I am tempted to comment on the political process that finally resulted in a debt ceiling deal this week, but there is just too much crazy to come up with a coherent observation. Instead I’ll note what Walter Russell Mead said to me on Twitter yesterday (one of my favorite pastimes is to tweet strangers with random comments). In his book Special Providence from 2001, Mead argued that it might be “the very sluggishness and unresponsiveness” of the American political system that has made the United States into a superpower and kept it there for so long. I asked him if this still applies. His response: “no default so the system still works, and still works badly.”
I guess he’s right, but I am still worried about the sustainability of the debt ceiling deal. To counter the narrative of a horrible deal being done, Democrats have been quick to point out that they got something out of the Republicans—defense cuts. This is only partially true. Here is the basic layout of the deal in regards to defense spending:
- Defense spending will be lobbed in under ‘security’ along with the Department of State, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, foreign aid, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the intelligence community management account.
- This ‘security’ spending will be capped at $684 billion for this fiscal year and $686 billion for the next. As Benjamin Friedman at Cato points out, this only guarantees less than $10 billion in cuts.
- If the Super Congress doesn’t agree on further spending cuts, this will trigger an automatic cut of roughly $600 billion to ‘security’ spending over nine years (the formula is complicated, according to Russell Rumbaugh). This is no guarantee that defense spending will be cut, and it is not unlikely that State and DHS will absorb most of the cuts.
- The White House is claiming $350 billion in savings from the base defense budget, but as Christopher Preble at Cato points out, this number is a bit of a sleight of hand.
- It is also important to note that this cut replaces the phony $400 billion in defense cuts the Obama administration proposed over twelve years.
To sum up: the numbers put out there are far from certain. They are a mix of wishful thinking and spin, and there is no guarantee some future Congress won’t mess this up (I can’t imagine why I’d say something like that). But to not be overly pessimistic, the very fact that Democrats and Republicans actually agreed to some sort of defense spending reduction is a huge leap forward compared to the political climate two years ago. I just wish it were more than a little nudge in the grand scheme of things.
On a final, long note, it is important to keep in mind that not all defense cuts are good cuts. It is not entirely clear to me how these possible defense cuts would be achieved, but I am wary of simply slashing the topline of the military budget. Giving the Pentagon a number and letting them figure out how to best save can work, since it is the top brass who knows that the military needs and what it can go without (Congressmen seem to always forget this as they keep pouring money into procurement programs the services don’t want, or never even asked for in the first place). However, the U.S. military is in a fairly precarious situation right now. It is worn down after ten years of warfighting and probably needs billions in investments to get up to the level it was before 9/11.
Therefore, simply handing the brass a topline number to live within won’t cut it (no pun intended). At this point, any responsible reduction in defense spending has to come as a result of a real, honest strategic review of the U.S. armed forces. The military is simply asked to do too much. Reading the Quadrennial Defense Review or the National Military Strategy one gets the impression U.S. troops can and should do absolutely everything, and no risk of any threats is acceptable. It is hegemonic policy by way of wishful thinking. If such a strategic review concludes that more defense spending, and not less, is necessary, then so be it. I’d probably disagree with it, but then at least it would be good strategy based on sound policy.