I am thoroughly alarmed about the cuts in the defense budget–both those already decided upon ($350 billion-$400 billion during the next ten years) and those that could still come in the fall (another $600 billion–$750 billion unless congressional negotiators can agree on a different menu of spending cuts and revenue enhancers). But not all share my alarm. Some positively welcome the prospect of deep defense cuts. They include, apparently, Fareed Zakaria, one of our most intelligent and provocative foreign policy commentators–and a committed centrist. Because Zakaria is hardly a wild-eyed pacifist, it makes sense to seriously consider his argument for cutting defense which are similar to those being made by other pundits and lawmakers.
He begins a recent Washington Post column by noting: “The Pentagon’s budget has risen for 13 years, which is unprecedented. Between 2001 and 2009, overall spending on defense rose from $412 billion to $699 billion, a 70 percent increase, which is larger than in any comparable period since the Korean War.”
He goes on to argue: “It is not unprecedented for defense spending to fall substantially as we scale back or end military actions. After the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower cut defense spending 27 percent. Richard Nixon cut it 29 percent after Vietnam.” He notes: “Lawrence Korb, who worked at the Pentagon for Ronald Reagan, believes that a $1 trillion cut over 10 to 12 years is feasible without compromising national security.”
Zakaria urges conservatives to “examine the defense budget, which contains tons of evidence of liberalism run amok.” He decries not only the usual “waste” in the defense budget but also calls it “a cradle-to-grave system of housing, subsidies, cost-plus procurement, early retirement and lifetime pension and health-care guarantees.”
Finally he argues: “Defense budget cuts would also force a healthy rebalancing of American foreign policy,” correcting a problem he sees of the Defense Department having many more resources than the State Department. “The result,” he concludes, “is a warped American foreign policy, ready to conceive of problems in military terms and present a ready military solution.”
Let’s take these arguments one at a time.
True, defense spending is high in absolute terms–but for good cause. We’ve been fighting at least two wars for the past decade. With our commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq declining, defense spending is also going down–next year’s budget, even before the recent cuts, called for $670 billion in spending, down from $701 billion this year. But looking at nominal spending figures only gives a distorting impression. Defense spending as a percentage of GDP is low. The president’s own budget charts show, even if the supplemental spending for ongoing wars is included, all “defense and international” spending consumes just 5.1 percent of GDP compared to 8.1 percent for Social Security and Medicare–just two of the government’s many social welfare programs. Other federal payments to individuals take another 7.3 percent of GDP. If you seek the source of our budget woes, look at these entitlement programs–not at defense, which consumes a much lower percentage of GDP than it did during the Cold War (roughly 7 percent) even in periods when we were not involved in shooting wars.
Moreover, comparing defense spending today with spending during earlier decades–say, during the Korean War–is not a fair comparison. Until 1973 we had a draft, which meant personnel costs were relatively low. Since we went to an all-volunteer force, the government had to start paying competitive wages and benefits to attract and keep qualified recruits. The Defense Department benefits–medical care, schooling, etc.– that Zakaria decries as “liberalism run amok” are nothing of the kind. They are better understood as the kind of corporate benefits package offered to employees in lieu of a straight salary. Those benefits are not an entitlement; they are earned by men and women who risk their lives in our defense. Which is what makes these compensation packages so difficult to cut. Congress naturally feels a sense of gratitude to veterans and wants to reward them for their heroic service. The Defense Department is also keenly aware of the need to keep up the quality of its service people. Both concerns argue against drastic cuts in pay and benefits packages.
Another major difference between defense spending today and spending decades ago is that weapons systems have become monumentally expensive. Until the 1970s, the U.S.did not have much of a technological edge over our adversaries; our equipment was roughly comparable to that of the Soviets. But thanks to the Information Revolution of the 1970s, the U.S. defense establishment began to emphasize quality over quantity. Our industrial sector produced best-in-the-world systems ranging from Stealth bombers to, more recently, Predator drones. These weapons have given us a huge edge over all adversaries we have faced and have allowed us to vanquish our foes at much lower cost in American blood than was the case in the past. But, as they used to say at NASA, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Keeping at the technological edge isn’t cheap–and it’s getting more costly all the time.
