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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Defense spending in an age of austerity

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey last Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been raising eyebrows with his aggressive public defense of the Pentagon’s budget. Last week, he told a group of National Guard officials that, should Congress slash his Department’s budget, it would “invite aggression.”

While some have rejected Secretary Panetta’s stark language, he isn’t necessarily wrong. The U.S. military is tasked with an extraordinary range of missions, and asking it to do so much with fewer resources would be a mistake. At the same time, should the supercommittee enact the full slate of proposed cuts of $1 trillion over the next decade, the Pentagon’s budget would in effect be capped at 2007 levels — and no one in 2007 thought the budget was so low as to “invite aggression.”

The debate over the size of the Pentagon’s budget largely misses the point. Discussing arbitrary budget numbers, or even specific programs to expand, keep, or cut is approaching the problem of defense spending backward. The real debate in Congress and in the public should be about America’s role in the world – from that debate we can structure an appropriate national security budget to satisfy it.

In the last 20 years, American foreign policy has rarely faced serious limits. A succession of presidents has firmly rejected any nation-building exercises, only to undertake them as considered policies. Despite the defense reductions of the 1990s, the U.S. military spent almost the entire decade engaged in small little wars in Europe, East Africa and the Caribbean. In the 2000s, the U.S. initiated two big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and remained peripherally involved in a series of smaller ones in the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

Indeed, Secretary Panetta is right that the U.S. will have a hard time fulfilling all the many commitments it has with a much smaller budget. But should the U.S. military be tasked with all these commitments? No one denies regional stability in, for example, the Arabian Peninsula is a good thing. But is the United States military the best way to provide that? It’s unclear that the U.S. has played a constructive role in reducing militancy in a place like Yemen – especially if you consider the strong correlation between increased U.S. counterterrorism operations and the growing Al Qaeda presence there. The same question can be asked of U.S. involvement in the recent interventions in Somalia and Libya.

The problem is whether you measure the national security budget by inputs or outputs. Looking at inputs – the overall budget, the expenditure of a specific program like the F-22, or the development of a counterterrorism training program in an unstable country – can lend the impression that Pentagon spending achieves amazing things. But looking at outputs – a smaller budget, the reduction of the U.S. fighter fleet from thousands of planes to hundreds, driving corruption and entrenching a hated tyrant – can lend an entirely different impression of that same spending.

By starting with the effects we want our foreign policy to accomplish, and from that working backward to see what programs and budgets are needed to accomplish it, we can develop a much sounder (and much smaller) Pentagon budget. There is no reason to assume the military is necessary for, say, economic development – there are other, far cheaper U.S. agencies that do that as well. Foreign aid represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget, but it has the potential to be as instrumental to America’s foreign policy as the Pentagon, which has 20 times the budget. Effectiveness is not measured by budget, but by outcome.

The desire to be all things to all people – policeman, enforcer and peacemaker – is powerful, especially when resources seem to be unlimited. But resources are not, and neither is the Pentagon’s budget.

On the other hand, the expansive presence of the U.S. military would be okay if there was a collective recognition of what that represents: a global, quasi-imperial peacemaking organization. That is a prospect that seems to discomfort many Americans, and so we should structure the public conversation first on what we want our country to be, and how we want to be positioned in the world, and only then to worry about what kind of money we need to spend to get there. The answer is almost certainly less than what we are today, and it will therefore by design cost less.

The cliché that cutting the budget requires hard choices is true. But the choices we need to make go deeper than any arbitrary budget cap or program budget. We need to decide what kind of country we are: one that is closely involved in the affairs of other countries, or one that is not (or somewhere in between, and if so under what circumstances). Without that debate, all the arguments and posturing over budgets won’t mean much to the future of national security.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist at