Commentary Magazine


Topic: defense spending

National Defense Panel’s Bombshell Report

It has gotten pretty much zero press attention, but last week the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel issued what should have been seen as a bombshell review of American military readiness, or lack thereof. The bipartisan credentials of the board members cannot be doubted. The panel was co-chaired by Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. Members included both Bush-era Defense Department appointees such as Eric Edelman and Obama-era successors such as Michele Flournoy. The only thing uniting the members of the panel was deep knowledge of, and interest in, defense policy.

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It has gotten pretty much zero press attention, but last week the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel issued what should have been seen as a bombshell review of American military readiness, or lack thereof. The bipartisan credentials of the board members cannot be doubted. The panel was co-chaired by Clinton-era Defense Secretary Bill Perry and retired General John Abizaid. Members included both Bush-era Defense Department appointees such as Eric Edelman and Obama-era successors such as Michele Flournoy. The only thing uniting the members of the panel was deep knowledge of, and interest in, defense policy.

Such a group might be expected to endorse the status quo as the lowest-common-denominator option. But that’s not what they did. Instead they issued a blistering denunciation of the impact that budget cuts–amounting to a trillion dollars over 10 years–are having on the armed forces. These cuts, they warned, “constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States. Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high risk force in the near future. That in turn will lead to an America that is not only less secure but also far less prosperous.”

The panel identified “disturbing” and “dangerous” gaps between the “capabilities and capacities” called for under the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and the actual “budget resources made available to the [Defense] Department.” Specifically the panel determined that both the Navy and Air Force need to grow and the Army and Marine Corps should not shrink as much as currently envisioned.

The Navy, the panel noted, should have between 323 and 346 ships yet it is currently “on a budgetary path to 260 ships or less.”

The Air Force, the panel found, “now fields the smallest and oldest force of combat aircraft in its history” and that situation is going to get much worse because it is going to lose half of its current inventory of bombers, fighter aircraft, and surveillance aircraft by 2019. The panel called for an increase in “the number of manned and unmanned aircraft capable of conducting both ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and  long range strike in contested airspace.”

The panel also found that currently contemplated reductions in Army end-strength go too far. “We believe the Army and the Marine Corps should not be reduced below their pre-9/11 end strengths–490,000 active-duty soldiers in the Army and 182,000 active Marines,” the panel concluded. Yet on the current trajectory the army is likely to wind up with 420,000 soldiers and the Corps with 175,000 marines.

The defense panel rightly warned that “sustaining these significant cuts to our defense budgets will not solve our fiscal woes, but will increasingly jeopardize our international defense posture and ultimately damage our security, prospects for economic growth, and other interests.”

But no one in Washington, on either side of the aisle, seems to care. All Republicans seem to care about anymore is avoiding tax hikes. All that Democrats seem to care about anymore is avoiding cuts in entitlement programs. Whatever happened to the parties of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy? They seem to be as gone as those presidents. And America is going to pay the price unless we see some leadership on defense issues at the top of our political system on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Curbing Deficits While Preserving Security

Those of us who have been warning about the consequences of the excessive budget cuts being forced on the U.S. Armed Forces often hear that such cuts are politically unavoidable–that there is simply no willingness in Washington to either raise taxes or cut entitlement spending. Well at least one major political figure is willing to go where others fear to tread. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has just unveiled a budget blueprint that does the seemingly impossible–it balances the budget within 10 years without tax cuts and while restoring roughly $500 billion in defense cuts that will be forced upon the Pentagon if sequestration remains in effect.

The Washington Post summarizes his plan with a somewhat snarky spin: “Overall, Ryan would cut about $5.1 trillion from projected spending over the next decade, with nearly $3 trillion coming from repealing the health-care law and revamping Medicaid. Still, his proposals fall short of balancing the budget, forcing him to resort to a vague promise of new revenue from ‘economic growth’ to meet his goal of wiping out deficits by 2024.”

Actually it’s a good bet that the kind of budget-cutting, tax-simplifying blueprint Ryan proposes would, if adopted, accelerate economic growth, which is currently anemic. But even if it doesn’t, that’s not a big deal. There’s nothing wrong with running a reasonable budget deficit–just as families go into debt to buy a house, so the government can go into debt to achieve public objectives. The problem today is that the deficit is excessive. Ryan would bring it under control and do so without sacrificing defense spending.

