Zakaria argues that the U.S. military should not be exempt from budget scrutiny and, in that sense, his argument is unobjectionable. But he ignores the fact that, since Obama became president, the U.S. military has suffered some $439 billion in cuts, including $78 billion in “efficiency measures” designed to root out administrative waste.
Moreover, as I reported here at FrumForum on Monday, the budget deal seems to exempt from scrutiny those parts of the Pentagon budget that are the most statist, the most costly, and the most in need of reform.
Retiree pay and benefits, for instance, are reportedly off limits. Yet retiree pay and benefits are extraordinarily generous and poorly designed. Where else in America, after all, can someone retire at age 37 and receive, for the rest of his life, free medical care and a pension worth half his working income?
To be clear, I am not recommending that we cut military pay and veterans’ benefits. But just as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need to be redesigned along market-oriented lines; so, too, does the military pay and benefits system need to be modernized and restructured.
Yet such reforms aren’t even on the table. Which means that what will get cut are core defense capabilities — i.e., force structure and personnel.
It is important to understand why defense spending grew so much in the past decade: not only because of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to begin to make up for past failures to invest in defense.
The Army, for instance, hadn’t deployed a new-design combat vehicle since the 1980s — and it still hasn’t. And standard-issue Army and Marine Corps Humvees were completely inadequate for the threat that our troopers faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence the need for new “uparmored Humvees.”
“The military is undeniably in a modernization crisis,” writes former Missouri Senator Jim Talent. “The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since 1916; the Air Force hasn’t been this small since Pearl Harbor; and the average age of the Air Force inventory is 25 years old.
“The Army,” Talent adds, “needs to recapitalize equipment lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will need to replace most of its tracked vehicles over the next decade.”
Zakaria laments that
over the past decade, when we had no serious national adversaries, U.S. defense spending has gone from about a third of total worldwide defense spending to 50 percent. In other words, we spend more on defense than the planet’s remaining countries put together.
Of course, as the world’s only real superpower, with an economy second to none, and a geographical expanse that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, the United States spends more on just about everything, including defense.
This isn’t something to lament necessarily; in fact, it can be (and often is) something to celebrate. We can spend a lot on defense, after all, because we are a free and rich country, and the alternative would be much worse.
In any case, the United States spends more on defense for three very legitimate reasons:
- We require a military that is second to none — a military that cannot only defeat potential adversaries, but a military that also can deter potential aggressors who would do us, our people and our interests harm.
- We require a technologically advanced military that cannot only win wars and deter adversaries, but which can do so with a minimal loss of human life. Consequently, we spend money to save lives — and we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, want it any other way.
- We require that our military do much more than simply win wars. We require that our military maintain an active forward presence aboard precisely to prevent a war from occurring in the first place. This is costly but necessary. Again, we spend money to save lives.
The truth is that America can afford to pay for its defense and must do so. What we cannot afford is to be shortsighted and to pretend that American military withdrawal from the world will somehow make us safer. It won’t.