Military Spending: The Sacred Cow of Conservatives

Speeches by prominent conservatives invariably include the assertion that they stand “for a strong national defense.” Unfortunately, for most conservatives today, “strong national defense” is merely a euphemism for three dubious measures: 1) Generously funding every item the Pentagon has ever had on its wish list; 2) continuing to subsidize the defense of prosperous so-called allies who free-ride on U.S. security protection–and in many cases have done so for decades; and 3) maintaining an oversized military to implement a strategy of meddling in disputes halfway around the world that have little or no connection to genuine American interests.


It is not real conservatism to treat the Pentagon like a political sacred cow instead of a typical bureaucracy with its own agenda, and to endorse a military budget that is nearly as large as the budgets of the rest of the world combined. Yet that is what the United States does today. Our nearest strategic competitor, China, spends $145 billion–if one accepts the high-end estimate in the Defense Department’s just-released report to Congress. We spend over $700 billion. On an inflation-adjusted basis, that figure exceeds the peak spending levels during the worst years of the Cold War. That outpouring of resources continues even though we face no adversary even remotely comparable to the Soviet Union. Yet some conservative leaders argue that we must spend even more.

It is not real conservatism to advocate subsidizing the defenses of international military welfare queens in Europe and East Asia. America spends nearly five percent of GDP on the military, while Washington’s NATO allies have failed to fulfill even their meager commitment (adopted more than a decade ago) of devoting two percent of GDP to defense. Indeed, the budgets of such key NATO members as Germany and Italy are far closer to one percent than two percent. And their already anemic budgets are in free fall, with weapons programs being canceled right and left. Matters are no better in East Asia, where South Korea spends a paltry 2.6 percent of GDP and Japan a mere one percent–despite having North Korea as a neighbor and China looming on the horizon. They perpetually under-invest in defense because they know they can count on Washington to protect them–courtesy of the American taxpayer. And conservatives in the United States aid and abet that free-riding.

It is not real conservatism to waste billions of dollars–and risk American lives–to intervene in parochial quarrels and back vulnerable, nonessential client states. And it is certainly not real conservatism to spend scarce tax dollars–and sacrifice American lives–on utopian nation-building ventures that are simply international versions of the arrogant social engineering schemes here in the United States that conservatives so rightly condemn. Yet that is what U.S. leaders have done in places like Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

If America adopted a foreign policy that focused on defending America’s vital interests instead of pursuing the vainglorious status of world policeman (and increasingly the world’s armed social worker), we could slash military spending by at least one-third. Of course, the poor, cash-starved Pentagon would then have to get by on a mere $400 billion or so each year.

Until the current crop of conservative political leaders get the issue of national security right, their movement is not serving the best interests of the American people. And their positions on military spending make a mockery of their claim to represent hard-pressed taxpayers.

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