Thursday, March 4, 2010

FBB Part 3: Military Budget

Part 3 of the Bank Slate Federal Budget Blueprint series. The goal of this series is to make realistic recommendations that would allow the US to balance in the budget within 10 years. The basic tenants of the the Bank Slate Federal Budget Blueprint are:
  • The year 2000 should be used as a policy baseline. Tax and spending policies should be reset to the levels and rates they had in 2000.
  • Any policies enacted since 2000, that we wish to keep, need to be funded.

In the year 2000 U.S. military spending was $311 billion. Ten years later, the US defense budget has more than doubled and stands at $685 billion. Included in the $685 are the operating costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That number does not include other defense-related spending such as Homeland Security and Veteran's Affairs. If those are included, total defense spending hits $1 trillion.

In 2010 defense spending in the US will be roughly equal to the combined military and defense spending of every other country on Earth.

Despite the massive expenditures, elements of the US military have been overextended by 7 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army, Army Reserve, Marine, and National Guard units have all been called up for multiple overseas combat deployments. Both of our ongoing wars have been plagued by the fact that our resources (primarily troop counts) have been insufficient given the magnitude of the missions. We've needed more, not less.

And then there's that $1.56 trillion budget deficit. What to do?

If there's one lesson to be drawn from the wars of last 60 years it is this: The age of empires is over. Historically, a great nation could increase its power and enrich its citizens via military conquest. In recent decades, in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Lebanon, Afghanistan (again), Iraq, and around the world insurgencies with minimal funding have been able to draw great nations into pointless, bloody, protracted stalemates. "Victory", if it comes at all, comes with a price well in excess of its value. The conquering of nations no longer serves anyone's economic purposes and may no longer be viable for anyone. Global economic interdependence makes conventional warfare between nations increasingly pointless and its likelihood increasingly remote. We have the power to destroy any nation's armed forces, but there is not much call for it. We lack the capacity to pacify any country at a price worth paying.

After a decade of asking to US military to do more and more with more and more it's time to change our motto. The military should be asked to do less with less. We should maintain our conventional superiority, but we can do this with less than we have now. We should recognize that militias, gangs, and warlords can wreak localized havoc and be prepared to be a strong and active partner in peacekeeping and stability operations. We should recognize that large scale military occupation and nation building is a fruitless activity that comes at great cost, and not much benefit to the American taxpayer.

The 2010 budget allocates about $128 billion to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should continue the withdrawal from Iraq this year. We will add more troops the Afghanistan this year. But we should follow through plan to begin withdrawing troops and winding down the war in 2011.

The baseline budget for the military should be maintained at around $550 billion and left there for the foreseeable future. End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and avoid new overseas adventures. Freeze the remaining budget at current levels. With inflation and economic growth this will mean, effectively, a slow reduction in spending. Without a blank check, the military will have do a more rigorous analysis of our actual needs and adjust expenditures appropriately. Years of spending increases have gotten us to a $1.56 trillion deficit. More and more is a luxury we can no longer afford. It is also something we no longer need.


  1. The idea that narrowing military budget will "force" them to prioritize--as is being done in education--is okay except that the military (as with education) is a slow-to-turn behemoth. It takes years of paperwork to implement change and--unlike in education--they must also prepare for the unforseeable. You are asking for more diplomacy and more cooperation among nations, but that is State Dept. Flip those budgets, maybe.

  2. The military is big and entrenched. This is one of the reasons I suggest a freeze rather than a slash. They will have to belt-tighten and prioritize. But that's still a very gradual process. They may or may not choose to the "right" priorities. But they'll have to choose.

    I'm not really asking for more international cooperation. I think we're already seeing it. Or at least even if they are not cooperating, countries aren't declaring war on one another either.

  3. Part and parcel with our military reduction plan, we should accept international tribunals as a means of resolving some conflicts. For example, large-scale criminals, including leaders of some oppressive countries, should be subject to justice in an international criminal court. Ultimately, unless we are willing to forsake people unlucky enough to be born into oppressive countries, we need a way to enforce internationally some basic human rights (e.g., to be free from persecution and torture) beyond just providing a select few of the oppressed masses refuge when they manage to escape.

  4. It's not really a budgetary matter, but I'm generally supportive of the ideas of international tribunals. Promoting real human rights and insuring the worst perpetrators face accountability is worthy goal.

    I wonder what would happen if, say, Navy SEALs nabbed some a sitting head of state during a conflict. It's likely much easier said than done. And I'm afraid the outcome would be an incredible mess.