On his recent trip abroad, Mitt Romney observed an American taboo by not criticizing President Obama's military policy. But before his trip, he made his position clear. Obama has "exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify," Romney said.
He meant that unless Congress intervenes, Pentagon spending will be cut by more than $500 billion over 10 years under the (bipartisan) budget sequestration scheduled for January. This terrifies those who fear that limiting the growth of the military-industrial complex will leave us less safe.
But is that true? Even if $500 billion is actually cut, America still will spend more on defense—adjusted for inflation—than we did at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
We station soldiers all over the globe. Thousands of U.S. troops are in Germany, Japan, the UK and Italy. Why? I thought we won World War II.
We built an air force base in Greenland to monitor the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Why are we there now?
We station 28,500 soldiers in South Korea. South Korea's economy is 38 times bigger than North Korea's. Why does America need to pay to protect it?
Since America is going broke, I thought defense was one area where Democrats might make cuts. But Democrats rarely cut anything. Obama says our troops won't start leaving Afghanistan until 2014, and we'll still be involved for years after that. We should have learned from the Russian debacle and Britain's three lost wars there.
Advocates of America-as-world-policeman rarely grasp that their conception of "defense" endangers us by creating new enemies. Fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan, once said, "For every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies." Bombing Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with drones creates new terrorists—some of whom may seek revenge.
One goal of U.S. policy is to create stable, democratic societies—but it is a fatal conceit to believe that we as foreign central planners can build nations. Bureaucrats can't design real societies. The best outcomes bubble up from free decisions made by local people. They, not the planners, have more relevant information about their own lives and incentives. When they don't get the decision right, they adjust. But when central planners—be they kings, viceroys, bureaucrats or democratically elected politicians—try to create something as complicated as a new social order, they usually fail.
If government cannot run profitable trains or effective poverty programs, why should we think it can create a democracy in Afghanistan? We have tried to build democracy in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Are we winning hearts and minds? A 2010 poll of more than 1,600 Afghans found that just 43 percent had a favorable impression of the United States—down from 83 percent in 2005. American-trained Afghan soldiers shoot U.S. troops.
And in the fog of war, the waste is astonishing. No one knows how many billions have been squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan: $200 million went for unfinished Afghan army buildings, $5 million to police buildings so poorly built that they are unusable, and so on.
Government is clumsy and wasteful at everything it does. Why would that be different for the military? The Pentagon, like other government departments, even spends money in deliberately wasteful ways to establish "need" for at least as much next year. Sometimes soldiers fly helicopters on pointless missions just to burn up fuel.
When a private company loses money (and doesn't get a government bailout), it goes out of business. If money vanishes, executives might get thrown in jail. But the Pentagon loses tens of billions and, at worst, gets a slap on the wrist from a congressional committee.
I don't presume to know the "right" amount to spend on defense. But I do know that when America is going broke, we can't afford to spend what Romney wants to spend.
America needs to reevaluate the military's mission. If the mission is to "provide for the common defense," then let's adopt a posture of defense. It needn't cost so much to protect our shores while staying out of other people's conflicts.