Jeff Sybertz ’13
It is debate season in America. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have had a series of debates with Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney and Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan over the important issues facing voters such as the economy, the budget, and national security.
All four gentlemen agree that one of the most important issues is our nation’s $1 trillion debt. The two candidates’ plans for debt reduction differ on many fundamental issues but the most shocking aspect of both plans is a similarity: military spending is virtually untouchable. This view is not only shortsighted, but also frightening.
A large military budget put the US in two wars in the Middle East which have turned into seemingly never-ending quagmires and have been devastating for the economy. Moreover, keeping military spending off the table has forced politicians to cut spending on valuable social and cultural services that have increased the disparity between the rich and poor and stifled economic growth.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) military expenditures database states that the annual US military budget is almost $700 billion. That budget is larger than those of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, India, and France combined. The US also has the most private defense contractors in the world.
There are a number of reasons why the candidates do not want to cut military spending in these tough economic times. For one, they employ a large and intelligent segment of the American population. According to the US government, the Department of Defense employs over three million soldiers and civilians and the defense industry as a whole employs another three million people. Opponents of cutting the military budget argue that cuts could put these six million jobs in jeopardy.
During an election year in the current economic climate, enacting programs that might put six million jobs at risk is political suicide. Moreover, defense lobbyists are incredibly powerful in Washington and have funded the election of many members of Congress.
Defense spending proponents also argue that the President’s most important job is to protect US citizens from domestic and international threats. A reduced military budget will put the civilians’ lives at risk. There are dangerous people who are jealous of American power and willing to attack innocent American civilians in order to weaken our country. According to Romney and Ryan, a cut in the defense budget would be an “equivocation of our values” that would make the US appear weak. When we appear weak, our adversaries are more willing to attack us and our allies are less willing to support us.
Similar to the argument concerning civilian security, another common justification for the high defense budget is that the United States is the ultimate protector of democracy and human rights and we have the responsibility to promote these values abroad. Since there are despotic regimes that violate these rights, the US should act swiftly and decisively, through military force if necessary, to unseat these regimes and install governments that will respect the rights of their people. A reduced military budget will inhibit the US government from acting. The UN and the international community are too factionalized. The US acting unilaterally or through NATO are the only ways to hold despots accountable.
Although influential Democrats and Republicans believe many of these arguments, a change in the military structure and, subsequently, our American values must take place in order to prevent this country from going into further debt and potentially entering into another war. In response to the argument that cutting the military budget will put millions of jobs at risk, countries that have military budgets that are a fraction of the size of that of the US have far lower unemployment rates. China’s economy is growing at an unprecedented rate and has a population nearly four times as large as the US yet the US military budget is nearly seven times that of China’s. The fact that our economy is so dependent on military spending means that we are predisposed to war. However, as the past two decades have shown, while war might benefit the military industrial complex, it is crippling to the rest of our economy. Instead of promoting the benefits of working in the defense industry to highly skilled workers, we should promote the sustainability of other industries, such as energy.
In response to the argument for the need for a powerful military to protect civilians, the intelligence community has proven to be more crucial to the success or failure of attacks against Americans than the military. For example, although some might say that the attacks on the US consulate in Libya could have been avoided if there was a stronger military presence in the compound, both Romney and Obama agree that the attack was an intelligence failure.
Moreover, the terrorist attacks that have been thwarted over the past decade have been the result of intelligence, not military, successes. If anything, a powerful military presence makes the US more vulnerable. An aircraft carrier full of billion dollar fighter jets in the Gulf may dissuade a government from attacking US civilians but it is also a symbol of American domination in the region and could fuel the discontent of people who have already suffered the worst of American foreign policy. The military must change its philosophy to deal with new kinds of enemies. This change is possible without spending $700 billion a year.
The final argument that the military budget must remain high so that the US can continue to be the global protector of democracy and human rights is hypocritical and frightening. As history has shown, the US has been a global protector of human rights if it is in their interests. However, the US has also been a global protector of despots and tyrants if it is in their interests. A high military budget may allow the US to intervene in the massacres in Syria, but it will also keep a tyrannical Saudi regime in power and potentially wage war against Iran. This high military budget has allowed the US to control world events as they see fit with a blatant disregard to the UN and international law; a continuation of this trend is fearsome.
In the summer of 2011, President Obama and Congress reached a debt ceiling deal that will cut defense spending by nearly $500 billion over the next 10 years. However, in January 2012, President Obama said that the defense budget will continue to grow in the future because of our “global responsibilities.”
I understand that drastic cuts in military spending in the near future will be virtually impossible because of the political power of the military industrial complex. However, in the current economic climate where we are more than a trillion dollars in debt largely because of two irresponsible and expensive wars, policy makers should seriously consider reevaluating defense spending before they continue to gut social services that are a fraction of the size of the military budget. A budget is the greatest determinate of a country’s values.
Do we really want to be seen as a country that would rather gut social and cultural services to scrap away at a trillion dollar debt instead of trimming a military budget that is greater than the next 15 largest militaries combined?