Issue #27, Winter 2013

The New Mandate on Defense

No, it’s not to spend more—it’s to spend less, and liberals should not flinch from that position.

There were so many encouraging signs for liberals in the election results this year that one of the most significant has been overlooked. For the first time in my memory, a Democratic candidate for President argued for less military spending against a Republican candidate who called for great increases—and the Democrat won. George McGovern was the last Democratic candidate to talk about spending less on the military. Subsequently, every Democratic presidential candidate was told that he had better look sufficiently tough on national security because a perception that Democrats were too weak vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was a major point of vulnerability. That is why Michael Dukakis, a public official with an extremely distinguished record, and a man of great dignity and integrity, staged an ill-conceived photo-op of himself wearing a helmet and riding in a tank, which became a negative factor in his campaign.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 reduced this pressure to some degree. Indeed, Bill Clinton was able to follow George H.W. Bush in beginning to reverse the enormous buildup in military spending dating to the Reagan Administration. The restraint on military spending that occurred was a significant factor in Clinton’s ability to reach balanced budgets in his last years.

And then came September 11, which had two significant—and very adverse—budgetary impacts. First, we entered two wars—financed, in a novel economic approach, by several large tax cuts—which led to upwards of $150 billion a year over and above the base military budget. (The public does not fully understand that the defense budget is paid for to a certain extent as people pay lawyers who are on retainer, but who then get extra funds if they have to go into court.)

Secondly, the base budget itself was sharply inflated, and the moderating trends implemented by George H.W. Bush and Clinton were reversed as terrorism was cleverly used by the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration to substitute for the Soviet Union as an existential threat to the United States. Under President George W. Bush, the base budget steadily rose from $287 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $513 billion in fiscal year 2009, and this increase continued in President Obama’s first term, reaching $530 billion in fiscal year 2012. The combination of the two—the base budget and “emergency” war spending—led at the height of the “surge” in Afghanistan in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to yearly military spending totaling about $700 billion, far more than Medicare outlays, which totaled $452 billion in 2010 and $486 billion in 2011.

In fact, of course, the terrorists are murderous thugs whom we must combat, but who do not remotely present the kind of threat to our national security that came first from Hitler and then Stalin and his successors—the reason historically that America got in the position of being by far the world’s major military power. I have been greatly frustrated in the conversation about the need to do long-term deficit reduction by the extent to which establishment opinion focuses on “entitlements”—namely efforts to provide decent means of support for Americans in our retirement years—as a major cause of the deficit, and ignores the extremely large contribution made to this problem by military expenditures that are far beyond any rational assessment of our national security.

A Changed World

In the past few years, with President Obama having completed the withdrawal from Iraq, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, and with the announcement of a plan to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 (too late, but an improvement over the open-ended commitment Obama inherited), it has become possible to get some political traction for our efforts to cut military spending. Because so much of that spending stems from overreach advocated by those who believe that America should be the enforcer of order everywhere in the world—and because we subsidize our wealthy European and Asian allies by providing a defense for them so they need not spend much on their own—there has been increasing conservative support for reining in the military budget. Ron Paul, who goes far beyond most liberals in his eagerness to impose severe military cuts, was a popular figure with a significant base of GOP support not despite taking this position but in part because of it.

Earlier this year, for the first time that I can recall, a majority of the House of Representatives voted to reduce the military appropriation recommended by the House Appropriations Committee. The cut was only $1.1 billion—less than it should have been—but it was a decision that froze spending at the previous year’s level, and it passed by a vote of 247-167, with the support of both an overwhelming majority of Democrats (158-21) and a significant minority of Republicans (89-146).

Deficit reduction over the long term must include significant reductions in military spending along with tax increases on the very wealthy if we are to avoid devastating virtually everything we do to promote the quality of life at home. A realistic reassessment of our true national security needs would mean a military budget significantly lower not only than the one President Obama inherited, but that which he now proposes. That is, by next year, we no longer should be forced to spend additional funds—close to $200 billion a year at their peak—in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, we can reduce the base budget by approximately $1 trillion over a ten-year period (this includes the $487 billion reduction that President Obama proposed in early 2012) while maintaining more than enough military strength to fully protect our security and those of our allies that genuinely need help because they are too poor and weak in the face of powerful enemies. (Should the nation decide in a democratic way to go to war again, that would require an increase in the military budget, and I would hope, in taxation to pay for it.)

Getting the military budget down to that level—which would mean a reduction of about $250 billion from what it was in the first year of the Obama Administration—faced two obstacles at the beginning of this past year. First was the traditional political concern that the Republican presidential candidate would have an advantage over the Democrat on the question of who can better protect our national security. Fortunately, Obama understood that things have changed, and that the American people are ready for a reduction in military spending. Governor Romney, operating in the traditional conservative mode, missed it. One of the most important signs that the public was ready to support a rational—i.e., significantly reduced—military budget came during Clint Eastwood’s ramble at the Republican National Convention. One of the few coherent things he said in that memorable debate that he lost to a chair was that the President should have announced his willingness to pull out of Afghanistan altogether. This criticism of the President from an antiwar position elicited cheers from the Republican delegates.

As a result, one of the issues in the presidential campaign—explicitly pursued in one of the debates—was Romney’s criticism of what he believed to be inadequate military spending. Romney was intermittently critical both of the decision to withdraw from Iraq and of the decision to commit to a firm withdrawal date from Afghanistan. Also, he called for hundreds of billions of dollars in additional military spending over the President’s proposal for the next ten years. He memorably complained that we have fewer Navy ships now than we had in World War I—effectively riposted by the President’s reference to horses and bayonets. Romney’s positions mirrored the official congressional Republican position, reflected in the Paul Ryan budget, which calls for significant deficit reduction even as it increases the military budget in real terms.

So for the first time since 1972, we had a debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in which the Democrat was for less spending on the military and the Republican for significantly more—and the Democrat won. Even in Virginia, where the appeal to increase military spending was considered to be extremely potent.

Romney’s decision to challenge the President on the grounds that he was spending inadequately on the military helps to establish the fact that the American public recognizes that we can reduce military spending below the levels that we needed when we faced the Nazis and the Communists. This realization should free President Obama from the pressure to spend more and allow him to go forward with the modest reductions that he has advocated.

Going Further

But this leads to the second obstacle to reducing military spending to an appropriate level: the reluctance of the President himself to recognize that even further significant reductions—phased in to reach an annual level of 20 percent below the current year’s amount—is wholly consistent with our national security, and is in fact essential if we are to reduce our deficit in a socially responsible way.

Even with the revenue increase we can achieve by raising taxes on the wealthy, serious deficit reduction must come in part from reducing military spending beyond what the President proposes, unless we make very deep cuts in the nonmilitary parts of the budget. The argument against this approach is easily disposed of by noting the ironic conversion of many conservatives, who generally argue that government spending can make no significant contribution to the economy, to a form of “militarized Keynesianism” when it concerns the defense budget.

I once asked Alan Greenspan in a hearing what the economic impact would be of cutting military spending versus other types of spending. His answer was that to the extent that your national defense requirements allowed you to cut the military, it would almost certainly cause less of an economic impact than most other cuts in spending. He analogized this to being able to pay less for insurance if prudent. This is not true of all expenditure—for instance, some research and development has spillover effects, and such spending can and should be protected. Cuts in overseas bases, however, have no negative economic effect, nor does reducing nuclear stockpiles that exceed our current security needs.

The question regarding the economic impact of military expenditures is not whether spending on the military versus not spending at all will have a positive effect. If we are serious about long-term deficit reduction, then spending cuts have to come from somewhere, and the relevant question becomes whether cuts of the right sort in the military—excessive overseas basing, excessive military intervention, a nuclear weapons stock far greater than is needed—are more or less damaging to the economy than equal amounts of other federal spending.

