A Gluttony of Defense

WSJ today pointed out a certain anomaly in the latest U.S. budget proposal–as almost every department gets major cuts, the Defense Department has had their budget increased.

Most of the other increases in the budget are generally understandable (e.g. increases in funding for Veterans Affairs and the National Nuclear Security Administration)– Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn attention that, as a social justice issue, veterans may need more support; likewise, it is not surprising that in the wake of Japan, the U.S. take a close look at our Nuclear Security.  The Defense Department requires more justification.

Now, the bleeding heart liberal in me (admittedly, the same one who defended the presence of ROTC on college campuses) would like to make an emotional appeal, and ask idealistically how we can spend $5 billion more on bombs and planes and soldiers, when we cut $500 million from WIC, a program that makes sure very poor pregnant and breastfeeding women and their infant children have access to enough fruits, vegetables, formula and dairy.  [For a strictly conservative critique of the defense allocation, see the CATO institute’s post from today].

A simple emotional attack though, would be unfairly simplistic though.  Rather than criticizing the increase in funding, I think we can learn a lot by speculating as to why the increase occurred.

The crisis in Libya, and more broadly, the unrest in the Middle East has renewed a bipartisan energy around preserving, or perhaps even expanding, Defense Department expenditures.   Both liberals and conservatives can make some case for military action in these circumstances — whether around a more “Democratic” rhetoric of supporting human rights or a more “Republican” rhetoric of promoting democratic values.   A lot of us would like to be able to intervene when bad things happen, because doing something almost always makes us feel better than doing nothing.  This “readiness for intervention” is almost certainly the justification for the overall increase in funding, when you consider that $157.8 billion was added to the Defense Department allocation for  what The Atlantic calls “emergency/contingency funding, to be used in military operations overseas.”

I can see where people are coming from.  I’ll even quote Douglas Fieth here, because I sympathize with his point–and he is by no means one of my personal heroes: “The kind of people who put bumper stickers on their car that declare that ‘War is not the answer,’ are they making a serious comment? What’s the answer to Pearl Harbor? What’s the answer to the Holocaust?”

Operating under the assumption that war is the answer to some questions — is it the answer to all of the questions we’ve been asking?

There seems to be an itch to use our military, even when it comes at an enormous cost relative to other possible conflict-resolution options,  and when no clear, compelling reason to believe that, costs aside, using the military would lead to the best outcome in the situation.

The last 5 decades are riddled with instances of military intervention gone obviously awry; the list become much much larger when you add in instances in which American ended up millions or billions of dollars poorer, to no obvious strategic benefit.  When you consider all these “false positives,” and their human cost, our record of “false negatives” (like Rwanda), while still tragic, get important context.

Giving ourselves a huge “military rainy day fund” has, in many ways, made us far less safe than we might otherwise have been, and while it is nearly impossible to analyze history counter-factually, it should alarm any fiscal conservative that such a massive program with such unproven results be repeated time and time again.

Even if we assume that expanding our military will always make us safer (controlling for how the military is used, and assuming that we have unlimited resources), the fact is, we don’t have unlimited resources. We can’t exclude the military from close analysis for cuts, if we agree major budget cuts are necessary (that, of course, is a matter of discussion for another day).   Keeping America safe is and should be a priority, but at the point when we cut $700 million from FEMA’s first responders and and more than $1 billion from HIV and STD prevention, it should be obvious that the government can’t do everything it would like to keep us entirely insulated from all possible harm.  Furthermore, There are cuts to be made: I’m no budget expert, and I won’t pretend to be able to evaluate individual planes and bases, but the fact that the Bowles-Simpson commission found it able to cut defense procurement by 15% should indicate that some cuts are possible.

Being fiscally responsible, and just as importantly, being responsible global citizens, requires that we rethink our military.  We have no other options.


Published by Elena Botella

Elena Botella is a Duke Undergraduate in the Class of 2013, majoring in Economics and Math.

2 thoughts on “A Gluttony of Defense

  1. Thanks for letting us know about your blog … and thanks for keeping it going. Nice work. I’m sharing your link with our BlueNC readers and including you in our blog roll.

    Please feel free to link to BlueNC and let us know when you have stories of interest to our readers.



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