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Charlie Leonard: Inalienable Rights

Charlie Leonard
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Despite the federal government’s representations that mask where our money goes, the single largest portion of the federal budget is actually spent on defense, defense-related activities and our obligations to prior members of the military and their families. In total, these activities will exceed $1 trillion in 2012. And, like every other federal expenditure, 45 cents of every defense-related dollar will need to be borrowed. Yet almost no one of consequence in Washington, in either party, has had the courage to say “enough.”

A lot of my friends on the right are not going to like this, but I put the responsibility for this mess, and the responsibility for fixing it, largely on Republicans. It’s true that Democrats in Congress and in the White House have contributed to the growth of the Defense Department and other defense agencies, but Republicans are primarily responsible for equating support for our national defense with support for increases in defense spending – even when it isn’t true.

More important, like President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, which only a staunch anti-communist could defend politically, I believe it’s going to require a pro-defense Republican to start a responsible dialogue about a rational defense budget.

If you have any doubt about our need to make reasonable cuts in defense spending, consider the following:

• The Department of Defense budget has grown from $297 billion in 2001 to a budgeted $534 billion for 2010, an 81 percent increase. According to the Congressional Budget Office, defense spending grew 9 percent annually on average from fiscal year 2000 to 2009 – and those figures do not include most of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were funded through separate appropriations bills.

• Today, the United States spends more on defense than China, England, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil combined – and accounts for about 60 percent of all military spending in the world.

• The U.S. Navy today is larger than the next 13 sovereign navies in the world combined – and 10 of them are our allies.

• We have military personnel stationed at more than 150 bases outside the United States. More than 65 years after the end of World War II, the U.S. still has more than 70,000 troops in Europe and more than 40,000 troops in Japan.

To be clear, I am not suggesting for a minute that we weaken our defenses. What I am suggesting is that we need to bring our defense spending in line with the actual threats we face and the budget we can afford.

The rationale for maintaining a large troop presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea in the aftermath of those wars was that real threats still existed. And, since threats still existed, we reasoned that deterrence was far less costly – in terms of dollars and lives – than having to return to fight another war. Similarly, when Cuba was a Russian satellite during the Cold War, a case could be made for keeping a presence on the island at Guantanamo Bay. In 2012, a huge U.S. military presence in these and dozens of other international locations provides little or no strategic military value.

Europe (with more people and a larger economy than the United States) and South Korea (one of the fastest-growing countries in Asia) can well afford to pay for much more of their own defenses. Moreover, the threats we face now are very different from the ones we faced 50 years ago, as exemplified by the radical Muslim terrorists who neither fear our might nor engage us on conventional battlefields.

Enter the agreement to reduce the federal deficit that Congress passed last summer as part of the agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling. The resolution says that if Congress does reach an agreement by 2013 to reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years (less than 5 percent of the budget), it will automatically trigger equal cuts of $600 billion in both the defense and the non-defense budgets over the same period. In Washington-speak, this is called “sequestration.”

What would that mean for the Defense Department? It means rolling back defense spending to 2007 levels and then holding future spending increases to the rate of inflation (unless, of course, there is a war, and then all bets are off). That hardly would “destroy the department,” as the defense hawks in Washington are already alleging – unless of course you think former President George W. Bush didn’t spend enough on defense during his last year in office.

While I believe sequestration is an irrational and cowardly way to govern, the fact is that the defense cuts it would bring about are perfectly reasonable and need to happen – and you heard that from a Republican.


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