Paul Ryan’s weak case for a strong defense

By David Callahan
March 22, 2012

One aspect of Paul Ryan’s new budget that hasn’t drawn much attention is that it is a big love letter to the Pentagon. Ryan rejects the idea that budgetary pressures should have any effect on defense spending, which he argues should be dictated purely by “strategic” calculations. Among other things, the Ryan budget would reverse $55 billion in defense cuts mandated for 2013 by the “trigger” agreed to in last year’s budget ceiling deal – and cut this same amount from domestic programs instead.

Ryan says we shouldn’t worry about military spending, even amid a supposed fiscal emergency, because such outlays are “shrinking as a share of government spending and as a share of the national economy.” America may have a spending problem, Ryan and the House Budget Committee believe, but the Pentagon is not part of that problem: “This category of spending is clearly not driving the unsustainable fiscal trajectory that is threatening the nation’s future.”

That’s strange to hear, since soaring security costs since 9/11 have been a key driver of deficits – accounting for about $1.4 trillion in new debt since 2001 by one widely cited non-partisan estimate. And, looking ahead, it’s hard to see a path to fiscal discipline that doesn’t include sharp cuts to the defense budget, which constitutes over half of all discretionary federal spending.

Ryan is wrong – and misleading – when he argues that defense spending is shrinking. He says that defense as a percentage of GDP has declined from its “Cold War average of 7.5 percent to 4.6 percent today.” What he doesn’t say is that this share is up from the 1990s. Defense spending ranged between 3 percent and 3.4 percent of GDP from 1996 to 2001, according to budget data from the Office of Management and Budget. Likewise, while Ryan says that such spending as a percentage of all federal outlays is down from 25 percent three decades ago to 20 percent today, he doesn’t mention that defense spending constituted just 16 percent of federal outlays in 1999.

It made sense that the Pentagon’s budget rose following 9/11 as the U.S. became embroiled in two land wars, as well as a broader global fight against al Qaeda. But the United States is now out of Iraq and will soon be out of Afghanistan. Moreover, we have made big strides in dismantling al Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden and other top leaders.

Given these new realities, what is the right level of defense spending going forward? Is there really a case for spending a third more on defense in the next decade than we did in the 1990s, as the House Budget Committee proposes?

Ryan’s blueprint doesn’t really attempt to make that case. Rather, it speaks generally of the need for American leadership in a dangerous world and avoiding America’s “decline as a world power.”

Sorry, but that’s not a good enough argument for gutting domestic programs while spending $6.2 trillion on defense over the next 10 years – annual spending levels that would be higher, in real terms, than what the U.S. was spending during the Cold War, according to the Project on Defense Alternatives. While the world remains a dangerous place, the U.S. should logically be able to reduce defense spending as a decade of war comes to a close and the power of our terrorist foes wanes.

As for maintaining a position of leadership, the U.S. now accounts for 43 percent of all military spending in the world. We now spend six times more than China on defense, and 11 times more than Russia. Even with a smaller defense budget, the U.S. would still outspend all real and imagined foes by a wide margin.

What’s more, Ryan is wrong that defense spending should be dictated only by “strategic,” not “budgetary,” calculations. In truth, all spending choices are strategic. China and other emerging powers certainly believe that investing in education, infrastructure, and other domestic foundations of national wealth is “strategic” in a world as likely to be ruled by geoeconomic clout as by geopolitical muscle. The real risk of U.S. decline is that we remain trapped in a dated paradigm that fetishizes military power even as the sources of national strength change.

When the United States completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, or possibly earlier, our nation will again be officially at peace – and not a moment too soon given the strain on our troops and Treasury. The U.S. has major problems at home, large deficits among them, and it now makes sense to move to a true peacetime budget.

Getting military spending down to 3 percent of GDP, where it was in the late 1990s, before 9/11, is a reasonable goal – and this, as it happens, is what the Obama administration envisions in its fiscal plans. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney stands firmly with Republican hawks, and his defense plan calls for keeping military spending above 4 percent of GDP.

In truth, these are not huge differences between the president and his likely opponent. Still, there is a real debate emerging in Washington about how much is enough when it comes to national defense – a debate that is sure to grow louder as the election approaches.

PHOTO: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) shows a copy of the “FY2013 Budget – The Path to Prosperity” during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 20, 2012.  REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana

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