Today on Capitol Hill, representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative will gather to present a brief on the subject of Defending Defense: Setting the Record Straight on US Military Spending, which will reportedly "separate myth from fact in the current defense-spending debate."
As I've noted in the past, the push to make defense spending off limits is all about convincing the incoming wave of small government populists who are about to descend on Congress to leave defense pork off the cutting list. Cato President Ed Crane responded to the Wall Street Journal oped kicking off this project (authored on behalf of AEI's Arthur Brooks, Heritage's Ed Feulner, and FPI's Bill Kristol) with the point: "Rather than Congress constantly writing a blank check, the process of military budgeting should begin with a discussion about security necessities and their costs." But one doesn't need to be a libertarian or be opposed America's efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan to think that the massive waste and inefficiencies of the defense budget need to be curtailed.
When listening to Heritage's Mackenzie Eaglen, former advisor to Sen. Susan Collins, and John Noonan, a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard, defend this viewpoint, I simply don't find their arguments convincing. I can't see the conservative justification for the view that defense spending needs to be placed off-limits for cutbacks, nor why the Tea Party movement should view this argument with anything but skepticism. In Noonan's interview here, he names a number of expanding and changing missions (soft power, cyber-security, two wars overseas), but then reverts to the standard two "big money" arguments: "the Air Force has old planes and we should make new ones", and "the Navy has the smallest fleet since World War I." Of course, neither of those things really impact the "new" missions for the United States military.
Deterrence is important. But just having more carriers and fighters isn't the answer. The United States already outnumbers the next 20 navies combined, most of which are our allies. The point is not the size of the fleet, but the capabilities. China and Russia have been achieving a good deal of technological success when it comes to anti-carrier low-flying missiles. The more such technology progresses, the less our ability to stick a carrier between China and Taiwan matters. Deterrence depends on spending money wisely, investing it with a mind toward proper priorities, and without a cap on the pocketbook, there's no incentive for making those decisions.
I have yet to hear one suggestion on expanding the defense budget from the groups involved in this effort that focuses on what the United States is doing right now. Next-war-itis has been a problem within the military acquisition process since the Cold War -- to the benefit of many suppliers -- and it's a "Myth of the Next" approach Sec. Gates rejected when he slashed the Army's Future Combat Systems while massively expanding the MRAPs budget.
Yet there's a more fundamental problem here: a question of conservative hypocrisy. Today, writing in Politico, Feulner and Sen. Jim DeMint hail the arrival of the Tea Parties as an enduring force in American politics. They note the disgust of these small government populists with the establishment forces of both parties. That frustration didn't come from nowhere, of course: it came from years of being ignored when it comes to matters of policy. It came from seeing the dilution of principle in favor of power. And it came from seeing their elected officials make small government promises and then defending bloated pork.
Those conservatives who claim that defense spending should be off-limits at Capitol Hill meetings of Washington, D.C. think tanks aren't going to find an eager audience with these new anti-establishment populists. And that, in my judgment, is a fact.