Sacrificing the Military to Entitlements

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


hagel-defense-cutsVladimir Putin, playing geopolitical chess while our president plays tiddlywinks, has effectively taken over Crimea. Armed men, looking suspiciously like Russian military personnel, have seized both airports and established border checkpoints decorated with Kalashnikovs and Russian flags. This comes after other armed men seized two government buildings and raised Russian flags, as the legislature appointed a pro-Russian regional leader. Meanwhile Russian military forces are gathering on the border, with Russia’s parliament unanimously voting to approve deploying troops in Ukraine.

This is just Putin’s latest revanchist expansion of Russian power throughout the region. He’s been at this for a while. Remember that during the Bush administration he stole chunks of Moldova and Georgia, using the same argument of ethnic self-determination that served Hitler so well in 1938, when he made the Sudeten Germans the pretext for gobbling up Czechoslovakia. Remember when in 2005 Putin said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union––the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, as he put it–– “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory”? And just as England and France did nothing except talk about Hitler’s aggression, so too the West has blustered and threatened and indulged “diplomatic engagement” in response to Putin’s depredations. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Vladimir is dismissing Obama’s flabby threat of “costs” and damage to Russia’s “standing in the international community” if Russia annexes part of Ukraine––as if the ruthless Putin, currently arming and backing the Syrian butcher Assad and the genocidal mullahs in Iran, gives a hoot about his international reputation. And after so many of Obama’s toothless “deadlines,” “red lines,” “game-changers,” “I don’t bluffs,” and “no options are off the table,” who can possibly take this administration seriously? 

But let’s not forget why the president has gotten away with this foreign policy of apology, retreat, and appeasement in a world bristling with brutal aggressors. Too many Americans are sick of military involvement abroad, with 52% in a Pew poll last December saying the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” More important, many don’t want to spend money on defense if it means cuts to entitlements.

Consider that at the same time the Ukraine crisis was heating up, more cuts to our defense budget were announced. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled plans to reduce the army’s strength from 520,000 active-duty personnel to between 450,000 and 420,000 soldiers, eliminate the A-10 Warthog ground-support aircraft, mothball 11 Navy cruisers, put in doubt funds needed to retrofit the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, and cut 8,000 Marines from the Corps. And things could get much worse if sequestration remains in effect after 2015. Max Boot points out the obvious dangers of these cuts: “The world is a more chaotic place than ever and we face the need to respond to a multiplicity of threats, from pirates and terrorists and narco-traffickers to rogue states like Iran and North Korea to potential great power rivals such as China and Russia to failed states such as Yemen and Syria. And not only do we have to be able to project power in traditional ways, but we also have to be able to protect new domains such as outer space and cyberspace.”

Prudence dictates that we be prepared for those contingencies. But apologists for the cuts premise their arguments on a lack of money and on fantastic projections about the future. A New York Times editorial approving the cuts asserts, “The truth is that the United States cannot afford the larger force indefinitely, and it doesn’t need it. The country is tired of large-scale foreign occupations and, in any case, Pentagon planners do not expect they will be necessary in the foreseeable future.” The claim that we cannot “afford” a larger military is preposterous. The same week Hagel announced the cuts, Obama proposed spending $302 billion on roads. In 2013 defense spending was 4% of GDP, while mandated entitlement spending and interest payments on the debt were 14.5%. The cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over eleven years, $1.4 trillion, was only 4% of federal spending, and nine-tenths of 1% of the $163 trillion the economy produced during that same period. Yet half the amount of the $1 trillion in the 2011 budget sequester cuts are coming from defense, while the real engines of our debt and deficits, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, were left untouched. We have the money, but we just choose to spend it on ourselves rather than on ensuring that we have the military power to defend our security and interests.

