the defense burden shrinking to less than 3 percent of GDP in the decade ahead. A level not seen since before World War II.
This budget reality is reflected in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the legislatively mandated review by the Department of Defense of the country’s longer-term defense requirements. The QDR is supposed to bring together our strategy and our military capabilities in order to address our ability to handle today’s conflicts as well as the foreseeable threats down the road. But while the 2010 QDR spells out some future problems, it implicitly accepts the administration’s lack of interest in defense procurement, and punts on providing any answers to those problems.
In testimony in mid-April before the House Armed Services Committee, William Perry, secretary of defense during the Clinton years and co-chairman of an independent panel set up by Congress to assess the adequacy of the QDR, noted that the review was supposed to look ahead 20 years, “informed by but not constrained by budget planning.” The members of the panel, he added, were asked “whether the force structure needs [to be] changed to comply with that strategy. So, a reasonable question to ask is, ‘Does the QDR do that?’ In my judgment, the QDR is a very useful document, but it does not do that.”
And then Perry subtly but correctly pointed to the large flaw in the document:
As secretary, I always felt constrained by the budget that Congress had appropriated for me and my best estimate [of] what they might appropriate in future years. That certainly influenced my actions and planning. But I also felt a responsibility to inform the Congress that if I saw some threat looming in the future for which the budget did not adequately prepare me. And let me give you one example. If I believed, for example, that a new kind of a threat–a cyber threat–was emerging a few years in the future and that we were not adequately–and our present budget did not adequately prepare for that, I would feel obliged to inform the Congress that this was a threat to us coming up and that the present budget did not adequately deal with that. And propose additional funds coming from them.
But this is precisely what the QDR does not do. As Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA), the committee’s ranking minority member, noted in his own opening statement, “The QDR is supposed to shape the Department for 2029–not describe the Pentagon in 2009.” McKeon concluded that the QDR avoided its primary task of looking to future force requirements precisely because to do so would have exposed the administration to the criticism that its defense plans are more about a self-imposed budget constraint than actual strategy.
A new, conservative-led Congress could, of course, force the administration to be more responsible. But we must reckon with conservatives themselves. They are at present so upset with the increasing level of federal debt that, in the rush to cut spending and reduce the deficit, there is risk they may lump defense in with all the other federal programs to be cut.
No doubt, the Pentagon could be made more efficient. But efficiencies will only go so far. State-of-the-art weapons and military platforms are expensive, and so is the all-volunteer military that uses them with incredible capability. Republicans are only kidding themselves if they think defense reform will fix the procurement and modernization problems we now face. The gap between what is needed to modernize the military and the resources being provided is larger than any “reform” can bridge.
And there may be an even more serious problem on the conservative side: the lack of a clear strategic vision. There is a sense among conservatives, especially among many in Congress, that, if we can just get our economic house in order, all else will be well. Yet, since the end of World War II, the overriding premise of American grand strategy has been that if we as a country want peace and prosperity at home, we must have a military sufficiently dominant to deter major threats, police the international commons, and, when necessary, win the wars we wage. Although not cheap, such a strategy provided the underpinning for six decades of remarkable prosperity and success all across the globe. This is something conservatives know in their bones, but spend too little time actually articulating.
Take, for example, Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) detailed blueprint for getting federal spending under control and restoring America to some level of fiscal sanity (“A Roadmap for America’s Future”). This is a serious plan for achieving those goals. Yet missing in his analysis is thinking about what resources the Pentagon might need to do its job. While Ryan rightly points to the “fatal arithmetic of imperial decline” if the United States doesn’t get its fiscal house in order, the only substantive remark in his plan about defense spending–another type of fatal arithmetic–is that, “if the nation is at war,” the otherwise mandatory cap on government spending should be lifted. Obviously, this is a sensible loophole–but it leaves hanging the question of what we should be willing to spend to acquire a military of sufficient size and quality to stave off fighting a major war to begin with.
The Roadmap’s introduction concludes with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson:
A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.
But, of course, this really isn’t the total sum of good government. To think so is to give too little thought to the priorities of national defense–an attitude that, in the case of Jefferson and his followers, left the nation unprepared for the war that came in 1812 and allowed the capital to be sacked.
None of this is to suggest that Congressman Ryan isn’t aware of the importance of defense spending and U.S. military readiness. As the ranking member of the Budget Committee, he is necessarily focused on getting federal spending under control. His plan, though, is a useful reminder that, if conservatives gain sway in November, they should not ignore America’s military needs. In the 1990s, many Republicans were all too willing to let Democrats cut defense spending even as they focused on fighting about domestic programs. It’s far from clear that the U.S. military can withstand another eight years of flat or declining budgets and remain the preeminent global force it is today, continuing to spare us the costs that come with a world in which there is increasing anarchy and less order as American military power recedes.
Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar and the director of advanced strategic studies at AEI. William Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard.
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