Tea Partiers say their movement is a response to the way government power, and government debt, grew under both Bush and Obama. But if they looked seriously at the reasons for that growth under Bush, they would see that much of what they’re upset about is the military and homeland security spending justified by his expansive “war on terror.” Anyone genuinely worried about debt can’t ignore the fact that defense constitutes a majority of federal discretionary spending. And anyone devoted to a strict interpretation of the Constitution can’t ignore the fact that America is still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Pakistan, Yemen and lots of other places, without formal congressional declarations of war, although that is what the Constitution requires.
The Republican foreign policy apparatus in Washington, which is in large measure funded by defense contractors, has declared preemptive war on the idea that military spending should be part of deficit-reduction discussion. But before going along, the Tea Partiers should think about how they’d like to be remembered by history. If they don’t extend their constitutional vision to foreign policy, they’ll be abandoning any serious chance of cutting the deficit and reducing the size of government. They’ll become indistinguishable from other conservative Republicans, just the latest in a long line on the right to put a globalist foreign policy over a minimalist state.
While I agree with a good bit of this, Beinart is wrong in some particulars. First, there were significant increases in domestic spending under Bush. Non-defense discretionary spending rose faster in his first term than under all eight years of Bill Clinton and Bush signed what was then the biggest new entitlement since the Great Society Moreover, the reason the increases in defense and homeland security added to the debt was because there were no offsetting cuts in domestic spending. The federal government instead borrowed money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Second, the defense of the country is a legitimate constitutional function of the federal government in a way that most of the domestic programs the Tea Party opposes are not. That doesn’t mean that everything in the Pentagon budget is legitimately national defense or that there aren’t serious fiscal implications to embracing a foreign policy dependent on preventive war. But because protecting the homeland is a constitutional necessity, such spending has to be evaluated on national security grounds as well as the overall price tag.
Finally, Beinart was one of the people who wanted simultaneous increases in defense and domestic spending at the time those decisions were made. For the author of this book to now argue that other people’s fiscal rectitude should be judged by their willingness to put the war on terror in scare quotes is a little hard to take.
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