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America's Defense Posture
The other day, author/historian Mark Helprin had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “America’s Dangerous Rush to Shrink Its Military Power,” which was adapted from a speech he delivered to the Claremont Institute.
“From the president on down through his secretary of defense, the service secretaries, and a cast of generals whose decorations would choke an alpine meadow with color, we are told that further reductions in American military power are warranted and unavoidable. This view is supported by the left, the right that unwisely fears accounting more than war, by most of the press, the academy, and perhaps a majority of Americans, and it is demonstrably and dangerously wrong.
“Based upon nothing and ignoring the cautionary example of World War II, we are told that we will never face two major enemies at once. Despite the orders of our potential adversaries and the fact that our response to insurgency has been primarily conventional, we are told that the era of conventional warfare is over. And we are told that we can rest easy because military spending is an accurate index of military power, and we spend as much as the next however many nations combined….
“Though military spending comparisons are of lesser utility than assessing actual capabilities, they are useful nonetheless for determining a country’s progress relative to itself.
“Doing so reveals that from 1940 to 2000, average annual American defense expenditure was 8.5% of GDP; in war and mobilization years 13.3%; under Democratic administration 9.4%; under Republican 7.3%; and, most significantly, in the years of peace 5.7%. Today we spend just 4.6% of GDP – minus purely operational war costs, 3.8%. That is, 66% of the traditional peacetime outlays. We have been, and we are, steadily disarming even as we are at war….
“At West Point this summer, the president said, commandingly, “At no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy.” Except of course the United States, the very country of which he is president, which despite the most severe diminution of economic vitality in its history (12 years, the economy cut in half) became the arsenal of democracy, sustained Britain and Russia, swept the seas clear of opposition, freed most of Europe, and conquered Japan – in the greatest war ever known.
“The president’s point was that despite whatever dangers we may face, the military must wait for the economy. But this is not so. Rather than dragging the economy down, putting the country on a war footing in 1940 revived it. Rearmament was a super-potent organizing principle and engine of production. Between 1931 and 1940 average GDP was $77.5 billion and average unemployment 19%. By 1944, GDP had increased 271% to $210 billion, unemployment had dropped to 1.2%, and real personal income had more than doubled. All this despite the fact that by 1945 the country was spending just under 40% of GDP, and 86% of the federal budget, on defense, at a time when a much greater proportion of income was devoted to necessities. And subsequently the war debt was retired with relative ease even as we enabled the rebuilding of Europe and defended it for half a century.
“What does this tell us about defense spending? It tells us not only that it is not a poison, it can be an elixir. It tells us that it should proceed, therefore, not according to an ahistorical false premise, but in line with what is actually required to defend the United States. It tells us that, entirely independent of economic considerations, although not a dime should be appropriated to the military if it is not necessary, not a dime should be withheld if it is. The proof of this, so often and so tragically forgotten, is that the costs of providing an undauntable (sic) defense, whatever they may be, pale before blood and defeat. As for gauging necessity, we will have to deal with the rise of China, the growing power of Russia, and the nuclearization of fanatic regimes….
“What argument, what savings, what economy can possibly offset the costs and heartbreak of a war undeterred or a war lost?”
Mr. Helprin doesn’t mention potential conflict with North Korea but obviously could have used this as an example of staying prepared. I noted in my “Week in Review” column the other day that South Korea’s Defense Ministry came out with a new white paper, released every two years, that states (“reconfirms” as the story I read put it, “that the U.S. will deploy an additional 690,000 troops, 160 navy ships and 2,000 military aircraft in the event of a war on the peninsula.” [Irish Independent]
I read this and think (as I imagine Mr. Helprin might), just where is a force of such size going to come from, given our still substantial commitment in Afghanistan, plus a lot of materiel remaining in the Iraqi theater until full withdrawal is complete, let alone a sizable force in the Gulf as a counter to Iran.
At the same time, I do believe we have to cut the defense budget because I believe there is tremendous waste in it and as I go to post, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is proposing cuts of some $100 billion. I haven’t had a chance to look at all the specifics and may comment later in this space.