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Historical government spending by major functi...

Historical government spending by major function in the United States from 1902 to 2010 (2008 estimate, percent GDP) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, April 13, 2011}

Two cheers for the Republicans. After the disastrous spending policies of the Bush administration, they are finally showing signs of taking America’s budget and debt problems seriously. Thanks to pressure from the [[tea party movement]], they have placed economic issues exactly where they belong: Front and center on the national stage. They are starting to at least tentatively come to grips with our entitlement problem and are showing signs that they understand just how badly spending needs to be cut.

So what about military spending?

The latest budget proposal from the Republicans is a good start; I’ll say more about it in a future column. But it is ominously silent on the question of military spending. And while Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid consume the biggest slices of the budget pie, there is no way we can seriously take on our spending and deficit problems without putting “defense” spending under scrutiny.

Both defense and entitlement spending require high taxation. Cutting both is politically dicey. Cutting Social Security could be perceived as weakening the elderly, while cutting military spending could be seen as weakening America’s security. Nonetheless, cutting both is required to stop our country from drowning in a sea of debt and restore prosperity to our nation’s future.

It is delusional, however, to believe that simply “cutting waste” and “improving efficiency” will do the trick. Salami-slicing without changes in doctrine is a recipe for an overstretched military force and overburdened military members. The substantive cuts necessary to bring spending under control and reduce the deficit can only come through a change in strategy. We could start by recognizing what “defense” really is.

“Defense” does not mean protecting the world. It means protecting America. Defense does not mean destroying evil wherever it exists. It means destroying those who seek to do us harm. It does not mean rebuilding other nations in hopes they will like us better. It means rebuilding our own nation in hopes of making our future better.

So who is the best party to make this new vision reality? Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Republicans can cut military spending. Democrats are too worried about being seen as caving in to their radical left wing, many of whom genuinely despise the military, and who in any case just want to shift the money to their pet social programs. But if Republicans push for shifts in defense policy with the goal of restoring long-term prosperity to America, no one will question their patriotism or loyalty. It’s just a matter of making their case to the American people.

How much money can be saved by a defense policy that is actually defense-oriented? One 2010 study from Washington’s Cato Institute spells this out in detail. The authors enumerate the points of a doctrine that emphasizes intelligence, flexibility, and lethality against America’s enemies, while de-emphasizing security guarantees for wealthy states and the attempted occupation and rebuilding of failing ones. Their proposed cuts amount to $1.6 trillion over ten years. Compared to a $700 billion annual defense budget, that’s about a 25% cut.

I would argue a 25% cut supported by a change in doctrine is both fiscally conservative and politically achievable. American military spending has doubled since 2002. We currently are responsible for almost half the world’s military expenditures. We spend over five times as much per capita on “defense” as Russia, our nearest competitor, even more than that compared with our supposed NATO allies. Why?

Contrary to what the left believes, the U.S. military and its massive budget are not the root of all evil. Entitlement programs represent three quarters of our spending problem, so it’s right to put most of the attention there. But if we’re to take Republican claims of reducing government spending seriously then everything should be on the table. Given our impending financial catastrophe, we can’t afford a military of the size and scope we have. We can either change our strategic posture to be in line with our resources, or we can live in a fantasy world. As messy and unpredictable as it is, I prefer the real one.

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