Thursday, November 15, 2007

Capabilities or Intentions? Defense Priorities and Realistic Threat Assessment

Richard Betts has a thought-provoking piece on military spending in the current Foreign Affairs, "A Disciplined Defense." Here's the introduction:

If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in the Pentagon's budgeting office 20 years ago and awoke today, his first reaction would be that nothing had changed. President George W. Bush has asked for $505 billion for the peacetime U.S. military establishment in 2008 -- almost exactly the amount, in real dollars, that President Ronald Reagan sought in 1988. Rip would start scratching his head, however, when he discovered that the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union itself had imploded more than 15 years ago and that Washington now spends almost as much on its military power as the rest of the world combined and five times more than all its potential enemies together. Told that Pentagon planners were nonetheless worried about overstretch and presidential candidates were vying to pledge even higher budgets and even larger forces, Rip's head might just explode.

The current strains on resources and forces are due, of course, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the costs of those wars are not included in the half-trillion-dollar "baseline" figure noted above. A supplemental request for an extra $142 billion covers them, bringing the total 2008 military budget request to a whopping $647 billion -- a budget more than 25 percent larger, in real terms, than the one for 1968, at the height of combat in Vietnam, a bigger and bloodier conflict than any the United States has seen since. And even that total figure does not include the $46 billion budget of the Department of Homeland Security, whose functions would be handled by the Defense Ministry in many other countries.

How would one answer Rip's inevitable questions about what is going on? One might note that everything costs more these days. And one might argue that even so, military spending takes up less of GDP today than it did during the Cold War -- 4.2 percent today compared with 5.8 percent in 1988 and 9.4 percent in 1968. But when pressed, one would have to concede that Washington spends so much and yet feels so insecure because U.S. policymakers have lost the ability to think clearly about defense policy.

In recent years, U.S. national security policy has responded to a visceral sense of threat spawned by the frightening intentions of the country's enemies rather than to a sober estimate of those enemies' capabilities and what it would take to counter them effectively. The United States faces very real dangers today and potentially bigger ones in the future, but these are not threats that can be tamed by current spending on the most expensive components of military power.

U.S. political leaders, meanwhile, have forgotten the craft of balancing commitments and resources responsibly. Nobody younger than 80 can remember a peacetime United States without vast standing armed forces, even though that was the norm for the first 150 years of the republic. So the post-Cold War situation does not seem as odd as it should. Contractors who live off the defense budget have also become more adept at engineering political support by spreading subcontracts around the maximum number of congressional districts. And the traditional constituencies for restrained spending in both major political parties have evaporated, leaving the field free for advocates of excess.

The last two U.S. presidents, finally, have embraced ambitious goals of reshaping the world according to American values but without considering the full costs and consequences of their grandiose visions. The result has been a defense budget caught between two stools: higher than needed for basic national security but far lower than required to eliminate all villainous governments and groups everywhere. The time has come to face the problem squarely. The sole coherent rationale for increasing military spending -- to try and run a benign American empire -- is dangerously misguided. But a more modest and sensible national security strategy can and should be purchased at a lower price.
Read the whole thing.

Betts' game is to deflate current threat assessments in support of cutting defense spending. He argues that contemporary proponents of a forward military role suffer from historical amnesia, that the country faces dangers today nowhere near the magnitude of America's Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. What Betts doesn't note, though, is that
there were officials at the time who argued we weren't doing enough back then to adequately fund defense priorities.

The United States certainly needs more clear thinking on defense priorities. Of particular concern is our need to rebuild and strengthen the Army and Marines who've borne the brunt of current war-fighting. Betts' article, however, bolsters the case for liberal retrenchment hawks and opponents of the administration's war in Iraq.

Fortunately, some of the GOP candidates, not persuaded by left-leaning retrenchment arguments, are proposing hikes in defense spending and boosts in military manpower.