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Romney and the Military

Over the weekend, Mitt Romney said the following in a speech in San Diego (via the BoGlo):

”We have two courses we can follow: One is to follow in the pathway of Europe, to shrink our military smaller and smaller to pay for our social needs. The other is to commit to preserve America as the strongest military in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world.”

(This was passage that led Erik Kain to refer to “Europe” as a “sneer word” as I noted here).

Now, setting aside the false choice inherent in Romney’s statement, let’s considered its philosophical significance.

Several thoughts occur:

1.  Romney here appears to be saying that if he has to choose, he chooses military power over taking care of the social needs of the citizenry.  Even recognizing that military power is important, this is a telling statement.  It is odd, or so it seems to me, to so easily dismiss the importance of social needs and to, to use Erik’s word, sneer at the Europeans for diverting more resources to that than to military power.

2. Of course, an underlying question:  how big is big enough?  As Doug Mataconis noted recently, he US already spends the most in raw terms than any other country in the world.  Indeed, the US spends six times was the second place country (China) spends and over 11 times what the number three county (Russia) spends.  In terms of the Europe quip and Romney, it is worth noting that four of the top ten in raw spending are European countries (France, the UK, Germany, and Italy).  Further, along those same lines, Doug notes:

If you add in the military budgets of the NATO and non-NATO allies in the Top 20, it amounts to more than 70% of the worldwide military spending, dwarfing the spending of nations like China, Russia, and Iran to a considerable degree. Based on sheer numbers alone, the idea that the United States isn’t spending enough on defense, a refrain one hears frequently from the hawkish wing of the GOP, is quite simply absurd.

If we go beyond raw numbers and look at spending as a percentage of GDP, we see that the US is only bested by Israel, a state that has pretty immediate reasons to spend a lot on security:

image

So, the question is:  would it really damage US national security to come a little closer to the norm for other liberal democracies?  It would be possible, in fact, to cut back on defense spending (both to aid deficits and also to think a bit about those pesky “social needs”) and still have the largest military in the world by several orders of magnitude.

3.  Who are we protecting ourselves from?  Recognizing that one of the foundational tasks of government is to protect the governed, there is no doubt that a military is necessary.  But who, exactly, is it that we are arming ourselves to defend against?  We are geographically isolated from any state that could possibly harbor serious ill will to the US.  Further, threats to the United States proper aren’t going to be stopped by conventional military forces.

Yes, there are reason to want to be able to project power and protect interests.  A simple example that even persons prone to more pacifistic sentiments would agree is a navy that can keep the seas open for trade (which is one of the reasons it is given special mention in the US Constitution).  However, we are not fighting a world war.  There is no Soviet Union to prepare to repel from western Europe.  Iran, even if they acquire a nuclear weapon, is not going to conquer the world.  China, billion people or no, is not going to invade the US and, really, it is against their national interest to engage in the US in a military confrontation (even in the guise of New Cold War).  So, who is the menace?  Global jihadists?  Do we have to spend 4% or more of our national wealth to fight them?

Apart from pure national greatness jingoism of the crudest form, what ideas undergird this call (and it is not just Romney’s) for more military spending when we already spend an enormous amount?  I would consider this nothing but pandering to a crowd of veterans in a military town during Memorial Day weekend, but this is not a new position for Romney nor for the GOP in general.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. I’m already hearing some Republicans refer to defense spending as necessary to stimulate the economy.

    The contradictions don’t seem to occur to them

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  2. Rob in CT says:

    Likewise, Doug, when GOP politicians talk about how you can’t raise taxes when the economy is weak.

    That, too, is a Keynesian position. Bascially, the truth is that the GOP is Keynesian, but only when in power. When out of power, it is politically convenient for them to pretend otherwise.

    When in power, their priorities are more guns, less butter, and low taxes particularly on the wealthy (which, in turn, means more debt, which the GOP apparently thinks the poor should pay, the dirty moochers).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  3. mattb says:

    @Steven: we see that the US is only bested by Israel, a state that has pretty immediate reasons to spend a lot on security.

    And ironically, one can argue we are essentially funding part of Israel’s defense budget, considering that — in addition to supporting Isreali defense projects — our $3.075 billion contribution to them in Foreign Aid allows domestic funds to be reallocated to defense spending.

