FP: Life By A Thousand Cuts

To anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, let’s go over it one more time: In February the Pentagon requested $708.2 billion for fiscal year 2011 — which would make the coming year’s defense budget, adjusted for inflation, the biggest since World War II. As one analysis of the budget points out, that would mean that total defense spending — including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — has grown 70 percent in real terms since 2001. Defense spending now accounts for some 20 percent of federal discretionary spending. That’s even more than Social Security.

As a consequence, every year the United States accounts for just under half of the entire world’s military spending. (By way of comparison, China spends about 8 percent; Russia, 5 percent.) As Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, recently noted in one report: “The closest thing the United States has to state enemies — North Korea, Iran, and Syria — together spend about $10 billion annually on their militaries — less than one-sixtieth of what we do.”

Now, there are still plenty of people around who believe that the United States is duty-bound to spend more on its defense than the next 45 or so countries combined. But let’s assume, for the moment, that they’re wrong. Let’s assume that some members of the American political elite and electorate at large have concluded that the United States can’t remake the planet in its own image, or even keep the world safe for everyone else, by means of a globe-spanning military presence. Let’s assume that someone has decided to set some reasonable limits, based on a realistic strategy for what can be achieved by U.S. foreign policy
Sounds crazy, I know. But there are signs that change might be in the works. For the first time since anyone can remember, a U.S. defense secretary has proclaimed himself a defense-spending skeptic (at least in principle). In his 2010 Pentagon budget, Robert Gates boldly slashed several high-profile, big-ticket weapons programs, including the Army’s $160 billion Future Combat Systems, a $13 billion package for new presidential helicopters, and the Air Force’s $140-million-per-plane Raptor F-22 program. And though his department’s request for 2011 hasn’t gone to the same lengths, there are still some out there who hope Gates could yet become the new poster child for the Eisenhower tradition of conservative doubts about the “military-industrial complex.”

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