President Obama has been rightly chastised for his proposed cuts to our military budget. Critics have gone after his Quadrennial Defense Review and its plan to shrink the armed forces, not to mention the clumsy optics of issuing pink slips to thousands of officers still serving in Afghanistan. More troublesome is the reduction of the military’s global mission from its traditional purpose of being able to fight and defeat two enemies at once, to only defeating one while keeping a second from “achieving its objectives,” a conveniently fuzzy criterion.
Worse yet, these cuts are coming just as China and Russia are flexing their geopolitical muscles, the Middle East is exploding in sectarian violence, and Iran is creeping ever closer to nuclear weaponry. As a bipartisan panel created by the Pentagon and Congress concludes of these latest reductions, “Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high-risk force in the near future. That in turn will lead to an America that is not only less secure but also far less prosperous. In this sense, these cuts are ultimately self-defeating.”
As the national leader and Commander in Chief, Obama deserves much of the blame for this strategic blunder. But let’s not forget the role of us voters in these decisions. Historically democracies have had a bad habit of preferring butter to guns, privileging shortsighted interests over long-term security.
Consider ancient Athens, the first democracy. In the 4th century BC, the Athenians created a public fund to pay poorer citizens to attend the theater and religious festivals, which were celebrated on over 130 days a year. Soon a law was passed to divert surplus money into that fund instead of the military fund, and a bit later another law made transference of surpluses to the military fund a capital crime. Unfortunately, during this same period Philip II of Macedon embarked upon a program of aggression against the southern Greek city-states. With his defeat of Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea in 338 BC, Philip achieved his aim, and the Athenians lost their political freedom. Ancient critics linked Athens’ defeat to the decision to starve the military in order to finance “entitlement spending.” Three centuries after Chaeronea, the historian Pompeius Trogus wrote of the Athenians, “The state revenues they had once spent on the army and the fleet were devoted instead to holidays and festivals,” and public money “began to be divided among the people in the city. In this way it happened that in a Greece preoccupied with entertainment the previously lowly and obscure name of Macedon was able to emerge.”
We see a similar dynamic at work in England after the Great War. Just between 1919 and 1921 the defense budget was cut by four-fifths, and continued to decline until 1933. By 1934 the shortfall in funding was such that the whole defense budget for a year would have been needed just to make up for the deficiencies in spending on the army. By 1938, when Hitler began his rampage of aggression, Germany was spending 5 times more on its military than England was. These decades of cuts, moreover, were justified after the Great War by a defense policy, renewed in 1928, based on the “Ten Year Rule,” which assumed that the British Empire would not have to fight a major war during that period, and so did not need an expeditionary force. Germany had other plans, and the folly of scanting the army became obvious in June 1940 with the collapse of the British army in France, and its hairsbreadth escape from annihilation at Dunkirk.
During this period, of course, money was tight in England. The war-debt, much of it owed to the U.S., had to be serviced. At the same time, voters were demanding increased spending on social-welfare programs. From 1.38% of GDP at the beginning of the Great War, welfare spending reached 3.36% in 1933, while spending on health services went from 1.14% of GDP in 1921, to 1.91% of GDP at the outbreak of World War II, despite occasional cutbacks. During this period, despite the growing evidence of German rearmament, disarmament was an explicit Labor Party policy, partly as a way to acquire revenues for increased social welfare spending. In 1934, Labor leader George Lansbury said he would “close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world ‘do your worst.’” That year and the next saw a string of Labor electoral victories, suggesting that the English people were sympathetic to a program of more butter, less guns.
Our current reductions in military spending also have support from the electorate. The cuts today are a consequence of the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for $1 trillion in reduced spending over the following decade. Half of this amount is to come from defense, while the primary drivers of debt and deficits, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, have been left untouched. At the time, no great mass of voters protested this unbalanced and shortsighted ratio, reserving their displeasure for the Republicans and their demands for serious deficit reductions during the debt-ceiling crisis, and suggestions that entitlements needed to be reformed. So too today, when the military cuts have not generated any widespread voter interest, let alone protests. Indeed, 37% of Americans say the government spends too much on defense, and 32% say it spend about the right amount––the latter despite the 31% decline since 2010.
We can fault our leaders for not better explaining that America’s role as the keeper of global order requires it to maintain a military force big enough and lethal enough to deter would-be aggressors. We can see right now the wages of American retreat from that global role, with our rivals and enemies emboldened, and our allies disgusted. And we have our own history to caution us against such shortsighted thinking. Who thought after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when during the 90’s defense spending was reduced 36%, that a new enemy holed up in the badlands of Afghanistan would strike the homeland with such devastation, and trigger two wars? No one knows what new dangers will arise from the current disorder, but we need to be prepared for them. But it’s hard to believe our president agrees with this obvious common sense when he dismisses the metastasizing jihad statelet ISIS by saying, “the rockets aren’t being fired into the United States.” Not yet they aren’t.
But the fault does not lie just with our leaders. Unfortunately, democracies have a hard time seeing past the next election cycle and today’s interests and passions. As usual, Tocqueville said it best:
“A clear perception of the future, founded upon judgment and experience . . . is frequently wanting in democracies. The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.”
The “present sufferings” that are driving military reductions come from the mere thought of trimming social welfare spending and reforming entitlements to keep them from devouring the whole budget. One can only imagine what the “greater sufferings” will be like if we continue to reduce our military and turn our backs on our global responsibilities just to protect our government dole.
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