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Less Is Sometimes More

The financial troubles facing the country are leading many Republicans as well as Democrats to look at the defense budget and think about cuts.  Some cuts will likely take place as US forces gradually reduce their roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most proposals, including these from Oklahoma’s GOP Senator Tom Coburn, go farther.

There are lots of ways to cut a defense budget; as someone who believes strongly that Americans are better off with strong global forces than without them, I agree that some serious cuts can and must be made.  It’s partly a matter of politics; the defense budget can’t grow indefinitely even as domestic programs suffer deep cuts.

But it’s also a question of strategy.  As John Gaddis’ magisterial history of American strategy during the Cold War demonstrates, America tends to make smarter strategic decisions when we think our resources are limited than when we think the sky is the limit.  Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower who worried about budget deficits conserved American strength and thought long and hard about how to accomplish our core objectives with limited means, Gaddis says.  Those like Henry Truman (in his later, Keynesian phase) and the JFK/LBJ team took larger risks and assumed unnecessary burdens because they did not really believe there were any practical limits on what they could spend.

Introducing sensible spending discipline and ensuring that future presidents think about the limits of America’s wallet — as long as we don’t cut too deep or too foolishly — could actually make the US stronger and more secure.

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  • Anthony

    Our “core objectives” are yet to be coherently defined both domestically and globally; consequently, executive and legislative squabbles over U.S. fiscal responsibilities and obligations. Perhaps institutional review is required.

  • Luke Lea

    Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. ”

    Granted he acknowledged the importance of a strong national defense. But he also warned against a land war in Asia, ever. This in addition to his famous warning about the military-industrial complex which he described as “”a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions [whose] total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government…. We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.”

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