Military Spending Must Be Part of the Deficit Debate

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Chip Somodevilla / Pool / Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to troops during a visit to Camp Victory in Baghdad on April 7, 2011

The budget compromise reached by the White House and Congress this weekend included a "historic amount of cuts," as House Speaker John Boehner and Senate majority leader Harry Reid said in their joint statement announcing the deal. "The largest annual spending cut in our history," boasted President Obama. Media coverage of the deal hailed the "sweeping" and "across-the-board" nature of the cuts. The Republican leadership has "shifted the focus in Washington away from spending and toward austerity" and slashed government "more steeply than expected," wrote Paul West in the Los Angeles Times.

And yet there is one, massive piece of the federal budget that these brave hawks dared not touch: defense. Not a solitary penny of the $38 billion in spending cuts will come out of the Pentagon's coffers. In fact, defense spending will increase by $5 billion over 2010 levels, to $513 billion. And that doesn't even include the cost of ongoing "overseas contingency operations," otherwise known as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All told, U.S. military spending in 2011 will exceed $700 billion — the most since World War II. That amounts to more than half of all government discretionary spending. It represents 35% of total military spending on the planet. And yet it's doubtful that the idea of substantially reducing the defense budget was raised by either side during last week's negotiations. Instead, the White House celebrated the meager accomplishment of not increasing the Pentagon budget quite as much as the Republicans had proposed — though, rest assured, it will still increase. "We won the argument," one Democratic spinner crowed in an e-mail to the Washington Post.

God help us if they start to lose. For all the posturing in Washington about confronting the "existential threat" posed by the country's dire fiscal state, there has been, until now, almost no serious discussion about reducing America's vast military expenditures. The White House says Obama's speech on the deficit this week will call for Pentagon cuts. But as TIME's Mark Thompson has shown, neither Obama's 2012 budget proposal nor Representative Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" contemplate a major decrease in overall military spending anytime in the near future. At best, Ryan's proposal would slow the rate of growth of the defense budget over the next 10 years but won't halt it. Even after pocketing the expected savings from a pullback of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Ryan's budget projection calls for nearly $8 trillion in military spending over the next decade — more than the government's Medicare obligations, which Ryan asserts (correctly) must be reformed. The justification for continued runaway defense spending? "The U.S. cannot retreat in its aggressive campaign against the global network of terrorists intent on taking American lives and destroying the American way of life."

For close to a decade, that kind of thinking has dominated U.S. foreign policy and driven the country's pell-mell approach to national security. But it's outdated. Al-Qaeda is weaker today than at any time since 9/11. Its capacity to pull off a 9/11-scale attack on the U.S. homeland is miniscule. Osama bin Laden commands not an army of battle-tested warriors, but a loosely organized network of like-minded zealots who are more likely to be eradicated through targeted drone strikes and commando raids than by counterinsurgency campaigns in poor countries like Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the U.S. faces no major power rival. As Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has written, the U.S. and its allies possess 80% of the world's economic and military power. The countries that could be classified as enemies of the U.S. — a notably short list that includes states such as North Korea and Iran — "collectively account for about 1-2% of global economic output and military power." Though we can never be entirely safe from harm, our strategic advantages far exceed our vulnerabilities.

In fact, the one clear and present threat to the American way of life is the size of the national debt. It is already crowding out other national priorities, shrinking needed investments and leaving the U.S. susceptible to economic coercion. And as it consumes more government revenue, the cost of servicing the debt could directly weaken national security by constraining the ability of future policymakers to respond to unexpected crises, according to Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security. Given that the military accounts for 20% of the federal budget, any realistic way out of the debt trap will require that we spend less on defense.

Can we get there? Defense Secretary Robert Gates has identified $78 billion worth of programs that can be eliminated over the next five years — provoking a storm of opposition from defense contractors and lobbyists in the process — but that's still a drop in the bucket. In the past several months, a number of analysts in Washington from across the political spectrum have drafted proposals to cut military spending by 10% to 15% over the next 10 years. Though they differ in programmatic details, these proposals have some common themes: they all assert that we can make meaningful defense cuts without compromising U.S. military primacy. But simply going after Pentagon waste and abuse won't be enough. To conserve its power, the U.S. will need to reduce the size of its armed forces, curtail expensive missions and shrink America's military footprint around the world. And that means rethinking how, where and for what purposes the U.S. commits its military to intervene in foreign crises.

That debate is long overdue. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S.'s unchallenged power has helped establish a stable world order, but it has also tempted us to amass commitments that we can no longer sustain. Judging from polls, a substantial portion of the American public supports real cuts to the size of the defense budget. They're just waiting for leaders with the courage and wisdom to make them.

Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs usually appears on Mondays on