Americans for Tax Reform released a letter yesterday in which they rejected the idea that conservatives should abstain from cutting defense spending in an effort to rein in government spending. To nail home their point, the letter states that “Under President Bush, military spending averaged 3.9 percent of GDP. Under President Obama, it has averaged 4.9 percent, a full percentage point higher. It is outrageous to assume spending under the president who launched the War on Terror, started the Department of Homeland Security and began the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not sufficient for even the most hawkish member of Congress.”
The letter is signed by a number of conservative luminaries (such as Grover Norquist, Brent Bozell, and Richard Viguerie) but is short on anyone who knows much about defense matters. And, indeed, their use of the above numbers reveals just how little they do know.
Although it’s true that from fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2009, defense spending was 3.9 percent of GDP, it is not the case that President Bush was fighting two wars all eight years; nor was President Bush fighting two wars with all the resources required, as the belated surge in Iraq in 2007 showed. And by fiscal 2009, the last budget the Bush team put together, the percent of GDP for defense had already risen to 4.6 percent. Equally important, the Bush administration took office in 2001 when the defense budget stood at a post-World War low as as a percent of GDP—just 3 percent. That fact, as much as anything, accounts for why the Bush average for defense spending per GDP is lower than the Obama administration’s.
Moreover, does anyone really think that, if the Constitution’s limit on terms had somehow been magically put aside and Bush had remained in office, that defense spending would not be just as high, or higher today? Would Bush have refused to replace equipment used in the war in Iraq? Would he have done less when it comes to the war on terror? Would he have ignored the increased operational and personnel costs of an all-volunteer force still at war? And, finally, would he have been less vigorous in pursuing the war in Afghanistan? Doubtful.
The fact is, 4.9 percent is a level of defense spending just enough to keep the Pentagon afloat as it continues to wage war and, to the most minimal degree, begin to deal with a force structure composed of aging ships, planes, tankers, and helicopters. All of which comes after the Obama administration has already cut more than $300 billion in planned procurement expenditures by the Bush Pentagon. And, indeed, if one strips away the cost related to the drawdown in Iraq and the conflict in Afghanistan, there is hardly any difference in the core defense budget between the Bush and Obama administrations when it comes to percent of GDP.
If the signatories to the Americans for Tax Reform letter had their way, and defense spending was sliced back to 3.9 percent of GDP, one of two things would surely happen: for lack of funds, either we would be forced to leave Afghanistan or we would be required to accept a military reduced considerably in size and future capabilities. Both would be a roll of the dice when it comes to the country’s security. Is that what Grover and company really want?