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Is Defense Spending the New Third Rail?

The Department of Defense is likely to spend over $725 billion in fiscal 2020. This represents roughly 53% of total discretionary spending. And yet, the topic has received virtually no debate during this campaign season. Is defense spending now untouchable?

Several observations suggest that there is an underlying reluctance on the part of the candidates to discuss the topic.

First, and in sharp contrast, they do not shy away from discussing the details of other spending proposals, including everything from day care to teacher salaries, free college, healthcare, and climate change. 

Second, their reluctance cannot be explained by the absence of differences, as there are indeed differences amongst them. While they all anticipate savings from the cessation of “endless wars,” three support outright reductions in core defense spending. Yang has been the most specific, proposing to shift 10% of defense spending to “a new domestic infrastructure force.” Warren and Sanders also want to cut defense spending but have declined to suggest a target. Warren, who has many detailed plans as a point of pride, is uncharacteristically vague about how much she would cut.

Klobuchar, Gabbard, Steyer, and Biden are all silent on the topic. (Ending “endless wars” is Gabbard’s signature issue, but she has declined to specify a spending target.) Should we conclude that they would leave spending at current levels?

Third, the candidates rarely miss an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the president, who has aggressively increased defense spending. Why, then, are the three candidates who disagree with him seemingly reluctant to engage? 

Perhaps it is all explained by the traditional fear of being labeled “soft on defense,” a charge that Republicans have made successfully for decades: think George McGovern’s “Come Home America” and Governor Dukakis’s Abrams tank photo op. But, regardless of the motive of the candidates, what is the motive of the press? In the first several debates, not a single question was asked on this subject. Not one. Why not?

While it seems self-evident that the largest budget item would merit considerable discussion, it is also important because there are several critical questions about defense spending that could be addressed. Here are a few suggestions.

We spend more than the next eight countries combined (six of which are allies by treaty), more than 10 times what Russia spends and three times more than China. We have 800 bases around the world; the next largest is the UK with 16. Russia has nine and China has one. Perhaps we should understand why we can’t defend ourselves for less, as others do? Or, as a corollary, why we continue to shoulder the burden of protecting others while they invest in their own infrastructure, provide universal healthcare, etc.?

We have a stated strategy of retaining conventional superiority in every region of the planet. But is it possible that this is a great strategy for refighting WW2 versus the conflicts of the future? Are we prepared for persistent terrorist or guerrilla warfare, asymmetrical attacks, cyber threats, nuclear proliferation, and drone warfare?

Our military leadership has identified climate change as a significant threat to military preparedness. How should we respond? And, speaking of climate change, how do we weigh the threat of climate change to our way of life relative to the military threat of foreign powers? 

Do we need to maintain our nuclear arsenal, or could we renew our commitment to disarmament treaties and cut our related spending?

Is it possible that the accelerating shift to renewables from fossil fuels will weaken the influence of the Middle East and Russia and enable a reduction of conventional military spending? 

And finally, let’s have a debate over the relationship between domestic and national security. President Kennedy said, “A nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home.” With this in mind, would we be safer if we increased our investment in R & D in order to remain a great technological power? Would we be better off if we invested in a modern infrastructure that would support a shift to renewables and be impermeable to cyber threats? If our education system were performing to world standards? If our fiscal house were in order and we didn’t owe China, our stated adversary, $1 trillion? Would we be safer if we shifted some focus to the growth of airborne infectious disease and antibiotic-resistant bacteria? 

On this topic, it might be worth considering a recent observation made by Senator Warren: “It is the job of the US government to do what is necessary to protect Americans, but it is long past time to start asking what truly makes the country safer—and what does not.”


Ed Orazem

Ed is an author for Citizen Truth. He is the founder of OurFutureAmerica.org, a nonprofit resource for Americans seeking a fact-based, nonpartisan discussion of public policy.

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