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The Bizarre, Strategically Bankrupt Evolution of the Parties’ Views on Defense Spending

The Obama administration has managed to upend the laws of ornithology. The simple fact of a Democratic commander-in-chief has transformed yesterday’s Republican hawks into today’s doves. No less miraculously, and certainly for no more high-minded reasons, Democratic doves have metamorphosed into something like hawks. 

In both cases, however, the transformation has been less than complete. Democrats, beginning with a president who currently presides over wars in three countries and periodically launches fusillades at several more (if a commander-in-chief earned a ribbon each time he ordered U.S. forces into action, Barack Obama would be well on his way to acquiring a chestful), have proved reluctant to fund the means for their military aims—namely, the U.S. military itself. As for Republicans, the GOP attachment to large defense appropriations endures (though just barely), but the ghost of Robert Taft haunts the party once more, making it wary of foreign entanglements. The Republican paradox has been neatly exemplified by congressional votes to deny approval for the air campaign in Libya, and then to fund the same operation to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although this migration of hawks and doves may not be the product of principled analysis—in matters of national security these days, Democrats and Republicans may entertain certain proclivities or inclinations, but they can hardly be said to have evinced firm principles—it is nonetheless real. The effect, too, is likely to be strategic bankruptcy.

THE REPUBLICAN TENDENCY to will the means but not the ends of America’s military establishment would certainly seem—to the extent that, say, history offers a guide—to be less hazardous than the Democratic inclination to do the reverse. Deterrence, for one, requires a strong defense capability even as it checks the military’s actual use. But deterrence, if it is to be sustained, requires something to deter. While Republicans have lately been claiming the defense of “vital interests” justifies their support for large military expenditures, when it comes to identifying these interests, otherwise voluble presidential candidates and members of Congress fall silent—that is, when not voting to condemn U.S. participation in an ongoing NATO operation in Libya, denouncing “nation building” in Afghanistan (a coarse echo of the president’s own lowest-common denominator formulation), and ranking trade rather than security as the supreme interest in relations with a rogues’ gallery of abusive regimes.

The contradictions in the Republican defense stance have been perfectly summarized by Mitt Romney, who has insisted that defense budgets ought to be “at least four percent of GDP, not three percent” and that the “right way to scale America’s defense budget is to add up the requirements for each of our missions”—this even as he calls for the abandonment of those very missions, beginning with the war in Afghanistan. In a similar vein, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon routinely assails the Libya operation, to the point of advertising himself as the spokesman for the campaign to revive the War Powers Resolution, all the while doubling as the spokesman for the robust level of expenditures that enables the war in the first place.

Then, too, Republicans like McKeon may push for more defense spending, but they often allocate that money unwisely. Ideally, a nation’s concept of how much it should spend on its military derives from strategy: a realistic appraisal of interests and threats, and of means and ends. In the absence of such an appraisal, the Republican position has been to lard up the military budget—the result being that Congress routinely expends scarce defense funds on projects of dubious strategic worth, such as unneeded bases and obsolete production lines.

But, while Republican contradictions may prove unsustainable, the Democratic stance is downright inscrutable. Previously, Democratic opposition to defense spending reflected opposition to the uses for which defense expenditures were intended—Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, and the rest of the litany. That’s no longer the case, or at least not so clearly. Yet, while the president boasts a record of frenetic military activism, his boosters continue to oppose the funding that makes these missions possible. So, when Obama dispatches American forces to Libya, or to Afghanistan, or to whatever far-flung precinct, the Democratic leadership reflexively backs its party’s standard-bearer. When the bill comes due, however, its members trot out tired variations of the Eisenhower-era cliché that, not only are we spending much more than is necessary on defense, we are doing so at the expense of our domestic programs, which are being bled dry in an era of budget-balancing.

In a neat trick, the president himself—the same president that doubled-down in Afghanistan and began from scratch in Libya—has now joined the Democratic chorus against military spending. Obama has pledged to begin “nation building at home,” and, as part of this construction process, he has proposed a substantial defunding of the armed forces, cutting between $400 billion and $700 billion from the defense budget and thereby committing the country to reductions in “force structure and military capability,” as outgoing defense secretary Robert Gates put it. All of this requires green-eye shades to make full sense of, but this much at least is evident: For all of its faux moral posturing about the pace of military deployments, the Obama team has cast a glance backward to the Donald Rumsfeld-era and set out, even with the Army and Marines at war, to shrink their ranks by tens of thousands of personnel—which is to say, to do more with fewer combat brigades. By definition, the primary aim of the administration’s rally to fiscal “sustainability” is not security but savings—a fine and important thing, but, in this case, also a formula for strategic exhaustion.

THE DISJUNCTURE BETWEEN the ends and means of American strategy may be inconsistent, but there are worse things. Hence, the new consistency: The debate over the debt ceiling has invited Americans to indulge in the conceit that we need no strategy at all. We no longer need to spend on the military, according to the revised wisdom, because we will no longer use the military. So how much should America spend on defense? According to leading Republicans and Democrats, from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the answer to that question now appears to be: much less than whatever we are spending, or thinking of spending. And how much should we be doing abroad? From President Obama, who has kicked off his campaign to focus on “nation building here at home,” to the Republican presidential aspirants, who have also summoned America to come home, the stars have come finally into alignment. Republicans and Democrats may approach the debt issue from different directions, but, when it comes to the national security component, both end up in the same place, acting as mutually reinforcing barriers to the exercise of American power.

Thus, Republicans and Democrats have proved true Secretary Gates’s fear “that, in economic tough times, people will see the defense budget as the place to solve the nation’s deficit problems.” Not that defense cuts will make so much as a dent in the debt they’re meant to cure. Next year, for example, the Pentagon means to spend $107 billion in Afghanistan—this, in comparison to the $3.7 trillion that the Obama team plans to spend overall. Put another way, military spending on the “necessary war” amounts to all of .75 percent of the nation’s $14.1 trillion GDP. None of this, however, seems to have made the slightest impression on Congress’s assembly of cheap hawks and profligate doves, whose positions are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from one another—and from those held by their common ancestor, the cheap dove of the 1970s. From that species, sadly, we have not heard the last.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic.