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Grand Old Doves?

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By MAX BOOT
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At the same time, the Department of Defense must take care of its people—our most precious asset. There are 1.5 million active-duty military personnel, 750,000 civilian Defense Department employees, and 1.5 million personnel in the Reserves and National Guard. We already spend more on personnel costs ($157 billion this year) than on weapons procurement ($151 billion) and the imbalance is likely to grow in future years, thereby making it even harder to increase our power-projection capabilities. Yet Congress rebuffed Gates’s attempts to institute modest co-payments for the fiscally unsustainable Tricare medical system. That was deemed too politically sensitive.

This is part of a pattern: Congress finds it difficult or impossible to cut specific defense programs because they all have powerful constituencies. But mandating “top-line” cuts may be politically palatable as part of a budget deal because lawmakers won’t have to make tough choices about which programs to eliminate and which areas of the world to leave undefended.

Cutting defense won’t solve our budget woes. The “core” defense budget, $553 billion, is small as a percentage of GDP (3.7 percent) and of the federal budget (15 percent). Nor is it the reason why we are piling up so much debt. To reduce the deficit, lawmakers will have to do something about out-of-control entitlement programs.

If Republicans acquiesce in ruinous cuts to the defense budget, they will cease to be known as Ronald Reagan’s heirs. Instead they will be remembered as the party of William E. Borah, Hamilton Fish III, and Gerald Nye. Remember those GOP giants of the 1930s? They thought a strong defense was unaffordable and unnecessary. But their reputations collapsed on December 7, 1941, when we learned (not for the last time) the price of unreadiness. That is a lesson today’s Republicans should remember as they negotiate over the budget.

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