As for the rosy projections that large forces will not “be necessary in the foreseeable future,” such rationalizing prognostications are dangerous, as history shows. After World War I, English military planners formulated the “Ten Year Rule,” which assumed that “the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years, and that no Expeditionary Force is required for that purpose,” as military planners announced. The defense budget was reduced by four fifths in just 2 years. In 1928, the rule was extended. There were similar reductions in shipbuilding and air power, with the result that in 1934, the whole defense budget would have been necessary just to restore the cuts to the army. Meanwhile, Germany was secretly rearming, training its officer corps, and improving its tanks and planes. By 1938-39, Germany was spending 5 times more on its military than England was. Wishful projections about future threats forget that the enemy always has a vote on what is “necessary.”

The Times editorial, however, does hit on one accurate cause: many Americans don’t want to spend more money on defense if it means reductions in entitlement spending. That’s why cutting the defense budget isn’t the political “third rail” that reducing Social Security or Medicare is. The preference for butter over guns, except when there are direct attacks on the homeland, is typical of democracies going back to Athens in the 4th century B.C. Then citizens received state-pay for serving on juries or in the Assembly, and even for attending the tragic performances and other religious festivals. Indeed, it was a capital crime even to propose transferring surplus funds to the war-fund rather than to the fund for subsidizing attendance at religious festivals.

Even as Philip II of Macedon began his campaign of aggression against the southern Greek city-states, the Athenians refused to finance a defense build-up. While trying to rouse the Athenians to defend the city of Olynthus against Philip’s attacks, the great orator and defender of political freedom Demosthenes scolded the Athenians on just this score. “With regard to the supply of money,” he orated, “you have money, men of Athens; you have more than any other nation has for military purposes. But you appropriate it to yourselves, to suit yourselves.” Later historians linked Philip’s defeat of Athens and its subsequent loss of political freedom to the Athenians’ refusal to spend money on their military instead of on themselves. The historian Theopompus blamed the law financing festival attendance for making the Athenians “less courageous and more lax” and for “squandering state revenues.” Two millennia later, England’s reductions in defense spending during the twenties and thirties were similarly motivated in part by the desire to devote more funds to social welfare programs. Cuts in military spending were more politically palatable than cuts in subsidized housing.

As justified as the criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy are, we have to remember that we citizens create priorities with our votes. If we do not vote into office effective leaders who can convince us that we must prepare for future threats by building a military deterrence, and who have the political spine to back up words with deeds to make sure that deterrence works, then we must share some of the blame for the consequences sure to follow when our enemies and rivals are emboldened by our seeming acceptance of empty bluster as an instrument of foreign policy, and by our willingness to prefer butter to guns.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.

  • UCSPanther

    I honestly think Obama and his ilk are trying to ape socialist pits like Sweden. However, the only reason those nations were allowed to get away with it was because they could farm out their defense to the US and have only meager excuses for armies. If the US wasn’t around, Europeans would have had no choice but to build up their defenses, or risk being forced to bend their collective knee to the might of “Mother Russia”.

    The US cannot get away with such a thing, because if their mainland is under-guarded, it may become a tempting target for nations like Russia and China, and there is no superpower to protect us.

    It also goes to show that Hedonists don’t fight for anything. not even their own Hedonism.

  • NAHALKIDES

    Thornton’s assessment of the effects of the military cuts is certainly correct. However, I don’t think it is correct to state that “we” citizens deserve the blame; it is only those who expect to receive an unearned income from the rest of us and who vote accordingly that bear the responsibility.

    What is deadly for any democracy, whether in ancient times or modern, is for any group of citizens to be able to vote itself an unearned income at taxpayer expense. Middle-class entitlements are just as bad as those which transfer income to the poor. What made this nation great was that under the Constitution, no group of citizens could do that. We need to begin to undermine the premises of the welfare state, and clearly Establishment Republicans aren’t up to the job.

    • Chiron_Venizelos

      I tend to think it proper to accept some of the blame for our miserable predicament:
      1. More than 355 million Repubikans stayed home in 2012
      2. None of the elected Repubikans have addressed the serial voter fraud and voter intimidation of the 2012 elections. Could it be that we have not demanded their prosecuting these crimes?
      3. None of the the 0bama regime have been charged or tried for the many impeachable offenses we both know they’ve committed. Could it be that we have not demanded our government obey and uphold the law?
      4. How many conservatives can say they have ever written their so-called “elected representatives” to let them know our expectations? How many of us can claim they have ever donated time or money to the campaigns of those whom we support?
      While it’s true there is ample blame for those on the other side, and the liberals know it’s better that they invest our money in gaining the favor of the welfare parasites than to try to change the hearts and minds of the military, it can be honestly stated that not enough conservatives are engaged in the process or even know why they vote the way they vote.
      In the end, we DO get the government we deserve – all of us.

