The 4 Percent Defense Spending Chimera

As U.S. armed forces continue their heroic operations around the globe, with 140,000 troops in Iraq, 30,000 in Afghanistan, several tens of thousands more in the broader Middle East, and nearly 100,000 in both Europe and East Asia, worries have intensified about sustaining adequate defense funding in the future.

A number of analysts, and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen, have proposed that the Defense Department be legislatively guaranteed 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product to ensure ample resources for the military into the future. Should this be an early priority of an Obama administration?

The answer is no. Any worries by an incoming Democratic administration that it needs to prove its national security mettle by conceding to this new idea from America’s top military officer would be a mistake. While today’s U.S. defense budgets are above 4 percent of GDP and likely stay that way for the foreseeable future – as they should – the Defense Department budget does not need to be treated effectively as another federal entitlement. In fact, the goal of those of us focused on national defense policy should be to reduce enough security problems around the world that we will be in a position to cut the defense budget down the road. Just because this option is not responsibly available today does not mean we should forswear it for the future.

To be sure, this country has downsized its military excessively in the past. After World War II, we demobilized to an extreme, and when the Korean War broke out 5 years later the underequipped Task Force Smith was all we could muster as North Korean forces raced through our weak defenses and nearly seized the whole peninsula in the war’s opening months.

After Vietnam, our mistakes were less egregious, but a dispirited U.S. military was plagued by indiscipline and other problems among its personnel, aging weaponry, insufficient funds for training, and a general sense of going hollow, as Gen. Shy Meyer memorably declared. What assurances do we have now, Adm. Mullen might wonder, that the same thing will not happen again?

In fact, we have a number. Start with the fact that since the last two years of the Carter administration, and especially since the Reagan administration, we have not experienced anything like this kind of political tendency again. Yes, we downsized after the Cold War ended.

But real defense spending remained near Cold War averages even thereafter. Bill Clinton is often criticized for cutting defense spending too much, and perhaps he did at the margin, but the military of the 1990s remained among our most competent, experienced, and proficient of all time – as evidenced in the Kosovo air war and the overthrow of the Taliban just a few short months into the Bush administration, to name but two examples. Even those who do not agree with the tactics we used in these conflicts would be hard pressed to critique the underlying competence of the military.

Admittedly, we did not do as well in the post-invasion phase of the Iraq war, but that had less to do with the defense budget, more to do with the war plans as developed by former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (and the Army’s mistaken proclivity at that time to eschew counterinsurgency in its normal training of troops).

Throughout the Bush presidency, Congress has robustly funded the armed forces. In fact U.S.defense spending has nearly doubled this decade, and now amounts to nearly half the world’s total. Congress’ occasional thoughts about cutting funding for the Iraq war had everything to do with doubts about the prospects for turning that conflict around, nothing to do with a lack of underlying support for our nation’s military.

Those pushing for a 4 percent floor under U.S. defense spending need to be sure they understand our nation’s long-term fiscal plight. Leave aside the next couple years of financial crisis and recession, and of ongoing wartime operations – a bad moment to talk about constraining the defense budget. Look instead at 2012 as a reference point. That is according to CBO likely to be our best year of fiscal performance for the foreseeable future (that is, the year of lowest deficits).

But the $125 billion deficit CBO forecast for that year will probably be at least $200 billion due to the lower growth now expected between 2009 and 2011, so call it a $200 billion deficit. Moreover, that $200 billion figure would be twice as bad if we didn’t count the Social Security surplus, so effectively the projected deficit will be $400 billion. Then add another $200 billion for the tax cuts promised by President-elect Barack Obama (obviously I could have made the same point with John McCain!), and we’re up to $600 billion – without even factoring in targeted domestic investments in energy, education and other areas that CBO’s baseline does not include.

So call it $700 billion, and that’s the good news, because over time growing health-care costs could make the dilemma much worse.

If we can spend less on defense in this environment, come 2012 or 2014 or 2016, we should not have a law preventing us from doing so then.

Adm. Mullen’s argument would be somewhat stronger if his definition of the national security budget extended to those elements of diplomacy, foreign assistance, reconstruction and other activities that are funded out of the State Department and foreign operations budgets. These budgets are systematically underfunded.

President Bush has beefed up resources to combat AIDS and malaria, and of course to help Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan and one or two other key countries, but the problem remains. If Adm. Mullen’s proposal was to allocate a somewhat greater share of overall national security funding to such “soft power” tools and then protect them too, with his overall floor for national security spending perhaps at 4.5 percent to 5 percent, his argument would be stronger, since these other areas of foreign policy really do need the help.

Even then, however, there is little reason to believe foreign policy should become in effect a federal entitlement, when resources for education, alternative energy, health care research, infrastructure improvement, and other key national priorities are not – and when their proponents have to slug it out with Congress every year to get the funding they need.

The better attitude toward defense spending has been offered by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. Though no dove on the nation’s security, and no cheapskate when it comes to arguing for resources for defense (as well as diplomacy and aid), Mr. Gates put it well when he said recently that “resources are scarce – and yes, it is a sign I’ve already been at the Pentagon for too long to say that with a straight face when talking about a half-trillion-dollar base budget. Nonetheless, we still must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.”

Now is not the time to cut the military; in fact, now is a good time to beef up diplomacy and foreign aid. An Obama administration should do so (even if at a smaller scale than originally planned). But nor is this the time to straitjacket ourselves about future policy choices.

The nation’s economic and demographic strength are as crucial to long-term national security as are the armed forces, and good fiscal management should begin from that premise.