Saturday, October 2, 2010

Neocons on the March

The Atlantic reports that three leading Neoconservative think tanks are launching a campaign to insulate defense spending against possible cuts. Cutting military spending has been a stated goal of the Obama administration and its Secretary of Defense and Bush administration holdover, Robert Gates.  One of the less popular liberal policies in the Democratic caucus is achieving the same goal.  And if you listen to the rhetoric of some of the more libertarian and deficit-hawk Conservatives, you might believe that they're heading the same way too.  Well, the Neocons are in the middle of a campaign to push back and protect every cent of the Pentagon's budget.
Though the warning not to give into the spending demands of the "Military-Industrial Complex" was authored by a Republican, the Washington establishment GOP has since become the primary defender of the Department of Defense budget.  Reagan's trumpeting of military spending including the hilariously flawed "Star Wars" program was the central thrust of his foreign policy agenda.  But the more libertarian coalition which is ascendant the grass-roots of the Republican Party, is beginning to demand cuts in spending to the DoD. Ron Paul, whose quixotic 2008 presidential run began energizing many of the libertarians, released a statement earlier this summer arguing for cuts in military spending. Republican candidates are courting tea party voters with similar statements. Even GOP establishment heart-throb Dino Rossi is going out of his way to insult the largest employer in Washington State as wasteful, the defense giant Boeing. Ken Buck says he expects to cut defense spending.

Ok, we get it- an internecine Republican feud on defense spending might give SecDef Gates the rhetorical leverage (but probably not the votes in the House) to cut spending on missile programs and weapons systems that the military doesn't want. It's a well reported story.

What caught my eye were the claims coming out of the Neocon side of this. Specifically, the numbers. A WaPo op-ed co-authored by the Center for Defense Studies and the AEI last Friday answers the libertarian view that the Defense Department spends a lot of money by comparing the share of GDP swallowed by the pentagon.  Using some pretty imprecise math, he claims we're spending about half as much in terms of GDP.  Of course, that would still come out as spending somewhere like an increase of 650% on defense spending in real terms, but who really cares about real money that is indexed for fluctuation so as to make comparisons between economic eras practical and meaningful?  Any way you slice it, spending 650% more on something isn't spending less.

The next dubious use of numbers was a lot less precise: It's in the Atlantic article that kicked off this discussion. Ambinder quotes a Deficit Defender as saying, "We agree with them on 90 percent of things. But this last ten percent is very important." Now, if he's bottling up all the random things that one could agree with another person about into the 90% side of the ledger, this makes sense. I too agree that springtime tends to be rather nice, that the ocean is blue, and that dogs are better than cats.

But if this unnamed strategist is talking about the policy differences between those who hold defense spending sacrosanct and those who want to cut it, he might be exaggerating their common ground. To someone who is serious about cutting government spending (and no one is saying that the candidates that the tea party is backing are necessarily serious), the discretionary defense budget is more than half of the budget that could be cut in the short term. In the words of Ron Burgundy, defense spending is kind of a big deal.

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