Debt Deal Reveals GOP Split On Defense Spending
The cuts to Pentagon spending in the new debt deal are further revealing a split in the GOP over foreign policy and military spending.
The ink is barely dry on President Obama’s signature on the Budget Control Act of 2011, and thoughts are already turning to the debate over budget cuts that will be coming in only five months. For Republicans, that means the possibility of a serious difference of opini0n between fiscal conservatives and the more traditional wing of the conservative movement which has traditionally been more protective of defense spending:
For decades, the central difference between conservatives and liberals when it comes to fiscal policy is that liberals want to reduce the deficit through tax hikes and cuts to defense spending while conservatives want to focus on entitlements and other non-defense spending without raising taxes. Given that any deal between the two parties would have to involve Republicans giving something up, there’s always been the potential for tension between these two strands of conservatism. That underlying tension is going to rise to the surface in the coming months.
The anti-tax crusaders, led by Grover Norquist (with assistance from elements of the tea parties) have already won the first stage of this battle. Norquist urged Republicans to hold the line on taxes, but he has also argued that the conservative movement should get behind cuts to the defense budget. And the current deal includes defense cuts, but not tax increases. What’s more, it creates a joint Congressional committee to find additional savings, and if the committee cannot find enough, it triggers further defense cuts – but not any tax increases.
It’s worth noting that, for purposes of the debt deal, spending on the military is combined with security spending on areas such as the Department of Homeland Security, so not all the cuts that are scheduled in the first round (or the cuts that might occur if the Congressional Select Committee is unable to come up with an acceptable package of cuts) will be borne by the military, nonetheless the cuts themselves are not insubstantial:
In particular, the first round of cuts will include $350 billion in defense savings, while the second round would include between $500 and $600 billion in defense cuts if no bipartisan agreement is reached.
There are some semantic distinctions to heed here — for instance, between defense cuts and “security” cuts. But the bottom line is that the deal will take a big bite out of the Pentagon’s budget. Close to half of the overall cuts, not counting interest savings, will come from defense and related areas.
Three stark conclusions:
1. If this deal governs policy for the next decade, it will be hard for the U.S. to remain the sole superpower.
2. This is the best day the Chinese have ever had.
3. This deal embodies a vision of America in decline.
This is, of course, fundamentally absurd. First of all, when you look at what the United States spends on Defense compared to the rest of the world, the idea that the the relatively modest cuts in defense spending contemplated by this deal (which, of course, aren’t cuts at all but decreases in the rate of growth of spending) would endanger the nation is simply absurd. Just take a look at this chart of defense spending by nation through 2010:
Even taking into account the reductions in increases in defense spending that might occur of the trigger cuts in the budget deal are implemented in December, U.S. military spending will continue to far outpace that of either Russia or China, and unless one of them engages in a Cold War style defense buildup (which we’d notice) they’re unlikely to catch up to use anytime soon.
Pundits like Kristol and Bolton, who seemingly have never met a military spending item (or war) they didn’t absolutely love, seem to be stuck in the mind-set of the Cold War, despite the fact that the real concerns we have in the world have little in common with the type of threat that we faced when we were facing down the USSR across the Arctic Ocean. As Daniel Drezner noted nearly a year ago, the threats the United States today are nothing compared to those that we were dealing with 30, 40, or 50 years ago:
I’m about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don’t equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And until I see another hostile country in the world that poses a military threat in Europe, the Middle East and Asia at the same time, I’m thinking that current defense spending should be lower than Cold War levels by a fair amount.
I think Drezner is correct here for the most part. The clear and present threats we face today come from terrorists and pirates rather than Great Power rivals. In fact while China is clearly hoping to became a more influential nation in the world, there’s little evidence that they are engaging in a massive military buildup to bring that about. In fact, while China is obviously engaging in a project to modernize its military it’s equally clear that that project is going to take some time and that its success is by no means guaranteed. Last year, for example, the Chinese Navy found it difficult to keep an anti-piracy flotilla sent to the Red Sea to protect Chinese shipping interests properly supplied. The idea that they’ll be able to engage in large-scale force projection the way the U.S. Navy does anytime soon seems to be the kind of fanciful stuff you’d find in a badly written military thriller.
What the actually worries analysts like Kristol, Boot, Goodman, and Bolton, I think, isn’t just the relatively modest defense cuts themselves, but the fact that they are further evidence that the foreign policy consensus inside the GOP is shifting. It’s a shift that actually started when the Cold War ended, and evidenced itself several times during the Clinton Administration when some Republicans objected to engagements in nations like Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans. During the 2000 Presidential Election, George W. Bush contrasted himself from Al Gore in part by criticizing the Clinton Administration’s “nation building” in those nations. Had the September 11th attacks not occurred, it’s likely that we would have seen a very different foreign policy from the Bush Administration than the one that materialized. Now, with Osama bin Laden dead, the U.S. deployment in Iraq winding down, and Afghanistan looking more and more each day like a frustrating quagmire, the 90s-era debates over foreign policy are resurfacing.
Eli Lake explores the evolving debate inside the GOP over foreign policy in a piece that appeared last week at The New Republic:
The lines in this debate were clearly drawn last year, when American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, Heritage Foundation President Ed Fuelner, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled, “PEACE DOESN’T KEEP ITSELF.” The point was simple: Defense spending should not be on the chopping block. In response, 27 leading conservative activists—including Al Regnery, the conservative book publisher; Brent Bozell, the head of the Media Research Center; David Keene, the former head of the American Conservative Union; and Norquist—sent a letter to the House leadership calling for cuts in military spending. “Department of Defense spending, in particular, has been provided protected status that has isolated it from serious scrutiny and allowed the Pentagon to waste billions in taxpayer money,” the letter said.
Except for Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, and Gary Johnson (an ardent libertarian, including on social issues), no candidate has called for cuts in defense spending. Even Bachmann, the candidate most closely aligned with the Tea Party, has warned against cutting the defense budget. But, while there is no mainstream candidate who is calling for austerity on defense, it would be impossible to argue that the penny-pinching mood among Republicans hasn’t influenced the general tenor of GOP foreign policy discussions—and made the candidates less inclined to sound the kinds of grandiose and expensive notes about foreign policy that were considered par for the course in 2008.
This lack of a real consensus on defense spending is also present in the Tea Party movement. For the most part, there isn’t a single “Tea Party” position on foreign policy and you’re just as likely to meet a Ron Paul-like non-interventionist at a rally as you are a John Bolton-like neoconservative. Moreover, their chief concern is spending, not international conflict, which is why you have more traditional conservatives like Sarah Palin and John McCain arguing that defense spending should not be subjected to the same scrutiny as other parts of the Federal Budget. As the budget deal notes most starkly, though, there is a battle going on inside the GOP between those who want to bring spending under control and those whose primary devotion seems to be the military. It’s a louder debate than it was before, and the fiscal conservatives have a stronger voice than they used to, and that’s why the neocon’s are screaming about gutting the military. Don’t believe them.