    We’re #1 and #2! Woo hoo…

    Beyond all of this, Romney’s position statement already acknowledges that “America as the strongest military in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world.” — wouldn’t this suggest that, at least for a while, holding defense spending flat is all that is needed to continue this status?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. @mattb:

    wouldn’t this suggest that, at least for a while, holding defense spending flat is all that is needed to continue this status?

    Indeed, and further: the numbers clearly show that we could cut military spending and still maintain “the strongest military in the world, second to none.” Empirically this is unquestionably the case, and yet he thinks we need to spend more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  5. rudderpedals says:

    Great article. Yes of course it’s pandering. Why we’re all not pointing fingers and laughing at the guy is troubling.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  6. LaMont says:

    Romney, as well as many republicans and democrats alike, are only interested in saying what sounds good. Never mind the fact that one of their ideologies always seems to contradict another one of their ideologies. One minute – the deficit is the NUMBER ONE problem set to doom this country. the next minute, we need to secure America’s long standing military might by doubling the fleet of distroyer ships!!! This kind of cross-talk occurred at a sickening rate during the GOP debates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  7. It’s also interesting to notice that Greece is so high on the list. I imagine they could reduce their budget deficit a lot more by cutting their defense budget 33% to the NATO mandated 2.0% of GDP

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Good blog post.

    That said:

    The “false choice” reference itself is false. Economics is the allocation of scarce resources, not infinite ones. Public money doesn’t grow on trees. Ask the Greeks. Ask the Weimar Republic.

    Regarding main graf No. 1, Romney is not saying that “if he has to choose, he chooses military power over taking care of the social needs of the citizenry.” He’s saying that he doesn’t want to gut the military to in turn support social welfare spending. Those two ideas are not coterminous.

    2. These really are good points and it’s on this topic the GOP jumps the shark tank. DOD needs to be cut down to its proper size, like every other federal department and agency. There are a lot of unnecessary weapons programs. There’s a lot of fat. Despite BRAC there still are bases that need to be shut down.

    3. These are excellent points. We’re not going to be invaded. There is no Soviet Union. We’re not going to be fighting for the Fulda Gap. We’re not going to be fighting a land war in China.

    We need to be able if necessary to defend Taiwan. We need to keep incinerating al Qaeda wherever we can spot them. We need to be able if necessary to prevent Iran from getting in touch with its inner holocaust envy. Ergo we need drones, subs, bunker busters, guided missile cruisers, and air superiority fighters both for our naval and our air forces. We don’t need M1A1 tanks on steroids.

    We should cut DOD spending by around 20% and then provide loan guarantees to friendly nations in hot spots, e.g., Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, India, to pick up the slack and thus to offset most or at least some of the negative effects on domestic employment.

    That said, however, cutting DOD politically is a non-starter. Too many politicians, Democrat and Republican, have constituents whose paychecks and 401(k) plans are tied to it. Ergo it won’t happen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  9. Andy says:

    Defense spending doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s completely backwards to arbitrarily say that some specific level of spending is enough or not enough. Defense is closely tied to our foreign policy – if we alter defense spending significantly then we’ll have to reexamine our foreign commitments. The fact is that the US has agreements with dozens of nations to aid them militarily should they be attacked. How much spending on what capabilities are needed to meet those obligations? This is a topic that, sadly, hasn’t been studied much. Providing a credible military defense to allies on a global basis requires significant, full-time expeditionary capable forces. It requires a powerful Navy to ensure access to our allies and a powerful Air Force to strike enemies and support the ground forces globally. None of that comes cheap.

    Europe does spend a lot of money but the reality is that they can’t conduct military operations in their own backyards without a huge amount of US assistance (see the Balkans and Libya). If we match European levels of defense spending we can expect European levels of capability. Totally doable, but it requires adjusting our defense relationships.

    Romney’s goal is also too vague. Most powerful as compared to what? Most powerful for what purpose? Military power is dependent on context and must be part of a greater strategic vision. Romney, and most of the Washington establishment, doesn’t have any such vision beyond maintaining or increasing the status quo. A military force must be at least somewhat task-oriented and focused on reasonable specific scenarios or potential threats.

