August 02, 2011

The Burden on Defense Hawks

As I said yesterday, the deal that passed through the House of Representatives last night stinks. Both parties continued to embrace this fiction arguing discretionary spending is that which ails our budget, and so programs for the poor as well as defense spending went to the chopping block while taxes remain at ridiculously low levels and entitlement programs remain untouched. Our collective refusal to realize we need to trim our entitlements is maddening, as is our collective refusal to raise taxes -- ever -- on even the wealthiest Americans, who can and in many cases are willing to pay more. (Count me among those willing to pay more, by the way, in the name of fiscal sanity, even if I am not in the top 2%.)

I thus have a degree of sympathy for the defense hawks in the House of Representatives, including my friends serving on and working in the House Armed Services Committee. Some representatives on the HASC voted "no" last night, which in my mind was an incredibly irresponsible thing to do that late in the game, but overall, the HASC gets high marks for both its commitment to transparency, for which it has been justly lauded, and its commitment to rebuilding our ground forces after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while at the same time funding the Dept. of Defense to prepare for future security challenges.

Most of us defense analysts, though, can agree that whatever happened last night and in the budget negotiations, cuts to the defense budget were inevitable and even make sense. As we draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a perfectly reasonable thing to wonder why we have as many ground troops as we do, and it's also a perfectly reasonable thing to wonder why retirement benefits in the military outpace those in the private sector or why health care premiums are so low for servicemen while they continue to rise for everyone else. So I have no problems with intelligent cuts to the defense budget, though I do have problems with blind swipes of the ax to the defense budget, and I worry we're going to see more of the latter than the former.

Here's the thing, though: if defense hawks want to prevent other law-makers from gutting the defense budget in a clumsy way, they should play offense instead of defense. The path of least resistance now will be to fight some valiant rear-guard action protecting this or that weapons system, but the smarter play will be to convince other law-makers and the public at large that it makes more sense to re-invest in our nation's exhausted military for the next few years than to continue to fund entitlement schemes that we are going to need to eventually cut anyway. And it might even make sense for someone to suggest we all pay an extra $20 "thank you tax" to our nation's Army and Marine Corps this year to replace some of the equipment those soldiers and Marines have used in Iraq and Afghanistan while most of the rest of us have sat on the couch eating Cheetos and worrying about the NFL lock-out. I think most Americans would be down with that -- if they were assured this extra $20 would go to our exhausted Army and Marine Corps.

Because if you want to fix the debt, you're going to have to eventually raise taxes and cut entitlements anyway. You might as well do so now in the name of national security rather than wait until the next crisis. The burden that falls on defense hawks is to convince other Americans that it makes sense today (paradoxically, considering we're winding down our involvement in two wars) to re-invest in the defense budget rather than continue to live in this blissful happy land where you can have both low taxes and cushy entitlements.


Now, I understand some of you want us to have a smaller defense budget so politicians will not be so tempted to use our military power in places like Iraq and Libya. I understand that. But I do not think that trying to shackle policy-makers by having a smaller military makes a lot of sense, even if smart people sometimes argue that. My brief experience in the U.S. military taught me that policy-makers, most of whom have no military experience, will usually throw the military into stupid situations (see: Iraq) whether or not it's prepared and that "clever" means* designed to shackle policy-makers from doing stupid things don't ultimately work. So all things being equal, I would rather have a capable, effective military ready to respond to whatever damn fool idea some president from Texas (LBJ, George W., ... Perry?) gets into his head. What constitutes a "capable, effective military" is then another discussion, and a fun one to have as we think about the military after Iraq and Afghanistan.

*Clever but ultimately misguided means include the way the service chiefs gamed the system after Vietnam and
stuck a bunch of essential capabilities in the reserves, making a
call-up of the reserves necessary in the event of war. Andrew Bacevich and others have correctly noted this was an attempt by the service chiefs to limit the options of their political masters, which really isn't cricket. Or Huntington, for that matter.