We can afford to spend more, and we need to

U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Destiny Cheek

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Forrest Findley directs an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 41 on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis under way in the Pacific Ocean, Sept. 3, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Growth of entitlements and other forms of “mandatory” spending are destroying the balance sheet, not military spending.

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  • Mandatory spending is about 60 percent of federal spending and getting close to 15 percent of GDP.

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  • The most important issue of national defense is not whether U.S. armed forces will be good enough but whether there will be enough of them.

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With his acceptance speech this evening, President Obama has affirmed that this is a “choice” election, not a referendum on whether things are better or worse for Americans than they were for years ago, but whether we’ll be better off four years from now. 

For most voters, that’s a question about the economy, or domestic affairs more broadly.  But it’s also a profound question about what role the United States will play in the world and, in particular, whether we will retain sufficient military power to sustain what remains – by any historical standard – a remarkably peaceful, prosperous and free world.

President Obama has, very adroitly, exploited the government’s financial woes to make changes in policy, strategy, defense planning and budgets that no modern politician of the liberal Left or the libertarian Right would have dared. - Thomas DonnellyConventional wisdom in Washington has it that we are now in an “Age of Austerity” – at least when it comes to defense budgets – as though it were a geological fact rather than a political choice. 

To be sure, the federal government’s finances are a mess.  But what’s destroying the balance sheet is the growth of entitlements and other forms of “mandatory” spending, not military spending.  The facts are that the Pentagon consumes about 20 percent of federal spending and less than 5 percent of gross domestic product; mandatory spending is about 60 percent of federal spending and getting close to 15 percent of GDP.  Thanks to slow economic growth and us aging Baby Boomers, those pie-slices are getting ever bigger.  The current defense budget debate is an example of looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Shrinking defense investment has come to shape America’s national security strategy and military force planning.  This administration talks of “leading from behind.”  The president’s recent “defense guidance” abandons the traditional yardstick of U.S. power, that we must be able to conduct two sizeable military operations at the same time.  And President Obama has very adroitly exploited the government’s financial woes to make changes in policy, strategy, defense planning and budgets that no modern politician of the liberal Left or the libertarian Right would have dared.

By contrast, Mitt Romney has set a goal of boosting military budgets back toward 4 percent of GDP.   The number itself is only meaningful in one way: it demonstrates how affordable the cost of sustained military power is.  It doesn’t tell us precisely “how much is enough”  -- the classic Cold War question about defense spending – but it does make plain that “enough is not too much.”  That’s the way Harry Truman thought, or John Kennedy, indeed, every president since Franklin Roosevelt.  Not exactly a bunch of extremists.

The most important issue of national defense is not whether U.S. armed forces will be good enough – they will remain, as the president promises, “the best in the world” – but whether there will be enough of them.   And we are well beyond the point where any imaginable “efficiencies” or bureaucratic reforms can bridge the gap between our long-time security ends and our military means.  The U.S. military gives us, and the world, incredible value for money; it costs us a nickel on the dollar to remain history’s “sole superpower.”  But we won’t get what we don’t pay for.  That’s the choice.

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