Did you hear the one about the Republican House speaker who wanted to cut the defense budget?
Among the various items that Kevin McCarthy traded away to Freedom Caucus crazies in exchange for letting him become speaker was $75 billion in defense spending.* Republicans have not traditionally favored defense cuts, and it’s hard to imagine a majority of them voting for any even now. But the McCarthy-hating members of the Freedom Caucus, largely out of blind loyalty to former President Donald Trump, wanted to cut aid to Ukraine, something that McCarthy ally Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio (a founder of the Freedom Caucus) also wanted to do.
Unfortunately for Jordan and Co., a lot of other Republican House members don’t want to cut military aid to Ukraine, and anyway, it will likely take Ukraine some time to spend the $100 billion in military aid that Congress already sent its way. So at the moment, there’s no Ukraine aid to cut, and McCarthy is no longer talking about it.
Still, defense cuts remain on the table, if only by default. That’s because House leaders want, as a condition of raising the debt limit, a deal with the Biden administration to cut spending—but can’t figure out which spending cuts they want for ransom.
At first, they talked about cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other mandatory spending programs (i.e., social insurance programs for which spending is automatic rather than appropriated annually by Congress).
That makes objective sense because mandatory spending accounts for 60 percent of all federal spending. But the majority of mandatory spending is on Social Security and Medicare, both wildly popular, particularly among the elderly, who have become a core GOP constituency. “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” Trump advised in a January 20 campaign video. “The seniors are being absolutely destroyed in the last two years.”
So mandatory spending is probably out.
That leaves the 40 percent of the budget that is discretionary spending (i.e., nonautomatic spending that Congress appropriates). Half of this (and sometimes more than half) goes to the Pentagon. The other half goes to ... everything else. The Republican stance in past years has been to pretend this isn’t so. The new GOP stance is to quit pretending and acknowledge that if you cut spending significantly, and you don’t take an ax to Social Security and Medicare, then you have to take an ax to defense.
But how? If endorsing Vladimir Putin’s attempted re-annexation of Ukraine is too divisive within the conference, what do you propose? On January 30, Representative Elise Stefanik, the fourth-ranking member of the House leadership (after McCarthy, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, and House Whip Tom Emmer) said the following on Fox News:
Take a look at the Department of Defense. Now, I’ve been a strong advocate when it comes to making sure that we have the resources for a strong national security. But their woke agenda? We ought to be going after those programs that are not focused on what DoD should be focused on but are far-left radical agendas.
Because this was Fox News and the host was Maria Bartiromo, there was no follow-up to inquire how much out of DoD’s $817 billion budget could be saved if you zeroed out its “woke agenda.”
The main “woke” object of GOP scorn in the Pentagon budget, singled out by, among others, Donald Trump Jr., is some training the Pentagon instituted after the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, to discourage violent extremism and promote diversity. Roughly 15 percent of those charged with crimes in that attack had military ties, according to Roll Call, so it was not irrational for the Pentagon to want to discourage recruits from cozying up to the white nationalist groups behind the insurrection. The cost? Don Jr., former Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, and others bandied about the figure “6 million man-hours.” But that isn’t a unit of spending. The actual cost was $1 million.
Stefanik is bent out of shape that DoD’s diversity chief, Kelisa Wing, wrote a children’s book titled What Is White Privilege?, and she browbeat DoD into conducting a “review.” We don’t know how much this review will cost, but it’s a cinch it will exceed Wing’s salary.
Another “woke” target is DoD’s policy of paying expenses for pregnant recruits who must travel out of state to get an abortion. (The military itself is barred from conducting abortions in most instances.) But the cost of discontinuing the new travel policy would pretty obviously exceed the cost of continuing it. That’s because, to whatever extent the policy succeeded in preventing abortions, it would also be successful in incurring the much greater medical cost of bringing a child to term, which the military would pay for (not to mention pediatric care thereafter). Whatever else you think about abortion, nobody disputes that it saves money. I wouldn’t ordinarily emphasize this crude point, but it is, unfortunately, relevant to the absurd GOP claim that eliminating “woke” policies saves money.
What is the military’s overall woke budget? Let’s be generous and say it’s $5 million. That’s a drop in the bucket. For comparison’s sake, the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, cost $13 billion. The late Senator John McCain (himself a Republican, but an unusually plain-speaking one) called it “one of the most spectacular acquisition debacles in recent memory.” Military experts are asking why we build any new aircraft carriers, given that these behemoths make inviting targets. Ukraine, for instance, last year sank the Russian giant missile cruiser Moskva with two fairly rudimentary shore-launched cruise missiles. Task & Purpose, a respected defense publication, ran an essay last year headlined, “U.S. Navy aircraft carriers may be useless in a war with China.”
Then there’s the new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, or SLCM. Trump initiated it; President Joe Biden recommended zeroing it out. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin both said we didn’t need it. But Congress allocated $45 million for it in December’s defense bill.
I could go on, but I won’t. The point is that when Republicans say they want to cut the defense budget, what they really mean is that they don’t. “Cut woke defense programs” is code for, “We’re only pretending,” and the tip-off is that the politicians who say it resolutely won’t explain, item by item, how much would be saved.
The ultimate purpose of the GOP’s anti-woke rhetoric on defense isn’t budgetary at all. It’s to persuade the base that political correctness, one of the few bugaboos on which Republicans can get any traction with voters, is poisoning so much of modern life that it’s even corrupting the military! Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation got his knickers in a twist last fall about “conflating the mission of the military with environmental ideology.” “Would you believe,” he wrote, “that the Pentagon has decided to allocate $3 billion this year to climate-related initiatives?”
What I can’t believe is that trying to spare the United States from national security disruptions caused by climate change should fail to interest a professed advocate for a stronger national defense. As Bill McKibben observed in The Nation four years ago, “Instability and chaos are the great enemies of peace, and the invariable outriders of climate change.” McKibben noted that Admiral Samuel Locklear III, who oversaw U.S. forces in the Pacific, told The Boston Globe that he feared global warming more than threats from North Korea and China.
The punchline is that green technologies might, in unexpected ways unrelated to the environment, prove a tactical asset. The Marine Corps Gazette reported recently that electric motorcycles are in high demand right now in Ukraine. The reason? They’re handy for moving around anti-armor personnel and weapons in a battlefield environment without making a lot of noise. “On the battlefield of tomorrow,” the military historian Thomas E. Ricks told me, “you want to be low profile, dispersed, and quiet—not emitting a lot of gas, heat, or radio signals.” The real problem with the military’s wokeness spending is very likely that we don’t have nearly enough of it.
* This article originally misstated the amount of defense spending.