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Can We Cut?


Andrew Bacevich:

Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors — institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, and misremembered history — insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny. For advocates of a militarized approach to policy, they provide invaluable assets, to be defended at all costs.

Unsurprisingly, I’m sympathetic to Bacevich’s general argument, which is that the defense budget is too high, too difficult to cut, and bears too little relation to the actual foreign policy interests of the United States. That said, I’m a touch more optimistic than Bacevich regarding the possibility of defense cuts.

Defense spending in the United States in the post-World War II era has varied more than Bacevich suggests, with two major dips following the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War. Moreover, the percentage of defense spending as part of GDP has declined steadily (although this simply means that defense spending hasn’t kept up with economic growth) and the percentage of defense spending from total government outlays has also declined (although the decline hasn’t been as steady). This tells me that we can identify situations in the past (indeed, the fairly recent past) in which at least one of Bacevich’s four conditions hasn’t held. More importantly, it means that there’s at least a possibility that defense spending can be cut in the future, even given the problems that Bacevich identifies. Bacevich doesn’t give sufficient account of what has changed since the last major dip in defense spending (the early 1990s) to convince me that another such dip is impossible.  Since “institutional self-interest” is pretty much a given, I guessing that the difference has to be in strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, or misremembered history.

To be sure, there may be some reasons why cutting defense spending will be more difficult now than in the past. I’d cite the growth of the institutional Right (Heritage, AEI) as one of the biggest changes in the political landscape. That said, there are a lot of conservatives, including some who matter (Grover Norquist), who are getting a bit twitchy about high defense spending. Other parts of the right are fighting to maintain high spending, but the fact that there’s even a conversation is interesting.

See a couple of defense spending graphs at Truth and Politics.

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  • bill

    I’m not the first one to say this of course, but the cuts that are being talked about these days I’m guessing are purely around the margins, meaning the end result will be mostly slowing the rate of growth, rather than any significant impact on the vastness and bloat of the military bureaucracy.

    What’s really needed is a full-on reorganization of the mission of the U.S. military, a revisioning of what our modern standing army is supposed to do in terms of the true national defense. Right now, it’s all about “projection,” which means boots on the ground from here to Timbuktu, and from the bottom of the ocean to the Van Allen Belt. We seem not to want to belong to the community of nations as much as to dominate it. That’s what’s going to have to change before anything really meaningful can happen on the military spending front.

  • McKingford

    I think this misses a fundamental point about why spending was able to be cut after WWII and Vietnam – massive demobilization of troops (many of whom were drafted, at that). WWII was fought with millions of men in uniform and Vietnam with upwards of a million. When those wars ended,

    The US just doesn’t fight wars anymore with those levels of troop mobilization. Afghanistan is being fought with perhaps 1/8 the troop levels of Vietnam. Obviously ending the war in AF would provide some level of savings, but since many of those troops are from the standing armed forces, it would simply be trimming around the edges compared with the savings accrued from the end of WWII and Vietnam.

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