Fiscal Hawks vs. Defense Hawks

The potential defense cuts in the debt deal spell the beginning of the end of the neoconservative military agenda


Post 9-11, the neocon wing of the Republican Party had made it seem positively gauche to think about money when it came to financing wars. But even though the debt-ceiling deal hammered out this week won't do nothin' to cure Washington's fiscal incontinence, it might just do something for the GOP's foreign policy incontinence by putting the question of defense spending center stage.

The deal is the equivalent of administering a vitamin pill to a patient who is in need of radical surgery. Republicans claim that they wangled $2.4 trillion in spending cuts for a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt ceiling. But this is a total lie. That's because the debt ceiling applies over two years and the spending cuts over 10. This means that by 2013, Washington's spendocrats will have reached the new limit and will be back for more.

But that's not even the worst of it. The cuts will be made in two tranches, one tranche of $900 billion now and then another one of $1.5 trillion in December. According to the CBO, only about 8 percent of the first tranche of cuts will be for 2012 and 2013 with about 36.3 percent, the major portion, slated between 2018-2021. The second tranche is likely to be similarly backloaded. This means that the vast bulk of the cuts won't even happen till the politicos mandating them are comfortably ensconced in their retirement homes. If past is prelude, which it most assuredly will be without a balanced budget amendment, the debt limit by then would have been raised another 10 times before the cuts from this one have even been fully implemented. Talk about kicking the can!

The only silver lining in this sham deal is that it stops treating defense spending like a sacred cow. To be sure, the defense cuts in the first tranche are underwhelming. They cut security spending—of which defense is only one part—over 10 years by $350 billion.

The real action on defense will happen in the second round of cuts. Defense spending constitutes 64 percent of the discretionary budget—and about 20 percent of the overall budget. There is no way that the debt commission, that will handle the second round, can deliver $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions while holding defense harmless and avoiding tax increases. And if its efforts stall, that will trigger automatic cuts of $500 billion from the defense—not security—budget over 10 years (along with an equal amount from Medicare providers).

By any reasonable standard, notes Chris Preble of the Cato Institute, this is meaningful but not draconian. Defense spending has doubled over the last decade, thanks to 13 straight years of increases, a historically unprecedented streak. Even if the maximum cuts possible are made, the Pentagon budget will only return to 2007 levels. That'll mean that America's share of the world's total defense spending would still be 40 percent, down from about 50 percent right now.

But that's enough to make defense hawks go ballistic. The Weekly Standard counseled the GOP leadership to walk away from the deal because of the cuts. John Bolton, whose mustache alone could scare away terrorists, warned that slashing defense spending will "potentially point a dagger at the heart of our national security."

What's really bothering neocons is that for the first time since 9-11, increased defense spending is no longer an article of faith. They had managed the remarkable political feat of reversing America's post-Vietnam antipathy towards war, creating a presumption in favor of military engagement, despite the country's strong non-interventionist intellectual tradition that harkens back to the founding. (Remember George Washington's warning against foreign entanglements?) They made the idea of America playing global cop intellectually respectable again.

But their open-ended defense agenda is no longer fiscally sustainable. Indeed, fiscal hawks who want to keep a lid on taxes have every reason to question the neocon threat assessment that has wildly exaggerated the danger posed by al Qaeda and Islamist radicalism. With the end of the Cold War, America should have reaped a peace dividend by shuttering its bases in Europe and Asia and allowing allies to foot more of their own defense bill. Instead, defense spending rose from the Reagan-era peak of $574 billion (in 2000 dollars) to $644 billion in order to finance a never-ending war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.

The debt deal will force Democrats to confront the fact that the country doesn't have limitless funds to throw at all their cherished programs. Having to choose between funding prescription drugs for the elderly or vaccinations for children might be wrenching, but it won't pose a fundamental dilemma for them. Republicans, on the other hand, are heading for a major existential realignment. They will have to pick between the fiscal hawks and defense hawks, two legs of Reagan's famous three-legged stool that putatively prop up conservatism.

There is a good chance that defense hawks might be the leg that gets kicked out. This prospect alone is worth one cheer for the debt deal.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation and a columnist at The Daily, America's first iPad newspaper, where this column originally appeared.

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  1. There is a good chance that defense hawks might be the leg that gets kicked out. This prospect alone is worth one cheer for the debt deal.

    Even if this actually happens and the social con leg is also kicked out that turd would not be worth a cheer. Maybe some less vigorous jeering…

  2. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

    1. Well its time to stop.

  3. I doubt that serious defense cuts will occur. Perhaps the budget will not rise as fast as the neocons would like.

    Cheer up, neocons: no doubt the prez will use the FDR approach to “solve” our fiscal woes, i.e. embroiling the country in a major war.

    1. Isn’t that the revisionist version of he tried everything else first and that just happened to be the last one he did?

    2. Well, I think Germany does need a new ass kicking right about now.

      1. since Japan saved us the trouble.

        1. In Soviet Russia, government kicks its own ass.

  4. I will gladly cut the budget Tuesday for a debt ceiling increase today.

  5. But how does Bollywood factor into the equation?

  6. Get rid of absolutely 100% of every vestige of the welfare state first before so much as single cent of defense spending is addressed and then I’ll listen to those who want to cut defense spending.

    Because however Constitutionally questionable some aspects of military activity are, ever single one of them is still infinitely more Constiutional than spending so much as one cent on anything that even remotely resembles an entitlement program or any sort of mandated charity.

    1. “ever single one of them is still infinitely more Constiutional than spending so much as one cent on anything that even remotely resembles an entitlement program or any sort of mandated charity.”

