With Russian bombs falling in Ukraine and a difficult midterm election looming at home, President Biden released a budget proposal that includes a significant increase in military spending. According to the White House document, total defense spending (and there are several ways of calculating it) will be $782 billion in 2022; Biden proposes raising that to $813 billion in 2023.
But outside of a few voices on the left, you’ll hear almost no one question this idea; the only “debate” will be about whether we should spend even more on the military. Russia’s war on Ukraine will figure significantly in those arguments, with Republicans in particular claiming that Russian aggression just shows the need for more and more military spending.
When you hear that, ask a simple question: Why?
Consider the two main responses we’re hearing to this proposal. The first, from journalists, is to say that it’s a political play for the center, the assumption being that what the ordinary American voter wants is more military spending, and by signaling that he wants that, too, Biden might help his party mitigate its potential losses.
This is one of those baseline assumptions journalists carry with them without ever checking whether they’re true. But polling suggests that rather than hungering for military spending, the public is divided into thirds: One-third thinks we spend too much on the military, one-third thinks we spend too little, and one-third thinks the spending is about right.
The second response to Biden’s budget, from Republicans, is that such a modest increase is totally inadequate to the needs imposed by a dangerous world. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the proposal reflects Biden’s “far-left values” and “falls woefully short,” depriving the defense budget of “the robust growth we need to keep pace with Russia and China.”
To make his case, McConnell feels the need to mislead: We spend 2½ times as much as Russia and China combined on defense, so the idea that we need to dramatically increase spending to “keep pace” with them is simply untrue. But this is par for the course in debates over defense spending, which start from the presumption that shoveling more money to the Pentagon must be part of the solution to every new development or foreign policy problem in the world.
But let’s think about Ukraine for a moment. There are differences of opinion about the Biden administration’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, but one thing we’re not facing is a lack of resources. For instance, we’ve chosen not to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine because the administration believes (rightly) that it could lead to World War III. It’s not because we don’t have the means to do so if we chose.
That’s today, you might say, but what about tomorrow? Well, ask yourself: What precisely is the question the Ukraine war raises for which the answer is, “We have to spend more money”? What would we like to do that we don’t currently have the budget for?
This is a game we used to play, especially during the Cold War. John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 warning of a fictitious “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union that supposedly left us vulnerable in a nuclear exchange. Though it never existed, it was used to justify higher military budgets.
But most of the time these days, there are no specific “gaps” mentioned when we debate the military budget. The arguments we get are a series of grunts referring vaguely to threats to our dominance. China bad! Must be strong!
But for context, the United States accounts for almost 40 percent of the entire world’s military spending. China spends only a third of what we do. Russia’s military budget is around 8 percent of what ours is — yes, 8 percent. So how would spending $900 billion or $1 trillion a year thwart Putin’s imperial dreams in a way that $800 billion a year won’t?
To some, it’s just the cost of being the global hegemon; you never know when we’ll have to invade another country or two to add to our long list. Which is a reminder that only a tiny percent of the defense budget goes toward actually defending the United States from attack. The overwhelming majority of what we spend in time, effort and dollars is about projecting American power outward to every corner of the globe.
And of course, unlike almost every other part of the federal budget, no one (especially Republicans) ever asks “How are we going to pay for this?” when military spending is being discussed. No one demands it be offset by raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere. No one laments the amount being added to the deficit. No one repeats the 10-year cost of the proposal — in this case, $8.6 trillion — as a terrifyingly huge number that will rob our children and grandchildren of any hope for a prosperous future.
So what if we subjected military spending to the same kind of scrutiny, and the same kind of tough questions, every kind of federal spending deserves? We might find ourselves saving a lot of money, without sacrificing our safety at all.