Friday, November 21, 2008

Military budget and postmodern math

One of my favorite information sources is the US Army War College journal Parameters. This article by Travis Sharp, a military policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Tying US Defense Spending to GDP: Bad Logic, Bad Policy Parameters Autumn 2008, is one of the best I've seen on the overall issue of the size of the US military budget. He gives a good description of why it should be almost self-evidently a big issue:

The Bush Administration requested $541 billion for national defense in FY 2009. This request encompasses $515.4 billion for DOD, $15.6 billion for Department of Energy-administered nuclear weapons activities, $5.6 billion for non-DOD defense activities, and $4.4 billion for additional mandatory spending. The Administration also submitted a separate $70 billion placeholder request for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Secretary of Defense Gates later provided an updated estimate of $170 billion for FY 2009.

Using the more realistic $170 billion estimate, which remains a reasonable budget projection even if troop withdrawals from Iraq commence in early 2009, a combined total of at least $711 billion will be appropriated for national defense and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in FY 2009. This means the United States will spend significantly more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, for defense in FY 2009 than it did during the peak years of the Korean War (1953; $545 billion), the Vietnam War (1968; $550 billion), or the 1980s Reagan-era buildup (1989; $522 billion). The United States is also projected to spend more on defense in FY 2009 than the next 45 highest spending countries combined, including 5.8 times more than China (second highest), 10.2 times more than Russia (third highest), and 98.6 times more than Iran (22d highest). Indeed, the United States is expected to account for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending in FY 2009. [my emphasis]
This is really an astonishing thing. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.

But the United States is spending more on defense today than at any point in the Cold War! And what is so much more menacing than the threat from the Soviet Union as it was widely perceived by Americans?

I'm tempted to talk about "a handful of religious fanatics hiding in caves" or something. The threat from Islamic Salafist terrorism of the Al Qa'ida sort is more substantial than that. But only a fraction of the military budget - and only a fraction of what we're spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (plus the semi-secret wars in Pakistan, Syria, Somalia and who knows where else) - are actually being targeted onto that kind of terrorist threat.

The FBI just offered an award for anyone helping to find four suspected terrorists they've identified. "Ecoterrorists" from a group called The Family. They are suspects in the firebombing of a ski resort and an arson attack at a research facility. There was no indication that any of the suspects were Muslim or had any connection to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria or Somalia. Nor was there any indication in the article linked that the military had played any role in pursuing them.

In fact, most of our military is configured to deal with nuclear attack and conventional military operations. Counterinsurgency (COIN) is the fad concept right now. But if you pay close attention, the COIN rhetoric and buzzwords actually are being used to justify something that looks a lot like conventional "low-intensity" warfare to use the strategic term. Pretty much every time you hear about a US air attack on a village in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, or a targeted assassination attempt by air in Syria or Somalia, that's the Air Force or some other service's air wing carrying out operations as usual under the rubric of COIN.

The concept mentioned in the article's title is a new strategy by conservatives and some in the military to lock in permanent increases in the overall military budget. It would be just nifty, the pitch goes, if we were to commit permanently to having the military budget equal to 4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Sharp walks through several reasons why this is a bad idea. But the most essential one is that it's entirely arbitrary to fix the budget total as a percentage of GDP with no reference to actual foreign policy and actual military challenges, the latter of which are very much related to the figures above on comparative military spending.

If that notion seems vaguely familiar, it may be because pointing to military spending as a percentage of GDP is something that advocates of larger military budgets have been doing for a while. Back in the Cold War days, when the comparable measure to GDP was Gross National Product (GNP), Cold War true believers were fond of pointing to the fact that the Soviet Union spent a much higher percentage of its GNP on the military than the US did. This was taken as evidence of a mounting Soviet threat and a sign of the extreme militarism of the USSR.

It was hoped that the audience wouldn't stop to think about the math of such a comparison. The US economy was considerable larger than the Soviet economy. So if the Soviets had been spending exactly the same amount on their military as the US and spending it in exactly the same ways, the USSR's military budget as a percentage of its smaller GNP would have been larger than the US budget measured as a percentage of its larger GNP.

