The Hagel Pick Signals The End Of Big Pentagon


David Brooks, in a uncharacteristically aggressive tone, writes that the choice of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary signals the end of ‘blank checks’ for the Pentagon. Both parties are frozen with fear at the thought of Medicare cuts. Democrats, because they believe in the program, and Republicans, because despite their rhetoric on cutting spending, rely on votes from Medicare recipients.

Americans don’t particularly like government, but they do want government to subsidize their health care. They believe that health care spending improves their lives more than any other public good. In a Quinnipiac poll, typical of many others, Americans opposed any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 percent to 25 percent.

In a democracy, voters get what they want, so the line tracing federal health care spending looks like the slope of a jet taking off from LaGuardia. Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade. This is the crucial element driving all federal spending over the next few decades and pushing federal debt to about 250 percent of G.D.P. in 30 years.

Everything the federal government does is under a budget squeeze, and because Medicare is so popular, all spending that is less popular will be cut first. Enter Chuck Hagel.

Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.

All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary. The real question is, how will he begin this long cutting process? How will he balance modernizing the military and paying current personnel? How will he recalibrate American defense strategy with, say, 455,000 fewer service members?

How, in short, will Hagel supervise the beginning of America’s military decline? If members of Congress don’t want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.

I must take issue with Brook’s assertion that defense cuts are the equal ‘military decline.’ Matthew Yglesias also notes this:

As conservatives generally point out whenever the context isn’t military spending, it’s very damaging to human welfare to have the government tax productive labor in order to spend money on something useless. So given that population aging is certain to lead to growing pressures on the federal budget, it’s important to make up as much of the financing gap as possible by cutting spending elsewhere rather than with new taxes. And per the great Peterson Foundation chart above, the U.S. military budget is really large. Obviously, you don’t want to cut the military all the way to the bone lest you invite an invasion from Mexico or Canada. But we’re not even close to being overwhelmed by Canadian arms. And it’s striking that if you look at non-U.S. defense spending, a majority of it appears to be by U.S. treaty allies—NATO members, Japan, Australia, South Korea, etc.—so we really do seem very safe.

Its time for other nations, particularly European one, to take more responsibility for their own defense. If Lybia taught the French anything, it was that they rely far too much on the US for defense: France ran out of missiles during the operation and literally had to rely on the US for support.

There is no reason to think the US will decline militarily if we only spend 6 times what the Chinese do on defense instead of 7 times. The 21st century will be one of economic competition instead of military strategy. We mostly have free trade and global capitalism along with the rise of democracy across the globe to thank for this. We don’t have to rely solely on the military industrial complex to keep us safe. There just aren’t any armies out there to fight. Our defense budget ought to reflect the new reality of our more peaceful planet.

How can budgets like this, when compared to past defense spending, possibly be justified?


Past articles about defense budgets here and here.

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