      Even a standing army?

      1. “Even a standing army?”


    2. Some would say Article 1 Section 8 puts them on equal footing.

      1. “Some would say Article 1 Section 8 puts them on equal footing.”

        And they would be wrong.

        1. It seems that mystical black robe wearing priests of The Law have concluded that “general Welfare” really means “charity at the point of a gun”, and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it since they have more guns than you.

          1. Why does everybody keep ignoring me!

    3. But this would mean that if defense spending was 90% of GDP, you could say the same thing.

      Even as opposed to welfare state spending as I am, it’s clear to me that it’s possible to have a level of defense spending that is objectively too high based on the real threats we face, and that the constitutionality of defense spending does not bear on the sanity of any particular level of spending.

      1. “But this would mean that if defense spending was 90% of GDP, you could say the same thing.”

        If defense spending ever got to 90% of GDP, it would mean the welfare state had already been eliminated. There’s no other way defense could get to that percentage.

        1. There’s no reason to evaluate Defense spending within the context of the entire budget unless you’re simply trying to score ideological points. Defense spending can live and die on its own merits.

          1. “Defense spending can live and die on its own merits.”

            So can everything else.

            There is no reason why defense should be singled out for rigorous examination to any greater degree than the welfare state.

    4. does that include veteran benefits?

    5. So true.
      Without spending all that money on defense we would be helpless from the screaming hoards of Canadians with their terrifying battle cry “You hoser, eh!”

      1. There really was once a time where the mere image of Michael Moore didn’t make me want to puke.

        1. I had a different movie in mind, but that works.

    6. The problem is that much of the military spending is either welfare for defense contractors or other countries. So I would put a large chunk of the so-called “defense” budget in the category of welfare and entitlement spending.

    7. Well I kind of agree with you. I would cut welfare 100% and the military 25%.

  7. Washington’s fiscal incontinence

    Shikha, my dear, a slight quibble:
    Incontinence is an involuntary dribble–
    Between Iraq and Afghanistan
    This is pissing as hard as you can,
    And then drinking it as a fine tipple.

    1. Don’t squeeze the Charmin, Mr. Whipple.

        1. 8:44 AM? Has your TARDIS malfunctioned?

  8. Meanwhile, I note that pot harvesting season is here, heralded by Army National guard OH-58 Kiowa scout choppers buzzing around the county. I don’t grow pot, I cut hay and they still come in for a look. Must be bored.

    1. harvesting

      AgriCULTural city-state?

      1. They used HELIcopters against the Noble Indians as well! The same root as HELIos, the Greek God of the SUN. And HELIum!


        1. Remember David Mathews? I’m wondering if it’s the same lunatic.

          1. Possibly. Although, they could be different. We attract a lot of crazies. Remember Patriot Henry? Or the guys that come out of the woodwork for autism threads? I think ascribing all the long form trolls to a single origin discounts the real amount of nutbags on the internet. There’s only so many ways to go nuts, it stands to reason that some of them would overlap semantically.

            There’s a simple solution to it all, but no one listens to me.

            1. I like this one, because he starts with sort of a sane premise: that humans are happier living as cavemen. And then he goes gloriously crazy.

              1. that humans are happier living as cavemen

                I found his picture!

                1. What if White Indian is really STEVE SMITH? Humans are much easier to catch if they don’t have cars and can’t carbo-load for a long run.

                  1. I’m thinking that if he thinks a homeless dude off his meds, posting from the library.

                    1. insert “civilization is overrated, he’s probably” between “thinks” and “a”.

                      Speaking of meds…

    2. Did you learn a thing or two from ol’ Charlie?

      1. He’s still in Saigon?

        1. No, squatting in the bush. Getting stronger.

          1. You son of a bitch, he’s the best that’s ever been.

            1. N-n-n-n-n-nineteen!

  9. I wouldn’t count the neocons dead yet. They are like fucking vampires in more than one way!

  10. 2012: Sorry Mr. President we need more time
    2014: Sorry Mr. President we need more time
    2020: Sorry Mr. President we need more time
    2025: Ahh F&%$ it!

  11. “The potential defense cuts in the debt deal spell the beginning of the end of the neoconservative military agenda”

    Ohhh my..

  12. Never even thought about it like that before. WOw.

  13. The U S Air Force is the most power full in the world….Who is in second place?

    The U S Navy.

    The U S Navy has 11 air craft carrier groups, the rest of the world has zero.

    The US bases world wide may have made sense when communism existed, but they imploded 20 years ago.

    Like IKE said look out for the Military Industrial Complex.

    1. Ike also said this:

      “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

      And he said it in the same speech as the military industrial complex quote.

      Strange how it doesn’t seem to get as much play as that one, eh?

  14. Now we have to watch out for the Military Welfare Complex

  15. This makes a WHOLE lot of sense dude.

  16. Maybe this will also preclude the abuse by the UN to always use the US military for it’s own peacekeeping/humanitarian missions… it’s about time other nations carry their own weight…

  17. #inconvenienttruth

    Defense spending is inconsequential – if all defense spending were to be completely eradicated, entitlement programs would still consume 100% of the US tax-generated income:

    Furthermore, the Nat’l Debt as % GDP was significantly lower under Bush than both his predecessor and sucessor, even accounting for War on Terror expenses – in fact, it was the lowest in 3 decades:

  18. How big and under-matched is our military?

    The US Coast Guard is the 12th largest Navy on earth:

    “To put the U.S. Coast Guard’s overall size into perspective, standing alone it would be the world’s 12th largest Navy in number of vessels and 7th largest naval air force in number of airframes”…../Chap1.htm

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