      • Erudite Mavin

        Most who sat at home were TPers, all or nothing.
        I saw their posting for months during the election, with their
        Obama was better than a RINO as they would blast.
        Well they got Obama by sitting home or voting third party and now
        have the nerve to whine.

        Voter fraud was addressed by Republicans. You really believe the liberal MSM and the Democrat controlled Senate would deal with the issue.

        • Chiron_Venizelos

          If ANY of these crimes have been addressed by the Repubikans then why have NO persons been arrested and charged with their crimes, why have NO persons been found guilty, and why have NO persons been sent to jail?
          I’m still waiting for someone to charge Eric Holder with murder for Fast & Furious and to charge 0bama with Treason for providing money and arms to Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
          The reason why the Repubikans have not done anything about what I’ve mentioned is because they’re in on the crimes.
          If that were NOT true, then tell me why McCain was in Syria, posing with Al Qaeda operatives and in the Ukraine, posing with the Stalinist Russians, who are murdering the Ukranians because they don’t want to live under Putin’s boot?

          • Erudite Mavin

            Read my post again.
            If it is so easy to go against the Liberal MSM and Democrats in general, why haven’t the TP crowd corrected and put away the perps.
            For the same reason the Republicans can’t.

          • Chiron_Venizelos

            Go back to the times when the Repubikans held the majorities in BOTH houses AND the White House and tell me how many elected criminals were put in jail becuase of their efforts. Barney Frank? Nope. Sandy Berger? Nope. Bill Clinton? Nooooope.
            The Repubikans are all about hearings, investigations, inquiries, probes (go figure on that one!), and ZERO action.
            In 1968, G. C. Wallace told us there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Repubikans and the Deficraps.
            He was right!
            If you don’t understand what I’m saying, read MY post again.

      • ted

        355 million Republicans? Maybe in China cuz the population of the whole U.S. is about 315 million.

        • Chiron_Venizelos

          3.5 Million.
          Does that make you feel better?

          • P_Ang

            No, 40% of 315 million is 126 million.

  • blert

    The cuts are not being driven by a broad public consensus.
    Instead, they come from Barry’s world view.
    Carter had his epiphany when the USSR invaded Afghanistan.
    His prior cut-backs in the DoD budget were ideological, and personal.
    Barry is Carter on estrogen.
    Since Putin is going to be compelled to eat the whole plate, Barry’s epiphany may come, too.
    The Crimea can’t function without Ukraine.
    Its water, electricity, telecoms, rails, roads, force it to stay unified with Ukraine.

    The next step is the occupation of the Sudeten Russians — whoops — I mean Westish Rodina: the Donbas.
    This will be followed by a slow-rolling invasion all the way to Odessa and then Poland.

    What does a bear eat?

    Everything in sight!

  • Gamal

    The Ukraine sacrificed its military for entitlements. The government subsidized gas for it’s citizens by borrowing. It didn’t spend the money it should have on building up a strong military. The only way to stop Russia from engaging in more invasions is for target countries to build up their military power and to form an alliance.
    America needs to start thinking about the possibility of a Russian attack on U.S. soil. What would happen if Russia invaded and seized Alaska? Would we fire nuclear missiles at Russia when their nuclear forces are so much more powerful than ours? What if China and Russia decided to invade. Could we with our shrunken underequipped army stop them?

