AND EVEN DUMBER: THE IMPERIAL DEFENSE BUDGET.

Stephen Walt has developed a list of "dumb" policy debates in the United States, the criteria for which run as follows:

But there is a special category of foreign policy where almost everyone agrees the existing policy is wrong-headed yet almost everyone also believes the policy is impossible to change.

Walt lists farm subsidies (which are foreign policy by virtue of their negative impact of international trade agreements, the Cuba embargo, and the War on Drugs. As I'm optimistic that we'll finally see movement on Cuba policy during the Obama administration, I'd like to propose a replacement: imperial defense budgeting.

Absent supplementals, the United States currently runs a defense budget of just over half a trillion dollars, a number which does not include defense-related spending in other departments. By the kindest calculations, this means that the U.S. spends roughly four to six times as much on defense as our closest competitor. By less kind calculations, we spend about 10 times as much as any other country in the world, accounting for somewhere around 50 percent of aggregate world defense spending. Although the absolute numbers have changed since the early 1990s, the ratios have not. The U.S. has simply dominated world defense spending since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in spite of the fact that most of the other top defense spenders (France, U.K., Japan) are close U.S. allies.

If an analyst had proposed, during the Reagan administration, that the U.S. outspend the Soviet Union by a factor of 5-10, he or she would have been laughed out of government by Republicans and Democrats alike. Today, however, debate over the defense budget almost never results from the question "How much do we need to spend?", or even "Should we spend more or less?", but rather "How much more should we spend?" And this is simply insane, given the massive advantage that the United States enjoys over any potential competitor, and the security gains that the United States has accumulated since the end of the Cold War.

While there are advocates for higher defense spending, almost no one thinks that the U.S. defense budget approaches optimality; even hawks can find half a dozen or so expensive projects that need to be canceled. At the same time, few have hope that many of these programs will actually end, or that there will be substantial reduction in defense spending in the foreseeable future. Congress, the defense industry, and the military services are so tightly locked together as to preclude serious scrutiny of major programs, or of the budget as a whole. And so, as a result, we have a ridiculously oversized defense budget, with widely acknowledged misplaced priorities, that no one seriously believes can be changed.

--Robert Farley