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Those of us who have been warning about the consequences of the excessive budget cuts being forced on the U.S. Armed Forces often hear that such cuts are politically unavoidable–that there is simply no willingness in Washington to either raise taxes or cut entitlement spending. Well at least one major political figure is willing to go where others fear to tread. Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has just unveiled a budget blueprint that does the seemingly impossible–it balances the budget within 10 years without tax cuts and while restoring roughly $500 billion in defense cuts that will be forced upon the Pentagon if sequestration remains in effect.

The Washington Post summarizes his plan with a somewhat snarky spin: “Overall, Ryan would cut about $5.1 trillion from projected spending over the next decade, with nearly $3 trillion coming from repealing the health-care law and revamping Medicaid. Still, his proposals fall short of balancing the budget, forcing him to resort to a vague promise of new revenue from ‘economic growth’ to meet his goal of wiping out deficits by 2024.”

Actually it’s a good bet that the kind of budget-cutting, tax-simplifying blueprint Ryan proposes would, if adopted, accelerate economic growth, which is currently anemic. But even if it doesn’t, that’s not a big deal. There’s nothing wrong with running a reasonable budget deficit–just as families go into debt to buy a house, so the government can go into debt to achieve public objectives. The problem today is that the deficit is excessive. Ryan would bring it under control and do so without sacrificing defense spending.

Will his plan be adopted anytime soon? Of course not–not with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. But it at least shows what’s possible and it puts Republicans in a good position for future elections. If the party rallies behind the Ryan budget they will of course be accused of wanting to kick grandma to the curb, but such partisan charges ring increasingly hollow. Republicans will be able to counter that they have a serious plan to curb runaway deficits while at the same time preserving our defenses–that, in fact, there is no contradiction between those two goals.

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The Zen of Defense Budget Cuts: Rashomon or Kabuki?

Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

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Max and Peter have already discussed the scale and meaning of President Obama’s recently revealed defense budget cuts. Yet there are so many different interpretations of what is really happening that it feels like a Washington D.C. version of Rashomon. I would add only three points, each of which has a different interpretation of the issue.

First, there is strong betting in Washington that all this is kabuki theater. The administration already submitted an FY1015 budget that is $115 billion above sequestration levels, while going forward, Congress will keep delaying cuts until sequestration simply falls apart. If so, then the past 36 months of angst have been a gigantic waste of time. Not because some weapons systems have not been delayed or terminated and end strength reduced, but because all this political theater has done nothing to reduce the national deficit (as anyone remotely aware of fiscal reality already knew).

Worse, the military has been forced to take a “six of one, half dozen of the other” approach that leaves it with no clarity as to its real future sizing or posture, and is unclear how to best reshape itself to deal with new threats. In a sense, however, a kabuki-like outcome would actually be good news for the long run, as the military will be spared the worst of the cuts, as Congress puts money back in for favored programs, and as the whole idea of placing an uneven burden on the Pentagon to cut government discretionary spending simply fades from sight. It’s almost unbelievably unserious governing, but it’s all kabuki.

A second interpretation, however, is much more troubling. President Obama is about to hand his predecessor one of the most hobbled militaries in recent American history, one that Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said would be so unready that it would be “immoral” to use. If the president and Congress are indeed serious about their unserious budget cutting, then when sequestration finally takes effect in 2016, tens of billions of dollars will have to be precipitously cut. Max has already outlined what that would mean in terms of canceled and mothballed ships and planes, not to mention personnel cuts.

But just imagine what type of military the next president would inherit on January 20, 2017. Instead of a bad policy competently implemented, the incoming commander in chief will get a disastrous policy incompetently shoved down the military’s throat. When that force is unable to carry out needed missions does anyone think that Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Rand Paul, or others will be blamed? They all will escape mainstream criticism even as they have handed America a military that will be expected to carry out its full range of missions with dramatically lower levels of readiness and capacity.

Both of these interpretations above are, to me, among the clearest condemnations of the overall unseriousness, incompetence, and unaccountable behavior by all our nationally elected leaders. Washington D.C. increasingly is a cabal run against the interests of the American people even as it endlessly fleeces them.

