The Defense Budget: Time to End the Mantra of Fear
(originally posted on The Will and the Wallet
For thirty-five years, the Egyptian people believed the myth and lived in fear, fear of the security forces and fear of the chaos and instability that might exist without a strong ruler. They have just overcome that fear and created hope. That collective psychic shift was the key to making the change they needed to bring about.
We, too, are facing the need for a psychic shift from fear to hope. Today is budget day, and the budget is an expression of our hopes and fears – especially the defense budget, which has reached levels unprecedented, in constant dollars, in our post-World War II history. A defense budget that now consumes nearly 60% of all the discretionary spending in the federal budget. A defense budget that is as large as nearly all the defense budgets of all the other countries in the world combined. A defense research and development budget ($80.4 billion in FY 2010) that is, by itself, larger than the US estimates of any other total defense budget of any other country in the world.
Our defense budgets, over the decades, have created the most powerful, global military force that has ever existed. Filled with technology, able men and women, strong planning, and a “can-do” attitude, that military has the only capacity in the world – the only capacity – to deploy ground forces globally, fly long-range air power around the world, steam all of the world’s oceans, and operate global logistics, communications, transportation, and intelligence. US Special Forces alone are larger than the entire militaries of more than 100 countries, according the International Institute for Strategic Studies. And, if the administration’s budget plans are enacted as requested, that military will continue a decade-long expansion of its authorities, responsibilities, and funding into an endless array of new missions involving governance, economic reconstruction, cyberspace, public diplomacy, security sector reform, the environment and climate change, energy policy, and much more.
Driven by the mantra of fear, we have built an enormously capable military machine expanding capacity in ways that are both excessive to what our security truly requires and dangerous to our long security because of their endless reach.
The fear is that terrorist enemies surround us today and dangerous enemies are building the capacity to come at us tomorrow, and only the military can truly protect us or change the vector of history. For a vocal, if increasingly shrill, band of neo-conservatives like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Washington Spectator, it is the fear that world disorder will emerge unless the American military does what if has always done: intervene, govern, rule, change regimes, and provide glue, order, leadership, and stability to the world.
It is an impressive mantra, one deeply embedded in the American psyche. We are different, we are number one, we alone stand outside history and shape the world, like no other super-power has ever done or been capable of doing.
But truths are now emerging. The world we have tried to use this military to shape is rejecting the transplant. Iraqis are happy to see us go, leaving a weak economy and disorderly governance behind. Most Afghanis and most Pakistanis wish we had not come and hope we will leave soon. China doubtless enjoys the sight of Gulliver tied down in the Middle East. And at home, our nation’s fiscal balance has come unglued. We are heading for deeper debt than we have ever known since World War II. Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the military machine, has acknowledged that reality.
The mantra of fear has paralyzed Washington when it comes to defense. Fear has led the House Republicans to step back from the courage of their convictions and provide DOD with the only increase in funding they have allowed for the remainder of FY2011. Many Republicans are using fear of the unknown international enemy as a stick to beat up on Democrats or as an excuse for interest-driven defense politics-as-usual, as House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon is amply demonstrating. (He, of course, is far from alone.) And too many Democrats are fearful that they will look soft on national security, so stand “bum to silly bum” (as Lawrence Durrell once said of academics), providing more fuel to an already excessive military capability.
As we contemplate the indigestible budget numbers the administration will present today, and as the House considers a bill to extend current the current budget through the rest of this fiscal year, it is time for the psychic shift. We can hear its beginnings in the voices of leaders who have put thoughtful proposals on the table to reduce the deficit and stabilize the debt. Voices across the political spectrum like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, Alice Rivlin and Pete Domenici, Ron Paul and Barney Frank. Republicans like David Stockman and Grover Norquist, and a plethora of new members in the House, who appear to have moved from the mantra of fear to the hope that we can find a way to stem the fiscal bleeding and economic dilemma we face. Democrats like Kent Conrad and Chris Van Hollen, who are concerned about the same thing.
Let me suggest seven fear-based myths that we need to overcome for the psychic shift to occur, myths that need to swept away as the mind-boggling numbers emerge today:
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the entire Pentagon have been rending garments for two weeks, saying disaster will follow a decision by the Congress to freeze the defense budget at the FY 2010 level. Many trees are dead, and many mind-numbing power point slides have been built on this myth, but it is a myth. Making do with less is something families have been doing for two years. And it is something the Pentagon has done before, notably under Secretaries of Defense Dick Cheney and Bill Perry. It is called management, something DOD has not had for more than a decade. Some of it is doing precisely the “dire” things the Pentagon is warning of: delaying contracting, slowing promotions, redeploying forces more slowly, gradually shrinking the Army and Marines as they return from Iraq, slowing depot and property maintenance. We’ve done it before, as I saw at OMB in the 1990s. And some of it is seriously tackling the inefficiencies at DOD that have led to an infrastructure that consumes nearly half of the defense budget, largely by cutting funding for infrastructure and forcing sound management. The military will not fall apart if these things are done; it has done them before and the military has continued to perform its missions.