Zakaria might decry the high cost of new weapons systems. So do I. But I have no idea how to procure top-of-the-line weapons systems for less, and neither does he. Nobody does. Washington has been implementing “procurement reforms” for years, but many of them have made weapons more expensive, not less. It seems fair to say the pressure of today’s budget crisis will not produce a magic wand someone like Zakaria could wave to miraculously cut the cost of our weapons while maintaining their superlative quality. Like it or not, we must take it as a given weapons will continue to be costly. The choice is whether we pay or not—and that choice will not be avoided by painlessly erasing the (nonexistent) line item for “waste, fraud and abuse.”
Zakaria should know better than to cite my former Council on Foreign Relations colleague Larry Korb for evidence you can cut $1 trillion from the defense budget without doing real damage. As Zakaria well knows, Korb may have served in the Reagan administration, but he is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank. He is hardly a doctrinaire conservative who just happens to think you can cut a lot from defense today. He has been arguing for defense cuts for decades. Luckily, his advice was not listened to by Ronald Reagan, who increased defense spending to bring down the Evil Empire.
Unfortunately, Zakaria is right—as wars wind down, we usually do wind up spending less on defense. We certainly did in the 1950s after the Korean War, in the 1970s after the Vietnam War and in the 1990s after the Cold War. But is this really an example we should emulate in the future?
The parsimonious Eisenhower defense budgets of the 1950s left us overly reliant on a nuclear deterrent (the “New Look”) and ill-prepared to fight low-intensity conflicts such as the one in Vietnam. The cutbacks of the 1970s produced a “hollow army” and encouraged our adversaries’ aggression—this was the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Sandinistas’ triumph on Nicaragua. Later, the rush to spend the “peace dividend” in the 1990s left us ill-prepared to fight the post-9/11 wars: It’s impossible to send enough troops to pacify both Afghanistan and Iraq when the size of the active-duty army has been reduced by a third.
Simply because something has happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for the future. And if history shows anything, it is there are few ideas worse than cutting defense spending precipitously. What is likely to happen as a result is we will not be ready for some unexpected crisis. While we slowly build up our resources, we will suffer needless defeats and our troops will spill needless blood—as we have in wars ranging from the Civil War to World War II, Korea and most recently, Iraq.
As it happens, I share Zakaria’s concern about American foreign policy becoming “unbalanced.” I believe we should spend more on diplomacy and foreign aid; I have long argued we need greater civilian nation-building capacity which could come from a U.S. Agency for International Development on steroids. But I am at a loss to see how cutting defense will benefit the State Department or any other civilian agency. Zakaria is dreaming if he thinks budget negotiators will cut defense but leave the foreign aid budget alone. Foreign aid has almost no constituency in Washington; it is always among the top items on any budget-cutter’s list. And it is certain to suffer in the current negotiations.
Indeed, foreign assistance is apparently wrapped into a broad category of “security spending,” which is subject to devastating automatic cuts along with the Defense Department. The gap between military and diplomatic spending may close slightly, but only because defense will be cut back—not because diplomats will have more resources. They won’t. And you can bet among the cuts that will occur at the Pentagon are precisely those programs—e.g., Foreign Area Officers or exercises with foreign militaries—that have the least obvious purely military impact but pay the biggest dividends for American diplomacy.
Fareed Zakaria—and Larry Korb—may be sanguine about the prospects of massive defense cuts but not so the leaders of the Defense Department. During his confirmation hearing to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey warned cutting $800 billion from defense would be “extraordinarily difficult and very high risk.” Perhaps cynics say what else do you expect from a senior general? Isn’t he just defending a wasteful and inefficient bureaucracy? Harder to dismiss is the warning from Leon Panetta, a veteran budget hawk who has no emotional attachment to the Defense Department, an agency he only took charge of in July.
