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For most people, these numbers are simply too big to fathom. One way of contextualizing the cost is by looking at how fast the national security budget has grown during the last decade. In 2001, the year of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government spent about $350 billion on defense and veterans’ affairs. If that spending had kept pace with the growth in population and inflation, it would total about $481 billion today. Current spending is 82 percent higher than that. It is no surprise that defense budgets increased after 9/11, but it is legitimate to ask if an 82 percent hike was the right amount.
Military spending today, adjusted for population and inflation, is higher than it was when Ronald Reagan left office—a time when the Soviet empire was still pointing nuclear weapons at U.S. cities. It is higher than it was in 1968, when the U.S. was fighting both the Cold War and a deadly hot war in Vietnam. Although Americans will support spending whatever it takes to defend the country, polling suggests they don’t realize how much we’re spending right now.
Only 58 percent of voters are aware that the United States spends more on defense than any other country in the world. And just 33 percent recognize that Washington spends roughly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. Military spending has grown disproportionately compared to Americans’ own priorities, dwarfing other countries in ways that could soon make taxpayers blink.
Consider: The United States spends more than $2,500 per person on national defense; Russia and our NATO allies each spend about one-fifth that amount, at a time when only 46 percent of Americans have a favorable view of NATO. In the aggregate, while the U.S. is spending close to $900 billion a year on the military and veterans’ affairs, China is coughing up less than $200 billion. North Korea, Iran, and Syria combined spend less than $30 billion. The Pentagon spends more just on research and development than Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Japan each spend on their entire defense budgets, according to Cato Institute Vice President Christopher A. Preble’s 2009 book The Power Problem. If we are at risk militarily, it is certainly not for a lack of spending.
Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2010 that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” The American people agree: 82 percent believe the economy is now a bigger concern than military challenges. Sooner rather than later, defense spending will have to come back in line with voter desires.
What to Cut
As with just about every aspect of the federal budget crisis, the main question is whether the political class will continue pursuing its own agenda or be forced to accept the commonsense wisdom of the American people. Following the logic of the public’s strategic preferences would lead to tremendous savings on defense.
Americans, like their political representatives, are not isolationists; 88 percent say the country’s relationship with Europe is important, for example, and 53 percent say it’s “very” important. Voters have no expressed desire to retreat from our historical idealism and sympathy for people who believe in liberty and freedom. It’s just that the citizenry rejects the political class’s post–Cold War approach to pursuing these ideals.
A Protect America First policy would mean returning to the more restrained military philosophies of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Those presidents did not hesitate to use force, but they had a more limited definition of when it was appropriate: only when vital U.S. interests were at stake.
Reagan articulated additional restrictions. Forces should not be sent without “the clear intent and support needed to win,” or without “clearly defined and realistic objectives.” And there “must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress.” Even when those criteria were met, Reagan emphasized that “our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort.” Although the Gipper himself occasionally fell short of those ideals (circumventing Congress in Central America, for example), Americans today firmly back the guidelines he spelled out.
Aligning U.S. military strategy with public opinion would save trillions of dollars during the coming decade and dramatically reduce the debt burden we are imposing on future generations. This important realignment would put us in a better position to deal with the serious economic challenges facing the nation and reaffirm the bedrock American notion that governments derive their only just authority from the consent of the governed.
Still, it won’t be easy, given the emotions and vested interests involved. One way to tackle the problem is by breaking defense spending into its constituent chunks:
Supplemental Budget Requests. The supplemental budget for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq cost the United States $163 billion in 2010 and $181 billion in 2011. The Obama administration plans to reduce this number to about $118 billion in 2012.
Most Americans have decided that it’s time to bring these troops home within a year, much faster than either major political party currently contemplates. While such a withdrawal would need to take battlefield concerns into account, bringing policy more in line with public desires could save hundreds of billions of dollars.
Baseline Military Budget. General military spending, or the baseline budget, totaled about $530 billion for 2011. The only way to substantially reduce that number is through strategic cuts in troop levels and deployments, which could take years and may not begin to show up in reduced budgets for five or 10 years.