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.


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