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.

Not surprisingly, those traditional  pro-defense spending conservatives aren’t too happy with the deal. John Bolton, Max Boot, and Alana Goodman have both expressed concern about the cuts, but you can leave it to Bill Kristol to make the most hyperbolic as:

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.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, Military Affairs, National Security, Tea Party, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.


  1. Jay Tea says:

    Doug, I’m curious. The bill passed the House with Democrats split 95-95, and the Senate with the Democrats split 46-7. What does that say to you about the split in the Democrats?

    Just wondering if you ever turn your critical eye at divisions among the Democrats, or just the Republicans.


  2. Ron Beasley says:

    We don’t need to cut government spending we need to slash it. We need to realize we can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. The amount we spend on military spending compared to the rest of the world is simply obscene. The greatest threat of Islamic terrorism is to Europe, Russia and China yet the US is spending the most treasure and spilling the most blood.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Yeah, as I’ve said before we could cut defense spending in half and still not materially reduce our actual security.

    However, it would force us to make choices. How large a standing army do we really need? How many long range bombers? Fighter jets? Tanks?

    Reducing all of the branches proportionally doesn’t make any sense but any serious reduction in spending will reignite old interservice rivalries. I continue to think that we need to make dramatic reductions in military spending.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    @Jay Tea:

    A few weeks ago Richard Miniter had a good column in Forbes on the divisions among the Democrats. If you didn’t see it, you might want to check it out.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @Dave Schuler: A good start would be to eliminate the Air force. Transfer it’s responsibilities to the Army and Navy. Close most of our foreign bases and get out of the middle east. Defend out borders from our borders. The major terrorist theats we now face are homegrown jihadists and others.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    While I largely agree Doug, this jumped out at me:

    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.

    “Rumsfeld said, ‘There aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq.’ I said, ‘Well there are lots of good targets in lots of places but Iraq had nothing to with it.'”

    Keeping in mind this was from Richard Clarke and he may have had ulterior motives (i never quite trusted him, don’t know why), but also keeping in mind the events of ’02 and ’03, it seems perfectly clear that they had a hard on for Saddam long before Bush got elected. Bush had his foreign policy set long before 9/11… he just needed a reason to implement it and 9/11 gave it to him.

    Bush talked a good game, but he played by a different set of rules.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    God, I type slow. When I started Jays was the only post up. Anyway…

    @Dave Schuler:

    I continue to think that we need to make dramatic reductions in military spending.

    Dave, you bring up a line of thought: I continue to think that we need to rethink our entire Defense/National Security apparatus. If our greatest threat is domestic terrorism, what does a 500,000 man army do for us? A fleet of F-22s? 12 aircraft carrier task forces?

  8. An Interested Party says:

    A few weeks ago Richard Miniter had a good column in Forbes on the divisions among the Democrats.

    Miniter’s criticisms of how the Democratic Party is made up of interests that are opposed to each other can also apply to the Republican Party…and the hyperbole about the Democratic Party being doomed is a bit much…of course, one of the tells of where this piece is coming from is how he tries to link the Dems to the porn industry…please…

  9. mattb says:

    @Jay Tea:

    What does that say to you about the split in the Democrats? Just wondering if you ever turn your critical eye at divisions among the Democrats, or just the Republicans.

    The democrats have been seen as more of a coalition party for years (Will Rogers was joking about that in the 20’s and 30’s).

    Republicans, on the other hand have in recent years been seen as a far more united party. For example, on multiple occasions throughout the years I have heard Rush Limbaugh comment about how the Republicans/Conservatives have always been a United Party. So for the moment, those divisions remain “man bites dog.”

    Plus the military schism is particularly new for the party — especially given the number of freshmen representatives who are willing to be fiscally conservative when it comes to the military (see last years defeat of the jet engine appropriation as an early example of this).

  10. mattb says:

    On the subject of the defense/security spending cuts, I maintain that this will come to be seen as an important victory for the Dems. Not only does it help ensure that the Republicans have some flesh in the game in terms of negotiating compromise cuts, but it also has the potential to add a significant amount of pressure to these fault lines.

    What will be particularly interesting is to see how this plays out with Talk pundits — I have a hard time thinking of any Tea Party supporting talk radio host who isn’t also a hawk. Could make for some interesting conversations.

  11. ponce says:

    If our greatest threat is domestic terrorism, what does a 500,000 man army do for us?

    I’ve always thought of the U.S. military as a giant make work program first.

    Of course, when it costs the taxpayers $1,000,000 to deploy one solider overseas for a year, it is currently a rather inefficient one.

    Perhaps most of the cuts to Defense will just involve bringing most of our troops home.

  12. Scott F. says:

    @Jay Tea:
    I personally think the 95-95 split for the Democrats in the House was exactly what Nancy Pelosi wanted it to be. Rather than show division among the Democrats, it demonstrates that Pelosi has her caucus under control – in sharp contrast to how Boehner is getting lead around by his freshmen.

  13. Scott F. says:

    I think you have this right – the defense cuts are the silver lining in the debt ceiling deal.

    This appears a clear win for the Dems. If significant increases to revenue are part of the second round, it’s all well and good. Without them, Democrats can let the trigger mechanism fire and there will be cuts to defense and the Medicare cuts will be on the provider side, not the beneficiary side. Then they just wait for the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012 and they’ll get the revenue increases anyway.

  14. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Jay Tea: With the continuing notion that the more likely result of the next election is a GOP majority in both houses (I don’t think it will happen, but some out there seem to) splits among the Democrats are of diminished interest–their splits won’t matter as they only make the GOP stronger. GOP splits are what will end up shaping the face of future budget negotiations.

    Sometimes it simply isn’t about what you think is more “fair and balanced,” J.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    The person who wrote this is probably an Obama cheerleader…still, once you dive into the real details of the debt ceiling deal, it doesn’t look all that good for Republicans…