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More Guns, Less Butter

North Korea's latest act of war underscores why we mustn't cut defense.

By 11.24.10

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North Korea's latest act of war underscores the need for a much bigger and modernized U.S. Army and Marine Corps. This to occupy and rebuild North Korea when it implodes, as inevitably it will.

This is not some farfetched notion. North Korea is an economic basket case armed with nuclear weapons. And its unprovoked attack yesterday on a South Korea island underscores just how dangerous and unpredictable the North Korean regime is.

And so, sooner or later, the U.S. military is going to have to deal with North Korea. And, when we do, we likely will have to occupy and rebuild the country just as we have done in Iraq and are now doing in Afghanistan. And that will require a lot of boots on the ground.

Problem is our ground forces are overextended already, with Soldiers and Marines doing multiple deployments with too little rest and too little time to decompress from battle.

Yet the emerging consensus in Washington is that, far from modernizing and expanding the U.S. military, we must instead cut the defense budget!

And even those who want to rebuild America's defenses typically give short shrift to our ground forces. These defense hawks are stuck in a Cold War mindset. To them, aircraft, ships and missiles, not Soldiers and Marines, are the key weapons of choice in the 21st century.

Of course, cutting the defense budget makes absolutely no strategic or economic sense. After all, as Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan (of the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, respectively) observe in the Washington Post.

There is no basis either in the present global security situation or in trends looking forward to suggest that the requirements for the U.S. military will diminish significantly.

Cutting defense, therefore, can be justified only on the grounds that there are greater priorities than safeguarding the nation from visible threats. [But] protecting the American people from external attack is one of the few indisputable core functions of the federal government.

That's exactly right. As the Heritage Foundation's Mackenzie Eaglen explains:

Most advocating reductions in defense spending typically seek either to:

• pull back on what America does with its defense ('stop being a global policeman,' 'bring the troops home'); or

• balance the federal checkbook using the haircut method (cut a little from everywhere to spread the pain).

Both positions have serious flaws.

I'll say! American withdrawal from the world would be a grave and serious mistake. The U.S. military is a force for good internationally. It helps to deter and defeat our enemies, reassure and embolden our friends and maintain relative peace and stability in a dangerous world.

Why, in the name of fiscal discipline, would we forfeit this crucial geostrategic advantage -- an advantage that redounds to our commercial and economic benefit?

Economic Illogic. The economics of cutting the defense budget are also nonsensical. "Defense spending now accounts for around 19% of the federal budget and more than half of all U.S. discretionary spending," laments the left-wing Center for American Progress.

True, but that doesn't tell us much. In fact, defense spending accounts for not even five percent of the Gross Domestic Product (!) versus nine or ten percent of the GDP under President Kennedy.

Moreover, as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) point out:

The idea that defense cuts will restore fiscal health simply does not add up: suppose Pentagon spending for 2011 -- $720 billion -- were eliminated entirely. This would only halve this year's federal deficit of $1.5 trillion.

And defense spending is a drop in the ocean of today's $13.3 trillion of government debt. From the Korean War to the collapse of the Soviet Union, total U.S. defense spending was about $4.7 trillion. So had there been no military spending at all during the Cold War, the savings would not equal even half our current national debt.

Actually, less than 20% of all new spending from 2001 to 2009 went to defense -- and this figure doesn't even include the mammoth $787-billion "stimulus," which essentially bypassed the defense budget.

The bottom line: the core defense budget -- that is, the defense budget not allocated to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- accounts for less than 3.5% of the GDP, says AEI military analyst Tom Donnelly.

"Defense spending constitutes a fifth of federal spending; projected deficits over the next decade are similar" explains Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson. "We won't shut the Pentagon."

Thus, to reduce the crushing burden of debt, policymakers must look elsewhere. Cutting the defense budget won't do the trick, Samuelson says.

What, then, must be cut, or at least reformed along market-oriented lines? Simple: entitlements: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and now "Comprehensive National Health Insurance" aka Obamacare. Unlike defense, after all, none of these entitlement programs are constitutionally prescribed or required. And yet they are fast consuming the federal budget.

"Entitlements now account for around 65 percent of all federal spending and a record 18 percent of GDP," notes Eaglen.

The three largest entitlements -- Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- eclipsed defense spending in 1976 and have been growing ever since.

If future taxes are held at the historical average, these three entitlements will consume all tax revenues by 2052, leaving no money for the government's primary constitutional obligation: providing for the common defense.

In a world filled with rogue states and terrorist networks intent on our destruction, that simply won't do. North Korea's latest act of war should be a wakeup call for policymakers and the American people: Don't cut and gut defense.

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About the Author
  John R. Guardiano blogs at www.ResCon1.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @ResCon1.