Should Defense Cuts Be On the Table?

     With mounting federal debt and record budget deficits, some within the G.O.P.- current elected officials, would be Presidential nominees, and major operatives- have weighed in on ways to cut the budget.  Among them is the often off-limits defense budget.  As many freshman Republican Representatives are finding out, what sounds good in theory is not so good in political reality.  For example, Rep. Scott Rigell, who received Tea Party support in his election bid in 2010 in Virginia, has the unenviable job of representing a district with a heavy military presence and balancing that against the fiscal pressure to decrease the size of the Federal budget.  In his district and in many others, theory confronts reality.

      It would be to everyone’s advantage to hear an adult debate on this issue both within the Republican Party, and eventually between the parties.  However, Republicans need to stress the basics.  One of the primary purposes of the Federal government is spelled out specifically in the Preamble of the United States Constitution: “…to provide for the common defense…”  Clearly, a strong national defense is one of, if not the, top priority of our government and is on expenditures on national defense are on stronger constitutional grounds than, say, spending on Medicaid or a bridge in Alaska.  Of course, as part of the broader debate on the Federal budget, national defense has to be on top of the list of priorities and what is a budget but a statement of priorities?

     There are those on the extreme left who feel that military spending should be cut to the bear bones and they rot out all kinds of statistics comparing the United States against the international community in terms of spending.  Those statistics are meaningless in the debate.  Besides, these are generally your run of the mill peaceniks looking for their next Vietnam to protest.  Furthermore, debating the defense budget cannot be done in a strategic vacuum.  For example, do we insist on importing oil from shaky “allies” in the Middle East in lieu of domestic production in which case we need to ensure the vital shipping lanes remain open?  Does Russia present a military threat to Europe necessitating a large military presence on that continent?  To what extent does a nuclear-armed North Korea create instability in the Pacific and what is an appropriate American military presence in the area?  Before we jump willy nilly into debating defense budget cuts, an overview of our international strategic interests should be articulated.  Here, Republicans have an advantage simple by the fact that Obama in his two and a half years in office has failed to present anything vaguely resembling a foreign policy beyond “one worldism” and apologies.

     Many have erroneously accused potential Republican Presidential possibilities of being out of the Republican mainstream when it comes to proposed defense budget cuts.  Usually in the same breath, they are also advocates of the Tea Party’s demand for fiscal responsibility and budget cuts.  It may interest these would-be critics that such Tea Party-supported people like Darrel Issa, Tom Coburn. John Isaakson, Pat Toomey, Mark Kirk, Bob Corker, Rand Paul and Walter Jones have let it be known in no uncertain terms that the defense budget should be on the table when it comes to budget cuts.  If those names are not good enough for the critics, one can add such Tea Party darlings and luminaries as Jim DeMint and Dick Armey to the list.  When those potential candidates state the same thing, they are actually not that far out of the fiscally conservative mainstream.

     Furthermore, even the most hawkish politician cannot deny that there is waste and unnecessary spending in the defense budget.  As Pat Toomey (R-PA) has noted, Congress authorizes funds for programs or weapons even the Pentagon does not want or need.  The reasons are obvious- these programs benefit particular Congressional districts.  In essence, they are institutionalized pork projects.  Some of those calling for these unneeded and unwanted wasteful projects are the very ones signing “no pork spending” pledges and criticizing those who don’t.  This smacks of hypocrisy and we should leave that to the liberals and the Democrats. 

     Moreover, Republicans need to frame the debate in terms of overall fiscal responsibility if there should be defense budget cuts.  For example, we need to avoid that liberal, Democratic tendency to find savings in Program A only to fund Program B.  You do not cut a $2 billion defense program only to redirect that money to some domestic program.  They also need to be real cuts, not these theoretical savings that somehow never seem to materialize.  The proposal by Robert Gates to cut $78 billion from the defense budget over 5 years falls into that category.  Anticipated savings from improvements in the procurement or contracting process are just that- “anticipated.”  Real, tangible cuts need to be demonstrated.

     A final point needs to be made and that is that Republicans, because of their historical support of defense spending, are better positioned to make meaningful cuts for two reasons- one perceptual and one practical.  From the perception standpoint, it would send a strong message to the American population that Republicans more than Democrats are more committed to cutting the Federal budget.  If Republicans can (1) consider and (2) actually follow through on cutting the defense budget- an area once thought so sacrosanct that it forms one of the three legs of conservatism- while the Democratic Party refuses, is unwilling, or cannot touch their “sacrosanct” social welfare program spending, it puts an exclamation mark on the commitment of Republicans.  For now, the Democratic Party appears to let this debate play out in the Republican Party.  The GOP needs to call their bluff.

      Secondly, if anyone is going to cut the defense budget, wouldn’t it make greater sense if Republicans rather than Democrats take the lead here?  Do we want Democrats cutting the defense budget?  Among the top things on the minds of potential American voters is out of control Federal spending and fiscal issues.  By framing defense budget cuts as part of an overall policy of fiscal conservatism, we take over not only the higher ground in the abstract, but tangible results in the concrete.  It would truly be a change in American politics if at some point in the very near future it is the Democratic Party blocking proposed Republican defense budget cuts.

     Among all the potential Republican candidates for President mentioned- credible, incredible and Donald Trump- there are perhaps only three who have expressed any inclination to, in fact, side with the Tea Party line regarding the defense budget: Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, and Mitch Daniels.  In some respects, Johnson sounds like those on the left through international comparisons.  Personally, how much the United States spends on military spending compared to spending in the rest of the world should not even figure into the discussion.  As for Ron Paul, he has been a rather consistent advocate in this area, but that falls within his “withdraw all troops from around the world” mentality.  The other “candidates” run the gamut from increasing the defense budget to 4% of GDP (Romney, Huckabee), no cuts whatsoever (Pawlenty) and all points in between besides the standard “cut the waste” statements.  Daniels has been heavily criticized here and in other conservative forums for his views.

     Whoever the Republicans choose as their candidate to take on Obama in 2012, it is important that all options remain open.  While not buying into the “deficit is the greatest threat to our security” arguments which then opens the door to notions of across the board percentage cuts without regards to what necessarily is being cut, a realistic look at these proposals are in order.  It is the opposite of the pigeon-holing 4% of GDP arguments and just as unlikely.  So when a candidate says that defense spending should be on the table when discussing budget cuts, these candidates are more in line with the current political, fiscally conservative zeitgeist than the “one leg of three of conservatism” adherents.  Knee jerk “no” reactions are the domain of liberals and Democrats.