  • ADM64

    Generally, I agree with Mr. Thornton about entitlements versus defense. Where I disagree is if this precludes any discussion of defense spending. The military is very fat, with very high personnel costs, an officer corps that is at least twice the size it needs to be (in some cases larger: the Navy now has more admirals than ships), a very poor track record of developing weapons in a cost-effective way, and a failure to win any recent wars. The latter cannot simply be blamed on civilians, the military’s favorite social excuse since Vietnam. The sad fact is that an army mirrors its society (probably the only true thing Trotsky ever said) and our “diverse” coed armed forces seem a lot more interested in diversity issues and feminism than they do military professionalism.

    • alericKong

      I would agree if solvency motivated the military cuts. I would also agree on the money printing if it was used to pay down debt with devalued dollars.

      Instead political machines throwing away money to hold office motivates this budget, covered by lies about subsidizes for drunks and broken homes helps society.

      • ADM64

        That’s a fair point and I would agree with you on it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Geoffrey-Britain/100003802091841 Geoffrey Britain

      Our failure to win any recent wars is DIRECTLY attributable to its civilian leadership and to the public’s gullibility in what the MSM feeds it. The armed forces ‘interest’ in diversity issues, etc. is also DIRECTLY attributable to its civilian and current military leadership.

      • ADM64

        The civilian leadership – specifically the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations – have certainly pushed the diversity and coed agenda. As you note, the current military leadership embraces this, but so too did the leadership during all of those previous administrations. I have no problem with the leadership following civilian direction because policies, even bad ones, must be tested. Where moral responsibility shifts back to the brass is in their comprehensive dishonesty about the policies. Ultimately, they have a constitutional responsibility to speak honestly to the Congress and they have no exercised it. When they fail to note the separate and lowered standards for women, quite apart from whatever is done for the “combat” arms, they are violating their oaths and breaking the law. No policy since the body counts of Vietnam have required as much lying and the result is a corrupt and incompetent leadership. Not once have they chosen to support civilians in Congress critical of the policies and men like Admiral Mullen and General Dempsey really seem to believe this stuff.
        Regarding the failure to win recent wars, I disagree with you. The military leadership to a man opposed the surge which alone allowed us to salvage something from the debacle in Iraq. Sanchez and Casey both completely misread the insurgency and nothing in their tactics suggests that had they had more men, they would have done better. Moreover, even after President Bush said he would give whatever they wanted, they didn’t ask. Tommy Franks failed to make any plans for occupation and handled Afghanistan poorly too (most of the success was CIA led in the first phases). Franks completely failed to recognize the strategic importance of getting Osama bin Laden. We’ve had 10 commanders in as many years in Afghanistan, hardly the mark of anything other than a military bureaucracy at war. Yes, Rumsfield was a very problematic SecDef, but like MacNamara in Vietnam, he cannot be used as an inexhaustible excuse. Military transformation, systems of systems, total battlefield dominance and the like were all buzzwords and policies within the armed forces prior to the Bush administration, and many officers embraced them. The troops themselves are good and deserve praise, but the officer corps is amateurish, bloated and not particularly talented, the more so in each case the higher the rank. No institution should get a blanket pass, and too often the military does.
        I do agree with you about the MSM. That isn’t the whole story. Our enemies have a coherent strategy and our current strategic position is vastly inferior, in every sense, to what is was on September 10, 2001. Responsibility for that is widespread, but I have seen no evidence that anyone in the senior military leadership has been particularly adept at any proposal or policy that would have led to a different outcome.

  • GreatScot

    I’m all for a strong military, but our spending is out of control. We can’t keep borrowing at this rate and survive for long. Don’t believe me? Watch this: http://floydblack.thefamplan.com/taxes.html

  • Hard Little Machine

    Even if we accept what the liberals say and agree with them, why are they so angry that someone is agreeing with them. They want to be isolationists, their President is an isolationist and still they rant and rave that everything everywhere is not only someone else’s fault but another thing their Man-God-King must personally solve for all time. Pick a side and stick with it. If your solution is ‘do nothing’ then fine – do nothing. But they really need to shut up about all the nothing seemingly the dark cabal of Republicans and Jews is making them do.

  • USARetired

    The Obama administration is intentionally wasting money on worthless and frivolous projects, and vacations, in order to destroy our military!