On August 3, Panetta posted a letter on his website warning against automatic, across-the-board defense cuts, which “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.” “I am determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past,” he wrote—mistakes such as “after the Vietnam War,” when “our government applied cuts to defense across the board, resulting in a force that was undersized and underfunded relative to its missions and responsibilities. This process has historically led to outcomes that weaken rather than strengthen our national security – and which ultimately cost our nation more when it must quickly rearm to confront new threats.”
Panetta is right, and Zakaria is wrong. I only hope congressional negotiators grasp that fact and avoid the kind of ruinous defense cuts that could hasten America’s decline as a world power.
Cutting Defense Spending Could Hasten America’s Decline as a World Power
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Missing the moment.
For die-hard Trump supporters, there is no reprieve. The president’s achievements are eclipsed by the consistency of his bad judgment. For those Trump fans that have not tuned out the news entirely, a cottage industry of reassuring hot takes has taken the place of dispassionate analysis.
In the name of challenging the conventional wisdom, the Wall Street Journal’s James Freeman took a peek at this emerging trend. “Could Trump possibly be winning this week?” his article’s subhead asked. The premise sounds absurd on its face, but it’s really only phrased inelegantly. Trump most assuredly did not “win” the week that followed the traumatic events in Virginia. Nor, though, did the president’s Democratic opponents.
Freeman’s desire to check in with a few “contrarian observers” is a noble one. The individuals he chose are a testament either to the paucity of contrarianism or the absurdity of contrarian arguments.
Don Luskin, the CIO of Trend Macrolytics, speculated that Americans succumbed last week to a “clinical case of mass hysteria.” He suggested the consternation over Donald Trump’s devouring 96 hours of news by issuing three distinct and occasionally contradictory pronouncements about the relative virtue of white supremacist marchers versus violent socialist counter protesters was a media fabrication. “His sin is that he has failed to express his outrage at the event in a particular way,” Luskin wrote, “or, more precisely, that he has expressed it in a way that doesn’t kowtow to the identity politics lobby.”
While Luskin is handing out psychological diagnoses, he might do well to look up the definition of dissociation. Yes, Trump got himself into hot water by declining to condemn avowed racists and anti-Semites without caveat following a murderous terrorist attack (only to backtrack amid pressure and then to backtrack from the backtrack). In doing so, he wasn’t rejecting identity politics but embracing it.
In Trump’s estimation, a variety of foreign forces was responsible for the lot of the silent but angry majority: illegal immigrant labor, Chinese trade practices, America’s allies who should be expected to pay for the privileges of the U.S.-led world order, Europeans that sacrifice Western culture upon the altar of multiculturalism, etc. Trump wasn’t abandoning this white identity politics last week; he was reaffirming fealty to it.
Freeman’s second contrarian is a predictable one. The cartoonist Scott Adams has found a second career in reflexively ascribing brilliance and foresight to every presidential synapse. On Thursday of last week, Trump reacted on Twitter to an ongoing terrorist attack in Spain by alluding to the utterly apocryphal story of General John Pershing’s crimes of war. The story—one Trump knows is false because it was attacked as false when he used to tell it on the campaign trail—alleges that the American war hero discouraged Islamist terrorism in the Philippines by burying Muslims with the bodies of pigs so they might find no peace in the afterlife.
You might not be surprised to learn that Adams thinks this is yet another masterful example of public persuasion. You see, Trump is communicating his toughness on terrorism. By lying, he will compel media to fact-check him, amplifying his persuasive persuasion.
Trump has persuaded himself right into history as the most unpopular president at this point in his presidency in the history of modern polling. There’s no honest way to claim a week that resulted in the broadest critical reaction among Trump’s Republican allies since the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape was a great week for the president. Even if Trump spent a week skipping through a minefield, though, that doesn’t mean his opponents’ fortunes were advanced.
