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The Price of Power

The benefits of U.S. defense spending far outweigh the costs

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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• In the Middle East, Iran seeks to build its own nuclear arsenal, supports armed radical Islamic groups in Lebanon and Palestine, and has linked up with anti-American dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere. The prospects of new instability in the region grow every day as a decrepit regime in Egypt clings to power, crushes all moderate opposition, and drives the Muslim Brotherhood into the streets. A nuclear-armed Pakistan seems to be ever on the brink of collapse into anarchy and radicalism. Turkey, once an ally, now seems bent on an increasingly anti-American Islamist course. The prospect of war between Hezbollah and Israel grows, and with it the possibility of war between Israel and Syria and possibly Iran. There, too, nations in the region increasingly look to Washington for reassurance, and if they decide the United States cannot be relied upon they will have to decide whether to succumb to Iranian influence or build their own nuclear weapons to resist it.

In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the biggest problem in the world seemed to be ethnic conflict in the Balkans, it was at least plausible to talk about cutting back on American military capabilities. In the present, increasingly dangerous international environment, in which terrorism and great power rivalry vie as the greatest threat to American security and interests, cutting military capacities is simply reckless. Would we increase the risk of strategic failure in an already risky world, despite the near irrelevance of the defense budget to American fiscal health, just so we could tell American voters that their military had suffered its “fair share” of the pain?

The nature of the risk becomes plain when one considers the nature of the cuts that would have to be made to have even a marginal effect on the U.S. fiscal crisis. Many are under the illusion, for instance, that if the United States simply withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan and didn’t intervene anywhere else for a while, this would have a significant impact on future deficits. But, in fact, projections of future massive deficits already assume the winding down of these interventions.Withdrawal from the two wars would scarcely make a dent in the fiscal crisis. Nor can meaningful reductions be achieved by cutting back on waste at the Pentagon—which Secretary of Defense Gates has already begun to do and which has also been factored into deficit projections. If the United States withdrew from Iran and Afghanistan tomorrow, cut all the waste Gates can find, and even eliminated a few weapons programs—all this together would still not produce a 10 percent decrease in overall defense spending. 

In fact, the only way to get significant savings from the defense budget—and by “significant,” we are still talking about a tiny fraction of the cuts needed to bring down future deficits—is to cut force structure: fewer troops on the ground; fewer airplanes in the skies; fewer ships in the water; fewer soldiers, pilots, and sailors to feed and clothe and provide benefits for. To cut the size of the force, however, requires reducing or eliminating the missions those forces have been performing. Of course, there are any number of think tank experts who insist U.S. forces can be cut by a quarter or third or even by half and still perform those missions. But this is snake oil. Over the past two decades, the force has already been cut by a third. Yet no administration has reduced the missions that the larger force structures of the past were designed to meet. To fulfill existing security commitments, to remain the “world’s power balancer of choice,” as Leslie Gelb puts it, to act as “the only regional balancer against China in Asia, Russia in eastern Europe, and Iran in the Middle East” requires at least the current force structure, and almost certainly more than current force levels. Those who recommend doing the same with less are only proposing a policy of insufficiency, where the United States makes commitments it cannot meet except at high risk of failure.

The only way to find substantial savings in the defense budget, therefore, is to change American strategy fundamentally. The Simpson-Bowles commission suggests as much, by calling for a reexamination of America’s “21st century role,” although it doesn’t begin to define what that new role might be. 

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