The New Peace Dividend

I have intentionally held off on writing for longer-than-usual because I wanted to see how things were going to play out with the recent debt negotiations.  The result?  An agreement that gave John Boehner 98% of what he wanted and left President Obama looking like a bit of a  “loser” to many on both sides of the aisle.

Under the circumstances of imminent economic crisis and a Republican Party ready and willing to drive the economy off the cliff, the administration had few options but make up for earlier missteps by doing as much damage control as possible and swallowing the least distasteful “Satan Sandwich” it could get. The bill consists of (primarily future) spending cuts totaling 900 billion dollars and appoints a “Super Congress” that would seek additional measures to find an additional 1.5 trillion dollars.  These sound like big numbers, but the cuts are spread out over a decade and only represent about 20-25% of the budget deficit.

The most startling, and underreported outcome of the negotiations, however, involves the military budget.  Over one-third of the agreed spending cuts come in the form of cuts to the military budget.  Some of these cuts in military spending are “cheating,” in the sense that they involve already anticipated reductions in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan.  An interesting situation has emerged in which Democrats, unable to obtain federal revenue through increased taxes on the wealthy, have come to see the progressive goal of reduced military expenditures as the-next-best-thing.

The situation becomes even more interesting in November, when the bipartisan Super Congress is required to submit its budget recommendations.  If the Super Congress fails to submit its recommendations or Congress fails to approve them, than an additional 1.2 trillion dollars in spending cuts will be automatically triggered.  About half of those cuts will be taken out of the Pentagon’s budget.

What’s more likely to happen is a small-scale replay of the last month’s negotiations.  Republicans will demand cuts and refuse to negotiate on revenue beyond “closing tax loopholes” (closing loopholes is expected to magically create revenue in the same way “eliminating waste” in governments creates big savings).  Democrats, desperately looking to avoid more cuts in social programs, will attempt to mine the military budget for savings.  Since the consequence of not coming to an agreement would mean even larger cuts to the military, reticent Republicans will acquiesce to Democrat demands for large defense cuts.

Something has changed over the last year, however, and many Republicans won’t be as reticent as they use to be when it comes to cutting defense.  The newfound Republican “softness” on defense is direct consequence of divisions within the Tea Party.  The Tea Party is mostly a movement of socially conservative southerners and Midwesterners, but a libertarian streak is still evident in views on foreign and military policy.  That libertarianism can manifest itself as nativism, but also a sort of quasi-isolationism that views the Jefferson’s warning about “entangling alliances” with approval.

The last “peace dividend” occurred after the Cold War ended in the early nineties. Federal spending on the military remained relatively flat, and declined as a percentage of GDP from over 5% in 1990 to 3% in 2000.  The surplus that existed on Clinton was made possible, in part, because of this piece dividend.  Since 2001, defense spending has increased to almost 5% of GDP again as the U.S. has committed itself overseas to the “war on terror.”

Proponents of current levels of military spending, however, find themselves in the eye of the perfect storm.  The end of the Iraq War, the start of a draw down in Afghanistan, the killing of Bin Laden, and a general war weariness among the American people after a decade of conflict have greatly diminished public support for military operations abroad. Deadlock between the parties coupled with an increasing Republican ambivalence toward military budgets means large, future cuts are almost inevitable.

Will the reduction in military expenditure hurt American’s security?  If reductions are done intelligently, no.

For the present, the biggest threat to Americans continues to be Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist groups in Pakistan and Yemen (which I think I’ll write about next week).  The biggest successes against Al Qaeda have come through the judicious use of Special Forces and unmanned droned as well as the on and off cooperation of foreign governments.  The legacy of the hundreds of thousands of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan is much less clear.

In today’s world, a big military is not necessarily one that makes us secure.  It can even work against our security. When the United States has to cut deals with questionable governments, such as the gilded apartheid regime in Bahrain, enemies quickly paint us as “hypocrites” (within Islam, this is a particularly poignant charge).  At the same time, the very reach of the U.S. military paints, for many, a picture of a global Goliath.  And let us not forget that the original, most important, grievance expressed by Al Qaeda towards the United States revolved around the continued U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia.

The next decade will represent a period of retrenchment by the United States.  While the U.S. defense budget is still likely to exceed that of the rest of the world combined, sizable cuts are in store.  Even if a successful terrorist attack occurs against Americans, it will likely not be of the scale of 9-11 and is unlikely to provoke a similar response.  As the threat of Al Qaeda gradually recedes as a result of its increasing unpopularity, new boogeymen, real or imagined, will eventually rise.  For the next few years, however, those “isolationists” pressing for a retreat of the United States from its global presence will be playing a strong hand.  And that’s not a bad thing.

Posted on August 3, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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