During the Cold War, defense and intelligence officials used to routinely go to Capitol Hill and warn that the Soviet military was a gargantuan colossus, one that would inevitably crush us when the inevitable third world war came to pass. In response, of course, it would be necessary to dramatically increase our own defense spending. Much of what they said about the Soviets was based on incorrect information or just wildly exaggerated, but it usually did the job.
And today, with the Soviet Union gone, we account for most of the world's defense spending -- 54 percent in 2009, according to a recent report. That's right: There are 195 countries on planet Earth, and if you added up the military spending of the 194 of them that aren't the United States, you'd still have less than what we are spending.
Now, many conservatives think that's as it should be. Fair enough. But if they're going to convince the country to spend significantly more, what are they going to say? You guessed it: They'll say that our spending is tiny, and we're in danger of becoming a weakling, having sand kicked in our faces by bullies all over the globe.
So today, we get three conservative luminaries -- Arthur Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute; Edwin Feulner, the head of the Heritage Foundation; and Weekly Standard editor and policy entrepreneur William Kristol -- arguing in The Wall Street Journal that unless we start buying some weapons, disaster is around the corner:
Even with the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, this year the Department of Defense will spend some $720 billion -- about 4.9% of our gross domestic product, significantly below the average of 6.5% since World War II...
We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget. But anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform.
Furthermore, military spending is not a net drain on our economy. It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.
You've got to hand it to them: $720 billion per year on defense, as far as they're concerned, is a "hollowed out" military. And about that GDP number, the "average since World War II" utterly distorts the question. Through the 1950s, we spent more than 10 percent of GDP on defense every year, peaking at 14.2 percent in 1953. At our current level of GDP, that's the same as spending over $2 trillion a year on defense. The point is that the size of the economy should have nothing to do with what we spend on defense. I assume that Brooks, Feulner, and Kristol don't think that when the economy contracted during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, we should have cut our defense spending just because the economy was smaller. And if next year we have terrific growth, it doesn't mean that we suddenly face a need to spend more on defense.
But I imagine we'll be hearing more about this -- Republicans suddenly arguing that we really need to ramp up defense spending, because our military has been so "hollowed out."
-- Paul Waldman