An online poll commissioned by Axios found that a “remarkable” 40 percent of adults signed on to Trump’s assertion that both demonstrators on the left and the right were responsible for the violence in events in Charlottesville. They see members of the academy defend political violence, even as liberals pen hallucinatory love letters to themselves congratulating their movement on its restraint. They’ve watched with apprehension as an agitated mob tears down a statue of a nondescript Confederate soldier in North Carolina as though it were a likeness of Felix Dzerzhinsky.
They watch as liberal commentators call for an end to the veneration of figures like Washington and Jefferson, just as Trump said they would and (have been doing for years), even as coastal elites insist that no one advocates such things. On Monday, Baltimore awoke to see a 200-year-old monument to Christopher Columbus destroyed by a vandal with a sledgehammer. They know that this is not some isolated event but an extension of the madness they’ve seen take hold of the country, even amid lectures about how connecting these dots is woefully unenlightened.
“The people asking these questions (over and over and over) are not racist,” wrote Senator Ben Sasse. “Rather they’re perplexed by the elite indifference to their fair questions.” Liberals dismiss these sentiments at their peril. Despite a Republican president’s unpopularity and the dysfunction of his party in Congress, Democrats have so far been unable to capitalize on the environment. Even by its own modest standards for success, the Democratic National Committee’s fundraising has been bleak. On Thursday, Cook Political Report shifted the race for Senate in four Democrat-held states in the GOP’s direction.
Attributing Donald Trump’s wink and nod in the direction of white supremacy last week to strategic genius is simply deluded. That does not, however, suggest that Democrats are benefiting from Trump’s recklessness. Liberals have given the public no assurances that they can govern from the center, or that they even see that as a desirable enterprise. And yet, Democrats still appear convinced they are the default beneficiaries when Trump falls on his face, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
How far–how low–do religious leaders end up going when they decide that, in public life, the end justifies any means? Consider the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr. For the Liberty University president, the end was the advancement of social conservatism. The means: Donald Trump.
Falwell endorsed Trump for the GOP nomination ahead of the Iowa Caucuses last year, and soon he emerged as one of the New Yorker’s most ardent evangelical backers. Trump’s dissolute personal life didn’t make him an ideal avatar for the evangelical cause. Nor did his transparently opportunistic change of heart on social issues such as abortion. But Falwell reminded his flock that Trump was running for president, not “pastor-in-chief.”
In a March 2016 interview with a Liberty campus newspaper, he even compared the Donald with David. Hadn’t David, though an adulterer and a murderer, found favor with God? (Yes, who can forget that marvelous Psalm, in which the king cries out to the Lord, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness. I’ve had great relationships and developed even greater relationships with ministers”?)
Judging by his Twitter and TV blitz in recent days, Falwell has kept the Trumpian faith through the first eight months of the Trump administration. Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Falwell tweeted, had been “bold” and “truthful.” He added: “So proud of @realdonaldtrump.” Note that Falwell’s praise came after the president suggested that there had been “very fine people” among the Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates who marched in Charlottesville.
Pressed by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday to identify these very fine people, Falwell descended to absurdity: “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statutes, I don’t know. But he had inside information that I didn’t.” And more: “He saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information he had that I don’t have.” The president gets into trouble, Falwell concluded, “because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct; he says what’s in his heart.”
By now, these are familiar tropes of the Trumpian mind.
If the president says something untrue or absurd, it must be because he has secret knowledge about the matter at hand (in this case, about the supposedly innocent subjective views of people who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us”).
If Trump undermines presidential norms, if his careless rhetoric inflames rather than calms the nation in a moment of crisis, get over it. He isn’t PC–as if the political incorrectness of a statement guarantees that it is also true or worthwhile.
If you object to Trump’s lack of personal grace, his narcissism, his refusal to disavow support from the basest elements of his base, well, he isn’t the pope–again as if only pastors of souls are expected to possess grace, selflessness, and moral discernment.
It didn’t have to be like this for Falwell. One of the great blessings of a faith in a loving, personal God is that it liberates the faithful from the populist leaders and impulses of the moment. As Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in his contribution to National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, “Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy … in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant.”
