Is freedom's price too high for the right?

By Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly
Friday, September 24, 2010

Since World War II, a touchstone of American conservatism has been the defense of freedom. The freedoms of others were regarded as essential to secure and enjoy our own. In 2010, however, the conservative movement -- and the party that seeks to represent it -- is at a crossroads. One path continues in this direction; the other leads backward, seeking to defend freedom only at home. The choice conservatives make will go a long way toward defining America and the world, still more toward defining the future of the right.

The road backward beckons in an almost Calvinistic call to fiscal discipline; austerity is its virtue even before national security in a time of war. Libertarians and Tea Party darlings such as Ron and Rand Paul and conservative stalwarts such as Tom Coburn have long inhabited this political territory. Members of the GOP vanguard such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and, possibly, insurgent Tea Party candidates are joining them.

Thin threads bind these cloth-coat Republicans. Some simply wish to spend less; if that means under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan, so be it. To them, the Defense Department is another case of wasteful government and bureaucratic collusion that has, in Coburn's words, "allowed the military-industrial complex to make things unaffordable." For others, doctrinaire fiscal conservatism blends easily with a renewed isolationism. As one GOP up-and-comer told us recently, "America has borne the burden of making the world secure for 60 years; it's someone else's turn."

The road forward embraces small government and a renewal of private enterprise but sees an equally exceptional American enterprise abroad. This has been the mainstream position of conservatives and Republicans since 1945, expressed in Sen. Arthur Vandenberg's rejection of "isolationism" and embrace of "internationalism."

Yet Washington's chattering classes have tried to imagine a battle between the heirs of Eisenhower and Reagan. In this myth, Ike was a war-hardened vet who had the "political will and willingness . . . to make hard choices," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates intoned recently. Reagan, in this telling, was a profligate "supply-side" quack who gave his defense secretary America's credit card.

In reality, despite Eisenhower's rhetoric -- particularly his "cross of iron" speech bemoaning the sacrifice of butter for guns -- defense spending remained above 10 percent of gross domestic product for all but one year of his presidency. Notwithstanding substantial increases for the Pentagon under Reagan, the defense budget rose from 4.9 percent of GDP in 1980 to only 5.8 percent in 1988. Today, with war supplemental appropriations included, we are spending 4.9 percent of GDP. A return to Eisenhower-like spending would double the Pentagon purse.

Beyond the squabble over budgets, nothing less than a fight for the soul of conservatism is underway. Whereas some, such as Sen. John McCain, despise Pentagon profligacy because they are willing to pay the cost -- even in blood -- of American international leadership, it appears many young-gun conservatives are from another school, believing those costs are too high. Protestations that defense is not the source of the deficit are too often an afterthought to the budget-cutting imperative.

Partly fueling this ambivalence is confusion about what drives the American people. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele attempted to steal the populist thunder behind the Tea Party by dismissing the battles in Afghanistan as "Obama's war." Others, such as Senate candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky, have squirmed at the notion of continuing to pay for a war they oppose.

But while Americans often have doubts about the conduct of the war on terrorism, they continue to support a robust U.S. role in the world -- especially Tea Party supporters, who are better understood as Don't Tread On Me nationalists than as budget balancers. Even in straitened national circumstances, Americans who wish to cut defense spending are consistently outnumbered by those who believe we should spend the same or more on national security. The number of respondents agreeing with Gallup's suggestion that our "national defense is stronger than it needs to be" reached a high of 16 percent in 1990, the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (This year the number agreeing was 7 percent.)

The burden to the nation from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- 1.9 percent of GDP -- is less than the burdens of the Korean or Vietnam wars (3 and 2 percent, respectively). Many on the right understand that the costs of defeat on the battlefield, and the likely retreat from the world that would follow, would have long-term costs that would dwarf any budgetary bounce from a hasty exit.

In the longer term, budgetary shortfalls in defense inevitably affect our willingness and ability to take on challenges. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the gap between the national security imperatives articulated by the Defense Department and the current budget is $40 billion to $50 billion. Reservists are fighting wars with decades-old aircraft, fueled by tankers older than the president; our Navy patrols with just 286 ships and submarines -- fewer than half the 600-ship fleet of the Reagan years.

Democratic pollsters bemoan the "national security gap" that besets their party. The flip side of that gap is that Americans have trusted the right more on national defense. Conservatives, and the party that putatively represents them, need to decide whether they wish to continue to warrant that trust. They can continue to be the party of Eisenhower and Reagan, supporting and resourcing a robust American role in the world. Or they can reinvent themselves as a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and George McGovern, withdrawing from the world to a countinghouse America.

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Thomas Donnelly directs the institute's Center for Defense Studies.

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