In other words, comparing military spending as a percentage of GDP tells you nothing about the relative strength of two countries' actual military forces.

Something similar is true comparing the US military budget today with earlier periods as a percentage of GDP. The US spent far on the military more during the Korean War as as a percentage of GDP than it does today. But in real dollars, the US is spending more today than during the height of the Cold War buildup.

Who today has been making the case for pegging the military budget's overall size at 4% of GDP? He cites a number of examples of people advocating some variation of this idea: that bold Maverick McCain; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michal Mullen; analysts from the Heritage Foundation; Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri; Macubin Thomas Owens, Marty Feldstein; Lexington Institute Vice President Daniel Gouré;recently-defeated Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina; Republican Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona; Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma (reason enough in itself to think its a bad idea!); and, Republican Congressman Jim Saxton of New Jersey.

He also mentions an unnamed "Independent Democratic" Senator as being a supporter, whose nickname I'm guessing is "Holy Joe", since he calls himself and "Independent Democrat", even though in 2006 he defeated the Democratic candidate in Connecticut. Lieberman himself was running with the de facto support of the Republican Party.

The US military budget needs to be "right-sized". And it needs to be driven by a clear foreign-policy strategy, not by automatic increases or even by arbitrary decreases. Clearly wasteful programs like the Star Wars program need to be eliminated. The Pentagon's absurd over-reliance on air power in all conflicts needs to be thoroughly reworked.

Most of all, there needs to be a realistic understanding of the limitations of American power. If we really plan to be occupying Middle Eastern and South Asian countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in protracted wars lasting years or decades, then the Army in particular needs to be re-oriented to fight counter-insurgency wars on the ground, including among other things intensive training in Arabic.

On the other hand, if we don't intend to fight those kinds of wars, then both parties need to recognize that the military isn't staffed to fight them and make every effort to stay out of them. And includes especially times of great stress, like in the aftermath of "another 9/11". There are likely to be other Dick Cheneys and Don Rumsfelds, hopefully none of them running the government like Cheney, who will be tempted to embrace fool ideas about easy "regime change" and the magic power of air war.

When they pop up to say what a cakewalk it will be to invade Syria or Iran and install a regime more to our liking, both Democrats and Republicans need to have the gumption and the sense of responsibility to not be suckered by it. Sadly, there seems to be no immediately foreseeable possibility of the Republican Party being capable of taking such an attitude.

Which brings us to another important point. There can been too much defense. It's probably more dumb luck than wise statesmanship on anyone's part that the lopsided unilateral military spending of the US since the end of the Cold War hasn't provoked more of an arms race elsewhere. Maybe they look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which we are stuck and ask themselves, why would we want to compete with that?

And there is a factor of, if you have it you're tempted to use it. Or, in a saying we've heard a lot in criticism of neoconservative militarism in recent years, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

That's true. So, for instance, if we build up a colonial-style military force with tens of thousands of Arabic-speaking soldiers trained and equipped for on-the-ground counterinsurgency, it will be very tempting for a President engaged in a tough diplomatic standoff with an Arab nation to threaten or implement a "regime change" and occupation option.

And, to get all Reinhold Niebuhr-ish here for a moment, there are evil people in this world. People like Dick Cheney, who John Dean uses as a prime example of a "conservative without a conscience". Men and women like that are going to abuse whatever power they have. And if they ability to garrison the world with military bases, force other countries into nuclear arms races with a Star War program, or have a colonial expeditionary force at their disposal prepared to take over oil-rich countries, they will use them. As we've seen in all three of those examples during this current administration.

So there really is a reason to right-size the military, recognizing that the national defense has to be sufficient to real threats. But also recognizing their can be too much defense spending.

Look at Sharp's numbers quoted at the beginning of this post again: "The United States is also projected to spend more on defense in FY 2009 than the next 45 highest spending countries combined ..." Andrew Bacevich likes to make the point that if we were to set an also somewhat arbitrary goal of matching the military expenditures of the next 10 largest military powers, that would represent a huge cut in the US military budget.

We're a long way from the danger of under-spending on national defense.

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