The recent 8 percent across-the-board cut in the defense budget is poor public policy, but there is a silver lining: That meat-ax approach may force a long-overdue debate about how much military spending is enough.
As calculated by the Brookings Institution, the United States spends more on national defense than do all of the other top-10 spending countries combined. Even if the across-the-board cut remains in place, our 2013 defense budget will constitute 38 percent of the military spending by all of the countries in the world. The United States will still spend more than 4½ times as much as China (the second-biggest spender) and almost 10 times as much as Russia (the fifth-biggest spender).
The seven other countries in the top 10 – the United Kingdom, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, France and Brazil – are either American allies or, at least, unlikely adversaries. Furthermore, Iran and North Korea do not even rank in the top 10.
Historically, the United States has made major cuts in defense spending following wars. The war in Iraq is over and the end of the war in Afghanistan is in sight. Therefore, with or without the across-the-board cut, defense spending is likely to decline.
The question is how steep that decline will be. Answering that question may depend more on what we can afford than on what we would like our country’s role in the world to be.
Each year’s federal budget is comprised of “mandatory” spending and “discretionary” spending. The largest mandatory spending items – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – continue automatically year to year. Without congressional action, the president has no authority to reduce the benefits these programs pay.
Combined with interest on the national debt, these mandatory spending items account for about two-thirds of the federal budget.
In contrast, discretionary spending requires annual congressional approval and accounts for only about one-third of the budget. Unless Congress is willing to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the only way to reduce the deficit without raising taxes is by making substantial cuts in discretionary spending. As the largest item of discretionary spending, national defense is, by default, a prime target for budget cutters.
Although voters say they want to end deficit spending, they also consistently oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare. For example, 58 percent of likely voters in a February poll by Public Opinion Research said that cutting the nation’s debt is more important than maintaining the then-current level of government spending.
However, 69 percent of those respondents (including 62 percent of the Republicans) opposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare while only 23 percent favored cuts in those programs. At the same time, 49 percent supported cuts in defense spending while only 37 percent opposed defense cuts; 14 percent were unsure.
There are cogent arguments for and against deep cuts in U.S. military spending.
On the one hand, opponents warn that China has more than doubled its defense spending since 2001 and is probably hiding additional spending that was not detected by the Brookings Institution analysis. They also point out that China is taking an increasingly aggressive stance toward its Asian neighbors and is seeking influence in Third World countries, much as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.
In addition, at least some oppose deep cuts in defense spending because they favor a greater U.S. role in the Middle East and North Africa and a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In their view, such action is needed, both to prevent al-Qaida from getting more safe havens and to protect Israel.
On the other hand, Congress continues to insist on funding weapons systems that create jobs back home but do not fit the Pentagon’s strategic priorities. In addition, the Government Accountability Office announced in February that, despite improvements since reforms were initiated in the 1990s, serious financial management problems at the Defense Department make that agency’s financial statements “unauditable.”
Furthermore, it is questionable whether even massive American military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa would be enough to overcome the conflicts among tribes and Islamic factions that threaten civil wars in those regions for the foreseeable future.
The public wants to end the red ink but is opposed to cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Congressional Republicans insist that there will be no further increase in taxes. Therefore, for better or worse, slashing the federal budget means deep cuts in defense spending and the willingness to accept the reduced role in the world necessitated by a less expensive military.
William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s small business advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.