The long-awaited report of President Obama’s deficit commission is out (read PDF here). I’ll be posting on its various proposals throughout the day, some of which are quite good, some of which are extremely bad. But I wanted to start on its proposals on military spending.
Many foreign policy minded conservatives have either been disinterested in conversations about growth in the size of government or have actively facilitated it (see, for example, support in some of these quarters for the Medicare prescription drug plan). But as I’ve written repeatedly over the past several years, they do so at their own peril. When we face a severe debt crisis, military spending becomes a rather inviting target from which to wring out savings. And we can see this in the proposal of the fiscal commission, which calls for steep cuts in military spending to keep the deficit under control.
Under the fiscal commission plan, security spending would be frozen and then have its growth capped. The security budget would be $688 billion in 2012 and just $700 billion by 2020. Keep in mind that this would include not only spending on defense, but on all other aspects of security — homeland security, veterans and international affairs. All of this spending would shrink to 3 percent of GDP by the end of the decade, which is where defense spending alone was in 2000, after the Clinton era post-Cold War “peace dividend.” The commission leaves some wiggle room for ongoing and future war costs, but there are still limits on “overseas contingency operation” spending.
It’s one thing to argue that there’s waste in the defense budget, that certain weapons systems are outdated and that there are plenty of ways to spend that money more efficiently. But it’s dangerous to simply slash military spending to meet budget targets. At least during the 1990s, there was a reason to cut the military budget due to the collapse of the Soviet Union — and that still came back to haunt us when Sept. 11 happened. Now, we’re fighting two wars, facing the broader threat of radical Islam, looking at the prospect of a nuclear Iran that further destabalizes the Middle East, watching tensions build in Korea, and China continue to gain power. And yet the commission is talking about the possibility of bringing defense spending to historically low levels.
Liberals like to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy for railing about out of control federal spending and opposing defense cuts. Yet that’s a good opportunity to reassert that defense is actually a primary and legitimate function of government. The reason for that is pretty simple — it’s unrealistic for individuals, based on their own efforts, to carry out the functions of the military without a federal government. Liberals may respond, for instance, by arguing that some people would not be able to afford health care without government intervention. But at least in that case it’s something that the private market is able to provide for people who can pay. We can argue about whether this is fair or just, but the bottom line is that there isn’t even a practical way to create a market for competing private defense companies that only protect customers who pay for their services.
If the fiscal commission report accomplishes anything, it should convince anybody who supports a strong national defense that they need to start taking entitlement reform a lot more seriously.