In his Aug. 31 speech announcing the end of "combat operations" in Iraq, President Obama argued that the military efforts the nation has made since 9/11 had "shortchanged investments in our own people and contributed to record deficits." As Bob Woodward's new book "Obama's Wars" makes plain, a similar mentality pervaded the president's Afghanistan strategy: His response to the need for a long-term American military presence was, "I am not spending a trillion dollars!"
It is encouraging to see Mr. Obama concerned about deficits and debt. But his concern with the military is largely misplaced. It is neither the true source of our fiscal woes, nor an appropriate target for indiscriminate budget-slashing in a still-dangerous world.
Consider the actual dollars. According to the Congressional Budget Office's most recent projections, the president's proposed budget for 2011 will add $10 trillion in debt over the next decade. By 2020, the federal government will owe $20 trillion, or $170,000 per American household.
That's a beast that must be stopped, but it is a beast that has not principally been fattened on a diet of Pentagon spending. Even with the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, this year the Department of Defense will spend some $720 billion—about 4.9% of our gross domestic product, significantly below the average of 6.5% since World War II.
Defense spending has increased at a much lower rate than domestic spending in recent years and is not the cause of soaring deficits. Even as the United States has fought two wars, the core defense budget has increased by approximately $220 billion since 2001, about a tenth as much as the government devotes each year to "mandatory" spending: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, lesser entitlements such as food stamps and cash assistance, and interest payments on the debt. These expenditures continue automatically, year after year, without congressional debate.
We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget. But anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform.
Furthermore, military spending is not a net drain on our economy. It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.
Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself. The Global Trends 2025 report, which reflects the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, anticipates the rise of new powers—some hostile—and projects a demand for continued American military power. Meanwhile we face many nonstate threats such as terrorism, and piracy in sea lanes around the world. Strength, not weakness, brings the true peace dividend in a global economy.
We have not done enough to help our military preserve the peace and deter (and if necessary, defeat) our enemies. Americans have fought superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have prevented any further terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11. But faced with a nuclear Iran, or a Chinese People's Liberation Army that can deny access to U.S. ships or aircraft in the Asian-Pacific region, there are many missions ahead.
Yet we face those challenges with a baseline defense budget—defense spending minus the cost of the wars—that is 3.6% of GDP, significantly less than the Reagan-era peak of 6.2%. Our active-duty military is two-thirds its size in the 1980s. The number of ships, helicopters, fighters, strategic bombers and other combat vehicles is declining. Much of what remains in service is decades old and in need of replacement.
The recent report of the Independent Quadrennial Defense Review Panel—a bipartisan body headed by William Perry, secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, and Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to George W. Bush—described our military decline as a looming "train wreck." The panel concluded that, at a minimum, it was necessary to retain current land forces, accelerate Air Force modernization, and perhaps most urgently, halt and reverse the shrinking of the Navy. Meeting these requirements "will require a substantial and immediate additional investment that is sustained through the long term."
Congress can make a difference here by insisting that the Obama administration endorse responsible defense budgets instead of throwing our money down the well of entitlement expansion. Just as important, political leaders can make the case for military strength key to an overall strategy of American leadership.
There are some who think the era of U.S. global leadership is over, and that decline is what the future inevitably holds for us. Some even believe that decline offers us a better future, in the model of our relatively pacifist social-democratic allies.
But this is an error. A weaker, cheaper military will not solve our financial woes. It will, however, make the world a more dangerous place, and it will impoverish our future.
Mr. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Kristol is a director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.
First appeared in The Wall Street Journal