Commentary Magazine


Republicans Wavering on Defense Spending?

It has taken Republicans decades to acquire a reputation as the party voters trust to defend the country. Now they seem intent on frittering it away within days.

It is by no means a natural the GOP  would be known as the “strong on defense” party, given its isolationism in the 1920s-30s. The Democrats looked tough when Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were winning World War II and laying the foundations to win the Cold War. But then came the Vietnam War. Having gotten America into the war (with Republican support), Democrats had turned against the conflict by 1968. At the time it seemed like a smart move because the Vietnam War was so unpopular. But, followed as it was by Jimmy Carter’s invertebrate presidency, the Democratic conversion to dovishness did incalculable damage to the party. It made it impossible to elect another Democrat until after the end of the Cold War, and that was a fairly conservative Southerner. Yet Republicans continued to enjoy an advantage on national security affairs—one that was solidified by President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11.

How much longer will that reputation last, however, when so many House Republicans are voting to defund, or at least not support, the conflict in Libya designed to bring down a homicidal dictator? How long will it last when so many Republicans are hesitating to speak out strongly in favor of the strategy our best general has formulated to win the war in Afghanistan? And how much longer will it last when so many Republicans appear eager—as the Washington Post reports–to sacrifice our armed forces on the green eyeshade altar?  The Post quotes one freshman Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, as follows:

Defense spending is “a pillar of Republican strength. It’s a pillar of national strength. Look, I know there are sacred cows,” Kinzinger said in an interview. “But we cannot afford them anymore.”

 We cannot afford defense spending? Really?

I would reply we can’t afford not to spend adequately on defense. Whenever we have made that mistake in the past—after the Mexican War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam and the Gulf  War—we have paid a heavy cost in squandered lives and lost treasure.

Today, defense spending is hardly the cause of our budget woes; the core defense budget (excluding emergency appropriations for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) is as low as it has ever been as a percentage of GDP and of the federal budget. (Less than 4 percent and less than 20 percent, respectively). The notion we are going bankrupt because of defense spending is, quite simply, intellectually bankrupt. And if Republicans choose to embrace this erroneous assumption, it will be a sign of their political, intellectual, and moral bankruptcy, because they will be needlessly sacrificing their party’s most enduring advantage.