Neoconservatives responded to President Obama's recent proposal for sham defense cuts with a major hissy fit. The Weekly Standard even declared them “morally and strategically unsound.”
Their reaction is hardly surprising given that they have been launching pre-emptive strikes against such "cuts" ever since America’s dire fiscal health became a hot political issue. “A weaker, cheaper military will not solve our financial woes,” wrote three doyens of the neoconservative establishment last October in The Wall Street Journal. “It will, however, make the world a more dangerous place, and will impoverish our future.”
To paraphrase author Mary McCarthy, every word in that statement is false, including “and” and “the.”
Despite much bellyaching about debt and deficits, neoconservatives are upset because President Obama wants to cut $400 billion in the Pentagon’s projected spending through 2023. This means that instead of getting automatic increases in its baseline budget and inflation adjustments, Pentagon will now get “only” the latter.
In a sane world this would be considered lame, not radical, especially since the Pentagon’s core budget has doubled since 9/11. Defense spending constitutes 20 percent of the total federal budget and 64 percent of nondiscretionary spending. The world spends $1.5 trillion on defense annually and America alone accounts for $900 billion of this.
But neoconservatives insist that this is not enough because America is the only country that can keep the world safe. Thus even though America no longer faces the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union, defense spending must continue apace.
This would be a bad argument even in good times, but right now it is positively daft.
Standard & Poor’s downgraded the outlook for U.S. debt from stable to negative recently because total government debt now exceeds an eye-popping 70 percent of gross domestic product. American households have lost tens of trillions in wealth, thanks to plummeting home values, investment income and retirement assets.
Asking them to foot the bill to play global cop right now is tantamount to asking someone whose own home is in foreclosure to buy a new security system for their neighbor on their credit card. Only in the alternative universe that neoconservatives inhabit could this not “impoverish our future.”
And will spending to preserve American hegemony even make the world safer? No. America’s guarantees to NATO and Asian allies gives them enough security that they don’t have to worry about it. But it is less than what European and Asian nations would likely acquire if they had to actually fend for themselves. Indeed, even if our allies were poor, which they are not, they could afford to spend far more on their own individual security than the U.S. does or could. In effect, then, with America Inc. providing global security, the globe gets less—not more—net security.
If neocons are unfazed by this fact, it’s because ultimately the purpose of their foreign policy is less to counter existential threats and more to provide existential meaning. A robust defense capable of supporting an interventionist foreign policy, they believe, would give Americans a sense of common purpose that a hyper- individualistic liberal society erodes. Their hope is that if America uses its power to remake the world around the ideals of freedom, democracy and apple pie, then Americans will feel a renewed pride in their own values, something that is essential for the long-term health of the polity. As prominent neocons William Kristol and Robert Kagan once wrote, “The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires a remoralization of American foreign policy.”
This is a rather bizarre outlook. Indeed, if the cure for the meaninglessness that liberal democracy breeds is turning other countries into liberal democracies, then what are these new liberal democracies going to do when they experience a loss of meaning? Invade other countries? What happens if neocons actually succeed in making every country a liberal democracy? Where will we all look for meaning then? Other planets?
But of course too much success is not America’s problem right now. Nation-building is an extremely difficult task that America is particularly bad at as Afghanistan and Iraq amply prove. If anything, such forays have produced not a boost—but a loss—of national self-confidence.
In the fight over ObamaCare, neoconservatives argued—correctly—against a government takeover of our health-care system because the government can’t run it well. But how can a government that can’t run its own health-care system run entire nations?
The prudent thing to do would be to cut the country’s defense budget as a matter of self-management. Just as it is necessary for an alcoholic to throw out all his beer to avoid temptation, we ought to shrink our arsenal to avoid jumping in when the next intervention opportunity arises.
This doesn’t mean that we have to give up the quest to rally Americans around some common cause. But surely there are better candidates. How about greater American participation in international sports? America’s soccer team could use some love and support. It would certainly be easier to build it up than to build a functioning country—and likely do more to solve our existential crises to boot.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist at The Daily, America's first iPad newspaper, where this column originally appeared. This column previously appeared at Reason.com.