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Commentary

Record Defense Spending, Less Security


     
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Can the United States really afford to spend an additional $600 billion on the Pentagon next year, on top of the $750 billion Wall Street bailout and another planned stimulus package? More important, is it necessary?

Those are two of many critical questions the Obama administration will face in January. For the sake of our country it needs to get the answers right.

The reality is: The United States would be just as secure if we reduced military spending, perhaps more so.

The U.S. armed forces would still be more capable than all of the world’s other militaries. The United States would still be able to project power anywhere around the globe if vital U.S. security interests were at risk (both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom were conducted without significant forces pre-stationed in either region). And reducing America’s military presence overseas might even reduce global tensions. After all, engagement with the rest of the world does not have to be at the end of a gun barrel.

Much of the current defense budget—$578 billion for fiscal year 2009, including funds for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—goes to support America’s excessively large overseas military presence. Even before we set foot in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 250,000 U.S. troops were deployed in more than 140 countries. This is unnecessary.

To provide perspective, current defense spending levels are higher in real terms than at any time during the Reagan era and have been surpassed only three times in history: in 1945 and 1946, when World War II was coming to an end and the Cold War just beginning, and in 1952, during the Korean War. But unlike these previous periods, the record spending comes at a time when the United States is more secure than at any time in the last 100 years, confronted by neither a serious military challenger nor a global hegemonic threat, such as the Soviet Union.

Besides, our large strategic nuclear arsenal (nearly 6,000 warheads) provides a powerful deterrent against any country with nuclear weapons—even against the likes of North Korea and Iran if they eventually acquire long-range ballistic missiles.

The time has come for the United States to plan not only its exit from Iraq, but from other countries where our military presence is unnecessary and often unappreciated. We don’t need U.S. troops in Europe, for example, where there is no military threat to NATO, nor in South Korea or Japan. Our European and Asian allies are wealthy enough to pay for their own security needs.

The real threat today is not the armies of other nations but the terrorist threat represented by al-Qaida, which is relatively undeterred by massive U.S. military power.

Indeed, the vast U.S. military did not stop 19 hijackers from attacking the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and killing more than 3,000 innocent civilians. U.S. forces abroad—particularly those deployed in Muslim countries—do more to exacerbate the threat than diminish it.

If the United States reduces its international commitments and brings home many of the troops now stationed in Europe, Asia and the Gulf, we could reduce our defense budget to pre-9/11 levels ($280 billion in fiscal 2000) because the military threats now confronting us are essentially the same as they were then.

Perhaps the main problem with maintaining an oversized military is what is known as the Madeleine Albright syndrome, in which the former secretary of state asks: "What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?" Such thinking has encouraged policy-makers to use military force even when it’s not needed. This, in turn, has helped incite anti-Americanism in much of the world, especially the Muslim world.

President-elect Barack Obama indicated during the campaign that he wants to enlarge America’s military. His first defense budget, for fiscal 2010, is likely to top $600 billion, even with expected troop reductions in Iraq.

But soaring defense budgets and the global U.S. military presence make us less secure, not more. That’s the lesson we should be drawing from our experience with terrorism. It’s a lesson we ignore at our own peril.


Charles Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.






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