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“The gusher has been turned off,” the Washington Post quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates telling an audience of 300 on Saturday at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS. “And it will stay off for a good period of time.”
Gates was focused on the current iteration of a common Pentagon problem – a mismatch between the nation’s defense posture and its defense dollars. U.S. leaders often proscribe a broader global role for the nation’s military, with more goals and missions, than near-term defense spending can accommodate.
With the “gusher…off” – or, in plain English, with the era of huge defense spending increases in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks coming to an end – the Pentagon will have to find more creative ways to fund its needs. Thus, Gates announced he will seek $15 billion in savings in defense overhead that he will then re-apply to weapons modernization and U.S. troop needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates is hardly the first defense secretary to face this predicament. Ever since the United States assumed world leadership nearly a century ago, its defense budget has ebbed and flowed – with “build-ups” driven by global challenges followed by “build-downs” driven by fiscal concerns. A look through the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables makes the case.
Viewing defense as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), the nation ramped it up to prosecute World War II and then cut it sharply to reduce surging deficits and debt; boosted it to fight in Korea and then sliced it over fiscal concerns; held it steady from the late 1950s to the late 60s while the Cold War and Vietnam raged and then cut it during détente in the 1970s; ramped it up again during the Reagan build-up before reversing course in the face of spiraling budget deficits and the Soviet crack-up; and boosted it for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader War on Terror before, based on President Obama’s budget assumptions, reversing course again in the coming years.
Despite the build-ups, however, defense spending has generally trended downward. It totaled 9.3 percent of GDP in 1962 (the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis), but it never rose higher than 6.2 percent during the Reagan build-up, it measured 5.4 percent when President George H.W. Bush launched the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, and it barely measures 5 percent today as the nation fights on two fronts.
Why has defense shrunk as a share of GDP? For at least two reasons. First, the economy has grown much larger over the last half-century. Second, the Pentagon has become more efficient at war-fighting. So, the nation can allocate less of its national income to defense and still protect its interests.
The question, of course, is what comes next. What’s past may not be prologue. Quite the contrary, the coming years may bring an unprecedented clash between our defense needs and our ability to fund them.
Though we are unmatched in military prowess, our global challenges have nevertheless grown in recent years. We face a rising China that seeks to challenge our Pacific role, a resurgent and ornery Russia, a nuclear North Korea and nuclear-seeking Iran, and a war with radical Islam that will extend for years.
Meanwhile, we face the prospect of unprecedented deficits that will subject all spending to severe scrutiny – domestic and defense alike. Whether we can maintain our global role while our red ink soars is anyone’s guess.
In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Yale historian Paul Kennedy warned in the late 1980s that the United States could succumb to “imperial overstretch” – the problem in which our resources prove inadequate to fund our global commitments. Our victory in the Cold War soon thereafter, however, put off our day of reckoning, enabling us to cut defense sharply while maintaining our global role.
Now, however, our frightening fiscal outlook begs an obvious question: Will Kennedy finally be proven right?
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Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.