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  10. @Andy:

    Defense is closely tied to our foreign policy – if we alter defense spending significantly then we’ll have to reexamine our foreign commitments.

    This is correct, of course.

    Two thoughts:

    1. We need to rethink some of these commitments.
    2. We were able to maintain a lot of said commitments prior to the War on Terror military build up.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    So, the question is: would it really damage US national security to come a little closer to the norm for other liberal democracies? It would be possible, in fact, to cut back on defense spending (both to aid deficits and also to think a bit about those pesky “social needs”) and still have the largest military in the world by several orders of magnitude.

    Pretty much the way that I see it.

    I also think there are some interesting foreign policy questions worth debating. In your chart above I see a number of NATO members that aren’t spending as much as they have putatively committed to spend relative to GDP (2% is what is suggested). Indeed, most of the members of NATO don’t spend enough. Are we spending more so that they can spend less? Is that still an acceptable foreign policy goal? If there is no longer an enemy worth all but five (U. S., Greece, France, UK, Portugal) NATO members meeting their responsibilities to the alliance over, is the alliance still worth preserving? How is the value of that alliance measured?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Rob in CT says:

    As the Tsar notes, “defense” spending has been doled out district by district such that cutting it is a nightmare. The MIC has executed that brilliantly. I am represented by a liberal democrat (at least in theory he’s liberal), but we have the Groton sub base in our district, so he’s all for more subs. Jobs for our district, yay! And so it goes…

    We need to bend the cost curve downward, much like we need to with healthcare. The alternative is either significantly higher taxation or a slash & burn approach to social security, medicare, medicaid, and other such programs.

    Now, in my perfect world the DOD would have to get by on about half of what we spend now. Maybe 2/3. But doing that quickly would be massively disruptive so I’d look to phase it in over say 10 years. I also know that even over 10+ years, cutting the DoD budget in half is a pipe dream. I’d be *thrilled* with the Tsar’s suggested 20%.

    Unlike the Tsar, I *do* want to cut the military to help pay for programs that directly benefit Americans here at home. Healthcare, education, infrastructure investment, scientific research, etc. If taxes weren’t already low, I’d throw tax cuts in there too. We need to maintain a prosperous, healthy nation or there will be no magnificent powerful military. Our military expenditure needs to match up with the threats we face.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. mattb says:

    One serious question I have on Defense Spending is how long term health care and benefits are factored into it. If I’ve done the math right, by 2016 some 17% of military spending will be allocated to veteran benefits and long term health care (and that’s assuming that they have correctly calculated the ongoing cost of caring for the walking wounded from the current wars).

    One has to wonder how that’s going to shift over time and if there might be more efficient ways of dealing with it.

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  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Since money is fungible, we are subsidizing the social structures in Western Europe that many Republicans like to sneer at. Most of the Eurozone doesn’t have to defend itself because we do it for them, which frees up portions of GDP to pay for Euro education, healthcare, and pension benefits.

    Who’s the sucker in this equation?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  15. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    2. We were able to maintain a lot of said commitments prior to the War on Terror military build up.

    That’s not quite right though. Total end-strength has increased by less than 80,000 in the last decade and those numbers are expected to be reduced in the next five years. Most of the additional money spent on defense over the last decade went to operations and maintenance – it didn’t increase our capabilities, rather it used them up conducting two land wars in Asia. Our equipment has, as a consequence, worn out a lot faster necessitating replacement sooner than would otherwise be the case. We have developed some new capabilities (ie. UAV’s) but those weren’t additions – we gave up several fighter wings to get those UAV’s. The Army has been doing COIN for so long it’s lost most of it’s ability to wage a conventional, high-intensity combined-arms operation. They simply don’t train for that anymore. So overall, the extra defense spending resulted a net loss in military capability. Long ground wars tend to do that. Simply to maintain the status quo would require more procurement dollars to replace lost and worn-out equipment and more training dollars for the force to relearn forgotten skills when compared to 2000. Considering how incompetent the defense procurement system is, that’s not a happy thought.