Given the numbers involved, the major trade-off in putting together a total deficit reduction package is between the military and health care, by far the biggest nondefense spending item in our budget. Reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, grants from the National Institutes of Health, aid to hospitals, etc., clearly will have far worse social consequences than equivalent cuts in the military and, I believe, more damaging economic effects, because there is more of an economic multiplier from the health expenditures than from military spending.

The jobs argument, I acknowledge, is a more persuasive obstacle to cutting projects that have already been funded. It is a political truism that it’s easier to prevent an expenditure before it starts than cut it off once it’s already in effect. This means we can set a target of reduction, allow a number of current projects to go forward even if they lack sufficient military justification, and find savings by avoiding new commitments; this is much less likely to generate effective opposition. Weapon systems that have not yet been contracted for will not have nearly as many defenders as those on which the money is currently being spent.

The One Indispensable Nation?

The argument against military spending as a public works program is surmountable. The more politically potent obstacle to achieving responsible reductions is the extent to which the President and his advisers, while commendably willing to argue for less military spending than he inherited, remain committed to a view of America’s role in the world that requires more spending than necessary.

Obama, like previous Presidents, has been told that on his shoulders rests the defense of freedom in the world. To his credit, he is somewhat more skeptical of this argument than his predecessors. But two pieces of rhetoric illustrate the fact that the President still suffers from a cultural lag by accepting the notion that it is America’s destiny to be the worldwide defender of freedom and order.

First, the President himself has referred to us as the “one indispensable nation” in the world. In practice, that has meant that any country facing difficulty can count on American intervention of some sort. This notion that America is globally indispensable is at the core of the impulse to expand our military budget far beyond our legitimate needs or the needs of allies who are in fact threatened and not capable of protecting themselves. We will have an appropriately sized military budget only when we accept the fact that there are a number of situations in the world in which we should be working to strengthen and encourage other nations so that we can be dispensable. The notion of our indispensability confuses what the military can do and cannot do. I would be morally conflicted myself by putting budgetary constraints on some of these interventions if I thought we could be useful.

We have a superb military. It is very good at doing what a military is best at—stopping bad things from happening. It is not very good at making good things happen in societies that are foreign to us. The best trained and armed young Americans cannot create democracy in Iraq or eliminate corruption in Afghanistan. And they certainly cannot bring harmony to troubled regions elsewhere.

Issue #27, Winter 2013
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sabine atwell:

How about a scrub? From top to bottom? Why do we need over 700 military bases around the world? Why do we have multiple intelligence agencies at the undisclosed cost of undosclosed to watch over " the terrorists". We should learn from the lesson of Rome that at least lasted 500 years? We have waged many useless and costly wars after the one good one that ended in 1945. It is time to reexamine our situation in the present world...If we don't get our economy under control, dea with urban poverty and massive inequality, we will not be able to compete in the world anyway...

Dec 10, 2012, 1:23 PM
Joe Beckmann:

There are two key aspects of the military budget that - accidentally, on purpose, or accidentally on purpose - Barney does not address. Patronage and infrastructure.

The "Eisenhower precedent" of a highway system funded as a defense measure is plenty on which to base the infrastructure investment critical to both short and long term employment. Universal fiber optic has a real value in both national defense, environmental protection, and employment, particularly if, once built, like the interstate highway system it remains publicly owned and available.

And the flexibility the President has in investing in such defenses ought to be plenty to force Republican (or Democratic Recalcitrants) to comply and "work well with others." Why, for example, there are ANY defense contracts in Bachman's district, or how the President justifies even a post office in Boehner's goes against basic politics today, just as it did in the days of Lincoln (or, at least, Lincoln: the movie). Politics is not all money, but most money is, in fact, political.

Dec 10, 2012, 2:15 PM

Beyond agreeing with Barney's analysis and proposal, I have question: How much does the Navy spend on guarding the sea lanes for oil tankers bringing oil to the US? Should this be paid by the oil companies as part of the cost of doing business. Moreover, as we are moving to an oil-exporting country, do we need the Navy to perform such a task? About a decade ago, I heard an estimate that the Navy spent about $47 billion dollars on protection for the oil companies. I dont know if that was accurate or what the figure is now. But it would be interesting to find out.

Dec 10, 2012, 10:59 PM
DeLayne Hudspeth:

Does anyone know of some edict that prohibits the press from including the military in discussion of budget downsizing. The total lack of including the military is the natter of budget reduction is more than chance. Who is controlling the press and how on the issue of reduced military budget?

Dec 11, 2012, 10:54 AM

As far as jobs go, defense is relatively inefficient compared to other ways the government could spend money ( In particular, not only would shifting money from defense to education double the effectiveness in job creation, it would also increase future military preparedness. The key is not how large is our standing military, but how quickly can we increase the size of the military to meed an unforeseen demand. To the extent that these days both being a soldier and a defense contractor are high-skill labor, increasing the skill level of our workforce is probably more important than how many aircraft carriers we currently have deployed.

Dec 11, 2012, 11:30 AM
Evil Overlord:

Good article, if too carefully polite to President Obama. It's frustrating that most conversation about defense "cuts" is really about smaller increases in spending. While I'd like to see commenter Sabine Atwell's top-to-bottom scrub, that seems unrealistic if today's rah-rah "patriotic" environment. So, kudos to Barney Frank for publicly making the suggestion that's been privately obvious for so long.

Dec 17, 2012, 10:05 AM
Robert Abbott:

The core of the progressive argument on defense spending is that they don't like US policy on military affairs. I don't say they a priori dislike the military, but they are gut level anti-war. That is why Congressman Frank's article is so valuable. He's explaining the strategic reasons for our military spending. He's giving us a basis for an argument that gets at why we spend on the military. Knee jerk anti-war sentiment has done nothing to inhibit defense spending because it ignores the real reasons for it. Take Mr. Lakoff's observation for example. The Navy protects our oil supply, not for the exclusive benefit of oil companies, but because our whole way of life that each of us enjoys absolutely depends on cheap energy!! Force oil companies to pay for the Navy and listen to people howl about high gas prices. No, Mr. Frank's article gives us a chance to change policy based on why we actually have a big defense budget. That is a step forward in my opinion.

Dec 20, 2012, 1:45 PM

Ron Paul makes Frank look like an idiot for not addresing the first pus filled bag of military spending,565 bases spread around the world, and 500 navy ships patrollig every stretch of ocean. I would add serious cuts for the rogue NATO,CIA, state department, and FBI, and why does the White House need a $500,000 a year restaurant?

Dec 23, 2012, 4:53 AM
Dave Thomas:

Tell me Congressman Frank, do Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae still look totally healthy to you like they did in 2003 when you helped cause the financial meltdown by blocking reform of the two institutions?

You have the blood of the financial meltdown on your hands sir, and that has destroyed your credibility and driven you from Congress to the great benefit of the nation.

Good riddance!

Dec 24, 2012, 12:18 PM
Mary Floyd:

Your wisdom will be missed in Congress, Mr. Frank. Please continue to write articles like this one.

Jan 12, 2013, 10:26 PM
Elizabeth Skinner:

Rogue NATO? Are you serious? I worked in NATO planning and policy, and there is no one there who doesn't understand where NATO's power comes from. Hint: It's not Estonia. The United States has become so closely defined by its military power, that we seem to have forgotten that there are other ways to have influence in the world. The Defense Department should not be deciding foreign policy.

Feb 17, 2013, 2:04 PM
Forrest Buckley:

As long as there exists a Military/Industrial Complex spending on the military will be far to excessive!

Feb 18, 2013, 11:21 AM

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