Kagan Gets His Facts Wrong On Defense Spending

Our guest bloggers are Sean Duggan, Research Associate, and Laura Conley, Special Assistant for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

f22-raptor.jpgIn his recent column in the Washington Post (“No Time to Cut Defense“), Robert Kagan deplores a 10 percent cut in defense spending for Fiscal Year 2010 and lists several reasons to keep the budget for the Department of Defense high.

Unfortunately, Kagan’s argument is based on a crucial and mistaken assumption — that the 10 percent “cut” actually represents a decrease in spending. In fact, the budget that Kagan finds inadequate represents a 3 percent increase in spending over FY2009 levels (The proposed DOD budget will be $527 billion for FY 2010 compared to nearly $513 billion in FY 2009.) Moreover, the $527 billion request is the exact number proposed by the Bush administration last February for FY2010. And while this proposed budget does not fully meet the Pentagon’s request, the higher figure that Kagan refers to is a wish list proposed by the Joint Chiefs that was never meant to be fully funded.

Kagan also justifies his much larger preferred increase by arguing that current defense spending is in historic terms comparatively low as a percentage of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that “reduced defense spending” will erode the United States’ ability to pressure allies to help in Afghanistan, and that a “proposed decrease” would provide fodder for critics who believe the age of American hegemony is over. Kagan’s argument neglects three crucial facts.

First, while it is true that today’s ratio of defense spending to US GDP is relatively low compared to historic figures, this is irrelevant. Focusing solely on spending ignores the scope of American military commitments, the choice of strategy, and the degree of risk accepted. More importantly, it is common knowledge that DOD spending is actually more even in inflation-adjusted dollars today than at any other time since the end of the World War II. Comparing it to GDP obscures the more salient point that defense spending has increased dramatically in the last decade. Adding the funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the fiscal year 2009 base defense budget brings that sum in real dollars to nearly twice the amount spent for defense only eight years earlier.

Second, Kagan is wrong to suggest that the proposed budget will hinder American actions in Afghanistan or any other conflict zone. U.S. defense spending is already greater than the defense spending of all other nations combined. It’s difficult to image that increasing the budget “only 3%” would seriously jeopardize American credibility in the face of such an extreme disparity. Additionally, funding for the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq is not included in the DOD’s baseline budget. This money comes from separate supplemental appropriations, meaning that the “supposed decrease” does not directly affect our capabilities in these theaters.

Finally, the proposed budget will not contribute, as Kagan suggests, to the perception around the world that the U.S. “is in terminal decline.” U.S. standing in the world has been seriously damaged over the last eight years by, among other things, President Bush’s almost over reliance on the military as the key tool of foreign policy. Spending less money on expensive procurement programs, such as tanks and fighter jets, could signify a renewed commitment to diplomacy and development and help us rebuild credibility overseas. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has noted, the spigot of defense spending opened after 9/11 should come to a close and we should increase funding for diplomacy and devleopment.

While Kagan’s argument contains some serious flaws, we agree that a temporary increase in defense spending can and should be used to stimulate and grow the economy. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to use this temporary increase. The wrong way is to ask the Congress to spend money in order to impress our allies or purchase weapons that are not needed. For example, more F-22s–the most expensive fighter plan ever built–are not needed. Instead, over the next two fiscal years, the DOD should accelerate funds that would have to be spent eventually on people, projects, and reset that would improve the quality of life for our men and women in uniform and their families and enhance our overall security while enabling the economy to recover and grow.

While this would mean a temporary increase in the overall defense outlays for FY 2010 and FY 2011, it would also mean that in 2012 and 2013, defense spending on items such as military construction would tail off sharply when the economy should be back to its normal level of activity. This is the right way to increase defense spending, one that will restore American military power while revitalizing the economy.