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  16. Ron Beasley says:
  17. Andy says:

    @mattb:

    Just to give you a taste, health care for the active duty force, their families and military retirees costs over 50 billion this year. It’s expected to be 10% of the entire defense budget in a few years. Keep in mind that this doesn’t include spending on veterans through the VA. That’s more money than Germany spends on its entire military with several billion to spare. We spend more on military health care than any country spends on it’s entire military except for China, the UK, France, Japan and Russia. The VA budget is another $125 billion. Add that to the military health care number and that’s more money than any other country spends on its entire military, including China.

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  18. mattb says:

    @Andy:

    The Army has been doing COIN for so long it’s lost most of it’s ability to wage a conventional, high-intensity combined-arms operation. They simply don’t train for that anymore. So overall, the extra defense spending resulted a net loss in military capability.

    But doesn’t this go to Steven’s question — given our current foreign policy commitments, and the current global geopolitical situation (at least since the end of the Cold War), what is the realistic need to wage “a conventional, high-intensity combined-arms operation.”

    Unless I’m missing something, it seems to me that the two post 9/11 campaigns are somewhat of an anomaly when one looks at history post WWII.

    At this point, in the foreseeable/near future there any other nation that has the resources, the opportunity, and the inclination to engage us in “a conventional, high-intensity combined-arms operation?”

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  19. Andy says:

    @mattb: You always need that capability, or at least the ability to generate that capability quickly. Those capabilities are necessary for existential wars and, as mentioned, to provide a credible defense for our allies. What could be done, and what I’ve long advocated for, is to change the bulk of the Army and Air Force into reserve units. They would be a strategic reserve, tasked to train and prepare for a big war. The Navy and Marines would be the expeditionary forces used for any “brushfire” conflicts that pop up.

    At this point, in the foreseeable/near future there any other nation that has the resources, the opportunity, and the inclination to engage us in “a conventional, high-intensity combined-arms operation?

    The list isn’t long and the scenarios appear unlikely, but again, the biggest driver is our defensive alliances. Our allies expect us to be capable of doing another Desert Shield/Desert Storm type of operation should they be threatened. We can choose not to maintain that capability – in that case, our alliance will need to substantially change.

    Also, it’s not possible to predict when you’ll need that kind of force and it’s very difficult and time-consuming to build from scratch. On the other hand, it’s very expensive to keep a large active-duty force on hand for such rare contingencies. The compromise, it seems to me, is a reserve force which is less expensive, but able to mobilize quickly if need be.

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  20. anjin-san says:

    He’s saying that he doesn’t want to gut the military

    And what you seem to be saying is you don’t wish to be taken seriously on this topic. “Gut the military” is the lamest of right wing boilerplate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  21. mattb says:

    @Andy: Two related questions re: policy –

    First, I had been told that post WWII, the prevailing wisdom was that the US had to maintain enough forces to fight a conventional war on at least two fronts (or two conventional wars at the same time) And truth to that? Given the current geo-political situation, this seems like a strategy that’s a relic of the cold war.

    Second, ironically or perhaps not, doesn’t the compromise:

    [A] reserve force which is less expensive, but able to mobilize quickly if need be [...]

    … match the early Rumsfeld/Cheney plan to modernize the army. It’s my understanding that planning collapsed during the two wars and the pressures/realities of shifting the focus towards occupational/nation building?

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  22. Andy says:

    @mattb:

    I don’t remember the exact history, but the “fight two wars” strategic requirement is relatively recent and was the post cold-war doctrine.

    As for Rumsfeld, his vision was to, essentially, replace manpower with technology. So he wanted to transform the military into a small, very high tech, nimble force that would have less “overhead,” require less supply in the field, and be able to win wars quickly with lots of precision firepower and networked intelligence systems.

    Now, there are definite advantages to precision firepower, good battlefield intelligence systems and high technology. But I think the history shows that’s not any cheaper and that strategy only works well with certain kinds of wars.

    Moving a large portion of our active force to the reserve is something different from what Rumsfeld imagined. It would mean that any major land war would require a mobilization.

