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.