- The Department will argue today that they have calculated the exact minimum level of funding they need for this year and into the future to maintain our defense capability. As if they used a new scratch pad and started from zero. There has not been a zero-based, strategy-driven analysis of US defense needs since the fated effort under President Jimmy Carter more than thirty years ago. We have built a defense capability on top of the existing infrastructure and whatever each administration inherits, and have done so throughout the Cold War. Last year, plus, is the mantra, not “what do we need to operate, seriously.”
- The Department will argue that the $78 billion in reductions to the previously forecast defense budgets is its contribution to budget discipline. Balderdash! Defense would grow in FY 2012 (though nobody knows quite by how much, because that pesky FY 2011 problem has not yet been fixed – but probably by a lot), and it would grow in FY 2013, and it would grow in FY 2014, only going flat in FY 2015 and FY 2016. It is a funny thing about those out-year numbers; Secretary Gates will be gone, even the administration could be gone. The numbers are simply built on extrapolations erected on a base of sand. Even more revealing, the $78 billion in savings is a myth. Six billion don’t happen until 2015 and 2015, the mythical budget years, when DOD says the Army and the Marines will start to roll back part of the 92,000 person increase that happened over the last decade. Four billion comes from stretching out the schedule for the F-35 fighter, which could easily not happen. $12.5 billion comes from pocketing the White House decision to freeze civilian pay for the next three years, credit for a decision the Pentagon did not make. $41.5 billion comes from “efficiencies” in what are called “defense-wide,” a mystery the Secretary has yet to unravel. And $14 billion is a truly “magic” number. It comes from revising downward DOD’s estimates of future inflation, a hardy, perennial argument between DOD and OMB (DOD estimates high; OMB estimates low; DOD seems to have “caved” to the OMB position in this budget, finding mythical savings it could give back to the White House).
- The Department and those who live in the defense stovepipe will argue that spending anything less than the roughly $6.5 trillion projected for defense over the next decade will threaten US global leadership and our national defenses. More of the same. As the Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici, and Paul-Frank studies make clear, taking away $1 trillion from that projection (roughly $15% fewer resources over a decade), and managing that transition effectively would leave in place the same globally dominant force I described above.
- Secretary Gates will argue that every time we have ended a war, we have faced surprised and had to build back up. Bad history; where are the DOD historians when the Secretary needs them. The last time we were unready and surprised was Korea more than sixty years ago. Since then, we have chosen a war we lost (Vietnam), chosen a war we won (Gulf War One), chosen a regime-changing coalition war we won (Afghanistan), and chosen another regime changing invasion we won (Iraq, but we didn’t do so well with the occupation). We did all of these with the forces we had (ref. Don Rumsfeld), and did just fine on the war part. And we managed a build-down in the 1990s that left behind the force that took down Saddam Hussein in 2003 just fine.
- DOD, and its stalwart neo-con defenders, will argue that defense spending is at its lowest point in history, just over 4% of GDP, and that we can afford to build it up and need to do so. The GDP might be able to afford it, but it is not clear that the taxpayer can, or wants to. Most taxpayers today, including over 40% of Republicans polled would cut defense before they would touch Social Security or Medicare. When we face the fiscal problems we face, everything needs to be on the table. Moreover, a share of GDP says nothing, absolutely nothing, about what we need to spend on defense. That is, or should be, driven by strategy and missions, leading to capabilities. It has nothing to do with GDP.
- The last myth is that we cannot build down in the middle of a recession; its jobs, jobs, jobs, and some of them are in defense. In military terms, this is also irrelevant. Its economic relevance is questionable. As Colin Powell said in January, the Bush I administration lowered the force by roughly 500,000 and cut the budget 25% with a recession happening at the same time. The political relevance is the problem, which is why the process of build-down should start now and take place gradually over time as the economy recovers.
We are at the edge of a major shift in defense spending. It is not the first time it has happened, nor will it be the last. But there is no logic or compelling reason for a linear extrapolation of the current defense budget into the future, though it is always DOD’s fondest wish. We can manage a build-down, and we should be ready to manage one as we tackle our fiscal future and emerge into the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world of Tahrir Square and beyond. And we can do so, with careful planning, leaving in place a decade from now, the world’s most dominant military capability, leaner, but ready for a more tailored and appropriate set of missions.