There is a third interpretation, however, one that tracks more closely with Peter’s observation. He argues that President Obama is consciously engineering America’s decline. From a slightly angled perspective, nothing he is doing runs counter to a strategic agenda that seeks to reduce the country’s ability to play the type of global role it has for the past 70 years. Put another way, if you’re not really interested in holding the line against instability, coercion, and aggression abroad–if you don’t plan on confronting those states that are causing disruption in the world–then you don’t need the type of military we’ve fielded for decades.

Every cut, whether thought through or not, makes sense if it derives from a manifestation of political will that seeks a radically different global role for the United States. A shrunken military means America must correspondingly reduce its presence, effectiveness, and influence abroad. From that perspective, President Obama knows exactly the type of military he wants to bequeath to his successor, not to mention what type of country.

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Global Defense Spending Sharply Rises (Except in the West)

The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

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The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

According to the New York Times, China will spend more than Britain, France, and Germany combined, a total of $148 billion, though many experts believe it may be as much as double that. Just as worryingly, Bloomberg reports that in 2015 China and Russia alone will spend more on their militaries than the entire European Union. Those who dismiss Vladimir Putin’s regime as a paper tiger should update their assessment: Moscow now has the world’s third-largest military budget, and is increasing it by 44 percent. Meanwhile, China has just tested a hypersonic missile and has recently fielded new Predator-style drones, while investing in precision-guided cruise missiles, new bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a fifth-generation stealth fighter.

The political implications of the world’s largest authoritarian powers dramatically increasing their military budgets while the Western democracies reduce theirs seem unappreciated in Washington. It would be bad enough were a more confident China and Russia acting more coercively at their current levels of strength; a more powerful Beijing and Moscow, increasingly dismissive of their neighbors and acutely aware of regional military spending, will certainly be emboldened to push their interests in a more assertive fashion.

The response from the Obama administration is disheartening. It turns Syrian disarmament over to Russia and the U.N.; it refuses to confront China on its coercive behavior in the East and South China Seas; it embraces long-term personnel and modernization cuts in the U.S. military while ignoring other wasteful spending. The Obama White House may have the pulse of a war-weary American public, but it has completely misdiagnosed the global condition.

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Yes, Excessive Defense Cuts Are Imprudent

Conventional wisdom is that after previous conflicts the U.S. has cut defense spending too much. As President Obama said in 2012: “We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past—after World War II, after Vietnam—when our military policy was left ill prepared for the future.” In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler, a Cold War specialist, would beg to differ. He claims that cutting the defense budget has actually been a good thing for American security—it has forced “Washington to think strategically, something it rarely does when times are flush,” and it has not left us “vulnerable to attack.” Therefore, he suggests, the current round of budget cuts, which amount to $1 trillion over the next decade, are a good thing.

If only he were right. In fact his article does not make a remotely persuasive case for his far-fetched proposition.

For one thing, even based on Leffler’s own account, defense resources were constantly out of whack with defense strategy over the past century. For example, in writing about the post-World War II drawdown, he notes that Truman’s “military chiefs told him that the United States’ commitments now far exceeded its capabilities and that US moves and Soviet countermeasures made war more likely.” Leffler concludes, “They were correct on both counts.” Later, in writing about the post-Cold War drawdown, he writes, “Given the austere domestic fiscal environment, the [George H.W.] Bush administration’s strategic concept—preparing for uncertainty, shaping the future, thwarting regional instability—guaranteed another growing gap between means and ends.”

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Conventional wisdom is that after previous conflicts the U.S. has cut defense spending too much. As President Obama said in 2012: “We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past—after World War II, after Vietnam—when our military policy was left ill prepared for the future.” In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler, a Cold War specialist, would beg to differ. He claims that cutting the defense budget has actually been a good thing for American security—it has forced “Washington to think strategically, something it rarely does when times are flush,” and it has not left us “vulnerable to attack.” Therefore, he suggests, the current round of budget cuts, which amount to $1 trillion over the next decade, are a good thing.

If only he were right. In fact his article does not make a remotely persuasive case for his far-fetched proposition.

For one thing, even based on Leffler’s own account, defense resources were constantly out of whack with defense strategy over the past century. For example, in writing about the post-World War II drawdown, he notes that Truman’s “military chiefs told him that the United States’ commitments now far exceeded its capabilities and that US moves and Soviet countermeasures made war more likely.” Leffler concludes, “They were correct on both counts.” Later, in writing about the post-Cold War drawdown, he writes, “Given the austere domestic fiscal environment, the [George H.W.] Bush administration’s strategic concept—preparing for uncertainty, shaping the future, thwarting regional instability—guaranteed another growing gap between means and ends.”

Leffler seems to believe that these gaps should have been resolved not by increasing defense spending but by decreasing defense commitments. But he never suggests how this should have been accomplished—either in the past or the present day. Should the U.S. give up the defense of Europe? Asia? The Middle East? Stop fighting terrorists? Pirates? Weapons proliferation? Gross human rights abuses? He doesn’t say, and neither have policymakers in Washington. History suggests that there has been and will be no appetite for seriously trimming U.S. defense commitments even as defense spending plunges.

The more important issue with Leffler’s article is that he never refutes the popular—and accurate—notion that U.S. defense cuts encouraged foreign aggression in the past and got the U.S. embroiled in wars which it was poorly prepared to fight. He claims, “Given the absence of threats in the 1920s and the constraints on British, German, and Japanese forces until the mid-1930s, US defense policies were not imprudent in the aftermath of World War I.” Oh really? This is how the renowned military historian Rick Atkinson describes the state of U.S. Army readiness in 1939:

When the European war began in earnest on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland, the U.S. Army ranked seventeenth among armies of the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. It numbered 190,000 soldiers. (It would grow to 8.3 million in 1945, a 44-fold increase.) When mobilization began in 1940, the Army had only 14,000 professional officers. The average age of majors—a middling rank, between captain and lieutenant colonel—was nearly 48; in the National Guard, nearly one-quarter of first lieutenants were over 40 years old, and the senior ranks were dominated by political hacks of certifiable military incompetence. Not a single officer on duty in 1941 had commanded a unit as large as a division in World War I. At the time of Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, only one American division was on a full war footing.

Some American coastal defense guns had not been test fired in 20 years, and the Army lacked enough antiaircraft guns to protect even a single American city. The senior British military officer in Washington told London that American forces “are more unready for war than it is possible to imagine.” In May 1940, the month that the German Blitzkrieg swept through the Low Countries and overran France, the U.S. Army owned a total of 464 tanks, mostly puny light tanks with the combat power of a coffee can.

There was also a mental unreadiness in many quarters. In 1941, the Army’s cavalry chief assured Congress that four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest, without sustaining a scratch. This ignored the evidence of not only World War II, which was already two years underway, but also World War I.

 If this level of readiness—or lack thereof—was “not imprudent” it is hard to imagine what that awkward phrase might denote. Likewise, the U.S. Army was so ill-prepared for the Korean War in 1950 that Task Force Smith—the first U.S. Army unit sent to staunch the North Korean onslaught—was mauled. It didn’t even have enough ammunition, much less enough training. It’s hard, again, to imagine how this could be judged “not imprudent.”

What might the world have looked like if the U.S. had maintained more robust levels of military spending and readiness? No one knows, but if a large U.S. military force had been left in Europe in 1919, as occurred after 1945, Nazi Germany might have been deterred from aggression. Likewise if the U.S. Navy in the interwar period had spent more, Imperial Japan might have been deterred at least from attacking Pearl Harbor. And if the U.S. had maintained more robust defense spending after 1945 and made clear its commitment to the defense of South Korea, Kim Il Sung might never have sent his army to invade the south.

These are all counterfactuals, of course, and can never be proven one way or another. But it is a bit surprising that Leffler does not even address such scenarios. He seems to have started from an unconventional premise—that U.S. defense austerity is a great thing because it supposedly promotes great strategic thinking—and tailored his brief history to support this conclusion. But the preponderance of the evidence suggests a rather different conclusion—namely that in this area, as in so many others, the conventional wisdom is right: Excessive defense cuts have been dangerous in the past and they are dangerous today, at a time when the army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, is warning that only two brigades are combat-ready.

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The Next Fight: Tea Partiers v. Hawks on Defense Cuts

The Hill reports that the defense industry is anxious the fiscal cliff tax deal may increase the likelihood of Pentagon cuts:

The defense industry is worried last week’s budget deal on taxes could damage its negotiating position for the next “fiscal cliff” deadline two months from now, when across-the-board spending cuts would take effect. 