Moore might have added self-degrading.
Podcast: What to expect in a post-Bannon world
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us—me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman—wondering at the grandiose plans of Steve Bannon after the White House. A new news channel! War in the Republican party! Etc! All this leads into speculation about 2020, because why not, and why Joe Biden might be the guy to challenge Trump. And then we descend into more crushing morosity as we contemplate whether our divisions nationally are just too large to heal. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Sobriety in September.
August is traditionally the silly season in American politics and journalism, and this August is living up to the sobriquet.
Apparently, not even celestial mechanics is exempt from the necessity to be politically correct. To wit, there’s an article in The Atlantic complaining about Monday’s solar eclipse. The author says that not enough black people live along the path of totality. While it’s true that the northwest and high plains states at the start of the eclipse have very low black populations, that’s not true of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina at the end of the path.
Horses are in the same category as celestial mechanics. The mascot of the University of Southern California has been for decades a white Arabian horse named Traveler. The current horse is the ninth to bear the name, and he charges across the field every time the team makes a touchdown, ridden by someone dressed up as a Trojan. The problem? The horse’s name is Traveler.
So what, all but serious Civil War history buffs might well ask? But that was, almost, the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. Traveller rests in peace near the grave of his master at what is still called, I think, Washington and Lee University. Up the road, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried at Virginia Military Institute, although his mounted hide can be seen in a glass case. Stonewall Jackson was a lousy horseman, by the way, and Little Sorrel was a placid creature almost guaranteed not to throw him.
Speaking of horses, the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, inexplicably left standing, was defaced with graffiti calling for it to be torn down. I hadn’t realized that she fought for the South.
And speaking of General Lee, the statue of Lee in the chapel of Duke University will be removed. However, the statue of George Washington Duke—Confederate sailor, slave owner, and tobacco magnate in whose factories worked poorly paid black labor—will surely not be. His son gave Trinity College $40 million in 1924, and it was promptly renamed Duke University in the old man’s memory.
Oh, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which “temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” has been defaced with four-letter graffiti.
To paraphrase Shelley, when the silly season comes, can Labor Day be far behind? I hope not.
An imitation mastermind exits a make-believe position
The fact that Steve Bannon, ousted from his senior role at the Trump White House, was its “chief strategist” in the first place is testimony to how accidental this presidency was and is. Who would hire for such a job a person whose first serious involvement in American political life had come only a few years earlier when he found himself running a right-wing media website due to a tragic accident—and whose entire involvement in actual political events was limited to three late months on the Trump campaign? This is the sort of thing that, in a normal universe, might get someone a deputy assistant to the president post as a reward—not a personal fiefdom inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bannon is the greatest genius since Picasso. The fact is, Picasso had had art lessons before his Blue Period. Bannon took a central role in the White House with a knowledge base about the practical workings of politics gleaned entirely from books and newspapers. Trump the real-estate guy wouldn’t ever have hired a project manager who’d never so much as built a Lego tower before. In effect, that’s what he did with Bannon.
To be fair, no one really knows what a “strategist” is. The word’s common use can, I believe, be attributed to my friend Bill Kristol, who decided to call himself a “Republican strategist” when he had left the first Bush White House and was being sought to give good quote about the condition of the GOP in 1993 and 1994. From Bill’s clever innovation, a fancy-sounding title for a non-existent title perfect for a TV chyron became a national sensation.
Now the question is, what will the departure of this made-for-TV job mean for the Trump White House? My guess is: Not very much. Stephen Miller, who may be 30 years younger than Bannon but has about five times the political experience, is still in there fighting for what is essentially the Bannon worldview. Trump’s entirely personal decision to lean toward the alt-Right in the past week is an indication that the conservative fear he might move leftward is ridiculous. Trump is gonna dance with the one who brung him here; he thinks he owes those guys.
So basically what I’m saying is: The Bannon subplot is over. Time for the rise of a new White House figure to serve the subject of the next “he’s the real president” newsmagazine cover story.