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  23. Hey Norm says:

    Romney’s position is terrific. There is a Sub Base just down the road in Groton, CT. I would like it to stay open. It’s good for the local economy.
    But someone in the stenographer pool we call journalists needs to ask him specifically how he plans to A). do that and B). cut taxes for the wealthy and C). drastically reduce the deficit.
    He needs to be asked this because…like Ryan…Romney currently offers no specifics. His previous statements on deficit reduction would require a cut of 20% to domestic spending. But that’s not the tune he was playing for Stenographer-in-Chief Mark Halperin:

    Halperin: You have a plan, as you said, over a number of years, to reduce spending dramatically. Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office? Why not do it more quickly?
    Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I’m not going to do that, of course.

    Of course not.
    So we are going to expand the military, cut the top tax rate from 35% to 28%, and not cut spending drastically.
    Wait…isn’t this the guy that understands how the economy works? WTF??? Obviously Romney plans to run the economy just like Bush43 did. Into the ground.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. Andy says:

    Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%. That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression. So I’m not going to do that, of course.

    The frustrating thing is that he’s talking as if he’s the master and commander of the budget. No, Mr. Romney, you’re not going to do that because Congress would never send you that kind of budget for you to sign in the first place.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. @Tsar Nicholas:

    The “false choice” reference itself is false. Economics is the allocation of scarce resources, not infinite ones. Public money doesn’t grow on trees. Ask the Greeks. Ask the Weimar Republic.

    As I understand it, public money is mostly cotton … or bits … or something.

    Or alternately public money is an idea with a support network.

    Related:

    Explaining the Rise of Unemployment, by Laurent Belsie, NBER Digest: Unemployment rose dramatically during the Great Recession because highly indebted consumers slashed their spending, according to Atif Mian and Amir Sufi writing in What Explains High Unemployment? The Aggregate Demand Channel (NBER Working Paper No. 17830). They find that shocks to household balance sheets account for 4 million of the 6.2 million jobs lost in the United States between March 2007 and March 2009.

    … and so while economics may strive to say intelligent things about scarce resources, they are not always the limiting factor.

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  26. Davebo says:

    @Andy:

    We have developed some new capabilities (ie. UAV’s) but those weren’t additions – we gave up several fighter wings to get those UAV’s.

    I’d argue with that a bit, but what fighter wings exactly? We certainly aren’t talking about Carrier Air Wings and a couple of Air Force fighter wings have been shut down simply because so many of their squadrons were decommissioned due either to age or other issues. One fact is indisputable, the Air Force has done a horrific job of allocating available resources over the past 20 years. Aircraft procurement has been a sad joke both for the Air Force and the Navy over the past decade.

    And the reason for this in my opinion is that those who build the fighters, bombers, aerial refueling aircraft, etc have had firm control over those who approve such acquisitions.

    (Not to diss the Air Force here, but honestly they do really suck at procurement and the Air Force is much more operationally constrained than the Navy these days. If you have to invade and occupy a country to make the Air Force an asset in the region that tends to get expensive over time.)

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  27. I’ll note, though I’m sure you can all guess, that I think defense spending is plenty high. The Tsar’s 20% cut would be fine with me. That said, I’d like to see a little more top-level design for spending, as opposed to pointless, nay counterproductive, scrimmages.

    Also related:

    High-frequency data on consumer confidence from the research company Gallup … provide a good picture of the debt-ceiling debate’s impact (see chart). Confidence began falling right around May 11, when Boehner first announced he would not support increasing the debt limit. It went into freefall as the political stalemate worsened through July. … Businesses were also hurt by uncertainty… This proved far more damaging than the regulatory uncertainty on which Republican criticisms of Barack Obama’s administration have focused…

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  28. al-Ameda says:

    Romney: “Ich bin ein Keynesian>”

    Mitt Romney is not serious about deficit-reduction, he is only serious about saying whatever it takes to get elected.” He is the most transparently phony candidate for president in the post World War II era. No one else is even close.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Andy says:

    @Davebo: Much of the Air Force UAV mission has been passed to the Air National Guard. Fighter wings in Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, and Arkansas were all converted to UAV’s IIRC. Also a bomber unit in Kansas and portions of other wings (mainly airlift) were converted. There are probably others.

    No doubt the air force has done a piss poor job at procurement. But then again, the other services aren’t much better. The whole enterprise needs serious reform.

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  30. CB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    but dont you DARE call them war-profiteers

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