The deficit debate is shifting from taxes toward spending cuts and the debt limit, where there will be more of a focus on new cuts to the Pentagon.

While the first fiscal cliff fight over taxes included the threat of massive across-the-board spending cuts, the sequel is going to be nearly all about where to cut spending. The Pentagon is the largest target outside of entitlements. …

Some defense analysts say that the shift in the Republican Party away from national security, with the rise of the Tea Party, was highlighted during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, where taxes trumped defense in importance. …

“Other issues have overtaken national security as being more important,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think it does show how the Republican Party is no longer the party of national security, no longer a big-tent party of Reagan Republicans where a strong defense was a central tenet of conservatism.”

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The Hill reports that the defense industry is anxious the fiscal cliff tax deal may increase the likelihood of Pentagon cuts:

The defense industry is worried last week’s budget deal on taxes could damage its negotiating position for the next “fiscal cliff” deadline two months from now, when across-the-board spending cuts would take effect. 

The deficit debate is shifting from taxes toward spending cuts and the debt limit, where there will be more of a focus on new cuts to the Pentagon.

While the first fiscal cliff fight over taxes included the threat of massive across-the-board spending cuts, the sequel is going to be nearly all about where to cut spending. The Pentagon is the largest target outside of entitlements. …

Some defense analysts say that the shift in the Republican Party away from national security, with the rise of the Tea Party, was highlighted during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, where taxes trumped defense in importance. …

“Other issues have overtaken national security as being more important,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think it does show how the Republican Party is no longer the party of national security, no longer a big-tent party of Reagan Republicans where a strong defense was a central tenet of conservatism.”

Fiscal conservatives argue that defense spending shouldn’t be immune from cuts, and they’re right. There is waste and mismanagement within the Pentagon, just like any other government bureaucracy, and there is undoubtedly room for reduction. What’s unacceptable is arbitrary, across-the-board cuts that would force the military to set priorities based on budget reductions, rather than the other way around. Defense should not be dealt with the same way as health care and entitlements; it’s the most important responsibility of the federal government. If there are specific areas where reductions can be made, that should be determined. But choosing a random number and asking the military to cut that much is not the way to do it.

It will be interesting to see whether this fiscal conservative v. defense hawk debate starts to play out during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings. There are senators on the Armed Services Committee who consider themselves fiscal conservatives first and foremost, and then there are others like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who vehemently disagree with Hagel’s support for major Pentagon cuts. The question will be whether any of the fiscal hawks come to Hagel’s defense because of his position on military spending.

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The Self-Refuting Arguments for Cutting Defense

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”

Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.

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Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”

Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.

In the first place, the claim that only 238 U.S. citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks in the last decade is ludicrous. That may be true if counting only civilians. But what about the 6,632 (and counting) service personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq? I suppose you could argue they were the victims of guerrillas rather than terrorists, but the distinction is pretty artificial. You could further argue that their deaths somehow don’t count, because they were serving abroad in a war zone. But that ignores the fact that our intervention in Afghanistan was a direct response to an act of terrorism on American soil. (The intervention in Iraq, I would argue, was an indirect response to the same attack.)

The notion that is somehow going away also doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, coming as it does at a time when 35,000 (and counting) people have been killed in Syria’s civil war alone. It’s true, as Steven Pinker and others argue, that wars are considerably less common and deadly today than they once were, but that is due in part to the fact that the U.S. and our allies have spent so much to keep the peace in Europe and East Asia over the past half-century and more. If we let our guard down, we can pay a heavy price–as we did on 9/11. Remember that there were plenty of voices before 9/11 claiming that the terrorist threat was overblown; they were wrong then and they are wrong now. Numerous dangers lurk out there–from Chinese, Russian and Iranian cyberattacks to the Iranian nuclear program to the rise of Chinese naval power and the spreading tentacles of al-Qaeda’s organization throughout the Middle East.

That is why we need to keep spending as much as we do on defense–it is a relatively cheap insurance policy against various threats known and unknown. It’s not as if defense spending is crippling our economy–as Aaron O’Connell notes in the New York Times today, we spend less than 5 percent of GDP on defense compared to 14 percent in 1953.

