Defense Spending, One More Time

A long-time friend, who for 40 years worked in and for the Pentagon, advances a rationale for defense budget-cutting that, I fear, is all-too prevalent: A defense budget that matches or exceeding the Cold War’s shouldn’t be needed when the threat of global war has receded so much.

A more complete (honest) version reads like this: The U.S. defense budget should be large enough — despite errors of intelligence, allocation, and execution, and despite the vagaries of war — to defeat a determined and skillful enemy, should that enemy not be deterred by its perceptions of U.S. military strength, the willingness of U.S. leaders to wield that strength, and their skill in doing so.

When spelled out in that way, it’s more obvious that the judgments involved in deciding the requisite size of the U.S. defense budget (let alone its allocation) are largely subjective. That is, knowing “how much is enough” was a grossly uncertain undertaking during the Cold War. So grossly uncertain that the level of U.S. defense spending during the Cold War can’t be used as a valid benchmark for U.S. defense spending in the future. All we know about Cold War defense spending is that it was adequate to deter (and probably defeat) a Potemkin-like Soviet military. We don’t know (and never can know) if it would have been adequate to the task of deterring and defeating the Soviet military that it was intended to deter and defeat.

Moreover, the formulation omits a crucial consideration. Reductions in the U.S. defense budget invite ambitious, aggressive regimes to build enough military strength to (a) deter a weaker U.S. from contesting limited military adventures that could harm U.S. interests and (b) badly damage U.S. forces deployed to contest such military adventures, with the aim of forcing U.S. withdrawal pursuant to media-orchestrated domestic backlash (as in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq).

In sum, there is no real case for the reduction of defense spending after the so-called victory in the Cold War. Indeed, the very act of cutting the U.S. defense budget invites anti-American adventurism while weakening the ability of U.S. leaders to respond to it, and therefore weakening their willingness to respond to it. The cases of Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia reveal a preference among post-World War II American leaders for withdrawal in the face of tenacious opposition — a concept foreign to Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. That preference was duly noted in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa against the United States.

What about the fact that the U.S. — despite a lot of budget cutting — hasn’t been threatened by a truly powerful adversary since the end of the Cold War? The problem is that force reductions and force buildups aren’t time-symmetrical. Forces can be cut quickly, but can’t be reconstituted and returned to fighting shape nearly as quickly.

Unfortunately, however, war usually comes more quickly than expected, if not unexpectedly. Consider the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941; the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950; and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yes, given the evidence at hand, the U.S. should have been better prepared for those events. But unpreparedness seems to be a systemic feature of America’s squabbling, interest-group based, multi-headed, media-sensitive political “system.” This argues for a permanently high level of preparedness, attained (somehow) despite the “system.”

I’ll end on that tantalizing note.

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Related posts:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy, Revisited
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Now, Let’s Talk About Something Else
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Thomas Woods and War
“Peace for Our Time”
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Blood for Oil

It *Is* the Oil
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
More Thoughts about Patience and Its Significance
Mission Not Accomplished