A History Dangerous to Repeat

American democracy heads down the same dangerous road previous democracies have trod.

The recently passed Budget Control Act calls for automatic across the board budget cuts of $1.2 trillion if the Congressional “super-committee” cannot agree on targeted reductions. About half of this amount would come from the defense budget, which already is slated for $350-400 billion in cuts over the next decade under the debt-ceiling legislation. In all, the Pentagon could lose $1 trillion in funding, on top of the $430 billion lost so far under President Obama. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, such “disastrous” cuts “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.”

Unfortunately, democracies have a bad habit of shortsighted reductions in defense spending in order to finance other priorities, leaving them vulnerable to aggressors. In 4th-Century B.C. Athens, a fund called the theorikon distributed public monies to citizens so that they could attend religious and theatrical festivals. A law directed that budget surpluses go into this fund rather than into the stratiotikon, the military fund. Indeed, other legislation made any attempt to direct surpluses into the military fund a capital crime. This prioritizing of income redistribution over defense took place at the same time that the autocrat Philip II of Macedon was aggressively moving against the free Greek states, which he would defeat at the battle of Chaeronea in 338, destroying their political freedom. The historian Theopompus linked that defeat to such entitlement spending, castigating the Athenians for becoming “less courageous and more lax” because of the state-distributed dole and funding of festivals, upon which “the Athenian people thoroughly squandered their resources.” Corrupted by these state-funded entitlements, Theopompus observes, “the entire citizenry spent more on public festivals and sacrifices than on the management of war.”

England repeated Athens’ mistake after World War I. Between 1918 and 1920 England reduced its forces by three million men––“the Army had melted away,” as Churchill put it. Between 1919 and 1921, the military budget was reduced by four-fifths, and continued to decline until 1933. The government rationalized these reductions by arbitrarily formulating the “Ten Year Rule,” which assumed that England would not be called upon to fight a major war, and thus would not need an expeditionary force. The arms industry languished as well, falling behind in investment and technological development. By 1934 the shortfall in funding was so bad that it would have taken more money than England spent on defense in one year just to make up the deficiencies in one service, the army. Meanwhile, Germany had been secretly rearming and developing its arms industries since 1920, with the result that by 1938, it was spending five times as much on its military than England, and manufacturing twice the munitions of England and France put together.

Like Athens, one of the reasons England pursued this disastrous policy was the need to spend more money on social welfare programs, which meant spending less on defense. As Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan write in their indispensable study of such feckless disarmament, to many in England, the reliance on the League of Nations to keep global order would allow the British government and people “to turn their attention inward, to correct the failures and flaws in the British body politic, to mend the holes in Britain’s social fabric.” Germany’s devastating aggression, which it had been preparing for nearly two decades, graphically illustrated once again the folly of stinting on defense spending while an aggressor is on the loose.

Just as England believed that postwar international institutions could keep the peace, so too America in the 1990s thought it could reap the “peace dividend” delivered by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Defense spending in the decade between 1990 and 2000 remained virtually static, which taking inflation into account meant nearly a $100 billion reduction. For many, the justification of such reductions included the need to redirect revenues from defense to social welfare programs: as one Congressman put it in 1990, “Our Nation’s strength depends not only on a sturdy defense, but in meeting the needs of our people so that they can contribute to the growth of a healthy society and a robust economy.” Unfortunately, throughout this same decade a new aggressor was attacking our interests and security in the series of terrorist attacks that culminated on 9/11. That devastating attack laid bare the folly of thinking that we could minimize the jihadist threat on the cheap with police work and cruise missiles, in a region of the world vital to our security and economy.

And so we come to the present, when the same mistakes are being made. Ten years after 9/11, the jihadist threat is still potent: Al Qaeda has not been neutralized, the outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is still in doubt, Iran continues to nurture terrorism and pursue nuclear weapons, and revolutions are roiling most of the Middle East, their outcomes uncertain. And let’s not forget China and its drive to increase its military power and dominate the Far East. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union did not end, but rather increased our global responsibilities, another factor ignored by Athens and England in their neglect of military spending. Athens’ security and trade depended on controlling the seas, particularly the eastern Aegean and the sea-route for the grain it had to import from the Black Sea region. England had a global empire to protect, as well as patrolling the sea-routes upon which the globalized economy depended. And America has inherited England’s role as the global “sheriff” needed to keep order and ensure the free movement of trade, especially the transit of oil, most of which originates in a region disordered by Islamic jihadist aggression.

Yet facing a debt crisis brought on not by excessive defense spending, but by run-away entitlement costs, Obama and the Democrats would rather weaken our security than alienate their political clients by reforming Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, even though those programs, along with Obamacare, if unreformed will devour all tax revenues by 2049. Indeed, according to The Heritage Foundation, completely eliminating defense spending would not prevent those entitlements from bankrupting the country. Meanwhile, Democrats are keeping the $1 trillion (and counting) Obamacare entitlement off the budget-cutting table, and the President continues to demand “investments we need to win the future”––Democratese for federal pork like “green jobs” subsidies––even as the defense budget is reduced not because of strategic assessments of threats to our interests and security, but because of the need to “spread the wealth around” and achieve “social justice” through income redistribution via entitlements.

As history shows, cutting back on defense spending to fund expanding domestic social welfare programs is a luxury a global power can’t afford. In the next few years we’ll see if American democracy can avoid going down the same dangerous road previous democracies have trod.