A final point. The argument that we can simply slash defense because so few people are getting killed, especially by terrorists, is particularly odd, because many of those who make this case are no doubt sympathetic to the argument that we should be undertaking costly efforts to stop global warming even though there are no verifiable deaths due to this phenomenon. (Michael Bloomberg’s fanciful claim that superstorm Sandy was a result of global warming does not qualify as proof, needless to say.) We are being asked to spend large amounts of money to head off climate dangers that may or may not materialize in a few decades. The danger of terrorism–especially nuclear terrorism–is considerably more pressing and deserves a more serious response. Which is something that political leaders on both sides of the aisle seem to get.

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A Vacuum Recognized Is Not a Vacuum Filled

The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

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The central pillar of the rebuttal to complaints about American defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world is the fact that other countries–or continents, in Europe’s case–can only afford to skimp on defense spending because the U.S. will pick up the slack. American defense cuts, if not done carefully and responsibly, risk leaving a vacuum in areas where the U.S. military has carried the burden of influence.

So it’s not surprising that the prospect of American defense cuts, together with the “pivot” of resources to the Asia-Pacific region, are making some European allies nervous. Britain’s new defense minister, however, has some advice for his European counterparts: stop whining and pitch in:

Instead of worrying about the cutbacks to U.S. military power in the region, which many NATO countries apparently had been counting on to offset their own deep defense reductions, [Phillip] Hammond said the allies must recognize that “as a result, European nations, including the UK, will need to do much more of the heavy lifting in the security of their own region,” including both Europe itself and the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa, which he called “the near abroad.”

“This is not the end of Atlanticism, but the beginning of a new, more balanced relationship in the alliance,” Hammond said.

While the U.S.-UK ties will always be Britain’s priority, Hammond said, “to support your rebalancing [to Asia], we will seek to work more closely with our neighbors in Europe, particularly France and Germany, to enhance capabilities in our own region.”

It’s a nice thought, and it certainly would be the responsible thing to do. But there’s no reason to pretend this will happen. France just excused their pro-Western president from his duties to replace him with the leader of the French socialists, and absent conditions threatening a localized catastrophe–think Libya–it’s difficult to imagine the French increasing their role in defense of the West.

As for Germany, the country was greeted with Nazi catcalls for simply trying to maintain leverage over the conditions of bailing out failing European economies and saving the euro–just imagine what Europe’s reaction would be if Germany so much as hinted at becoming the continent’s new military power. It’s a nonstarter.

And what about Britain? As Max wrote here a couple weeks ago, British defense cuts will pare down the standing army to its lowest level in a century, and its diplomatic influence will wane accordingly. Hammond focused his remarks on, in his words, “the European NATO powers.” This is telling–and unfortunate. As Josh Rogin reported after the U.S.-hosted NATO summit in May:

This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago is the first in decades to make little to no progress on the enlargement of the organization, leaving several countries to wait another two years to move toward membership in the world’s premier military alliance.

In the official 65-point summit declaration issued Sunday, there were several references to the four countries vying for progress on their road to NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. But none came away from the summit with any tangible progress to tout back at home. NATO expansion was just not a priority of the Obama administration this year, U.S. officials and experts say, given the packed security-focused agenda and looming uncertainly caused by the deepening European financial crisis.

So the crisis in Europe had the opposite effect from what Hammond is suggesting; rather than retrench and build the West’s military alliance, everyone was too busy chewing his fingernails to get any work done.

This is not to say there are no reasons for caution on enlarging NATO. It’s that no progress was even attempted. And countries developing or experimenting with democratic laws and norms don’t usually tread water–they should be helped forward so they don’t fall back. NATO membership action plans can often be useful in this regard, as Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Rogin:

Conley pointed to the Serbian elections this weekend, where Serbians chose an ultra-nationalist known as “Toma the Gravedigger” to be their president, as evidence that these countries could slip back toward authoritarianism if not given full support and inclusion by Western organizations.

The West is not always to blame. Often a country slipping back toward authoritarianism and corruption poses a chicken-or-egg question: Was Ukraine rejected by the West, or did they choose to reject the West (or orchestrate their rejection by the West)? But the underlying point is valid, and we cannot continue brushing off countries and expecting them not to take a hint. (Georgia, for example, has contributed more to the Afghanistan mission than some NATO countries.)

Now would be a great time to expand the Western alliance. Until that happens, Europe and NATO will continue to recede from the world stage, and Hammond’s good advice will be unceremoniously ignored.

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