Paul Ryan’s Weak Case For A Strong Defense

One aspect of Paul Ryan’s new budget that hasn’t drawn much attention is that it is a big love letter to the Pentagon. Ryan rejects the idea that budgetary pressures should have any effect on defense spending, which he argues should be dictated purely by “strategic” calculations. Among other things, the Ryan budget would reverse $55 billion in defense cuts mandated for 2013 by the “trigger” agreed to in last year’s budget ceiling deal – and cut this same amount from domestic programs instead.

Ryan says we shouldn’t worry about military spending, even amid a supposed fiscal emergency, because such outlays are “shrinking as a share of government spending and as a share of the national economy.” America may have a spending problem, Ryan and the House Budget Committee believe, but the Pentagon is not part of that problem: “This category of spending is clearly not driving the unsustainable fiscal trajectory that is threatening the nation’s future.”

That’s strange to hear, since soaring security costs since 9/11 have been a key driver of deficits – accounting for about $1.4 trillion in new debt since 2001 by one widely cited non-partisan estimate. And, looking ahead, it’s hard to see a path to fiscal discipline that doesn’t include sharp cuts to the defense budget, which constitutes over half of all discretionary federal spending.

Ryan is wrong – and misleading – when he argues that defense spending is shrinking. He says that defense as a percentage of GDP has declined from its “Cold War average of 7.5 percent to 4.6 percent today.” What he doesn’t say is that this share is up from the 1990s. Defense spending ranged between 3 percent and 3.4 percent of GDP from 1996 to 2001, according to budget datafrom the Office of Management and Budget. Likewise, while Ryan says that such spending as a percentage of all federal outlays is down from 25 percent three decades ago to 20 percent today, he doesn’t mention that defense spending constituted just 16 percent of federal outlays in 1999.

It made sense that the Pentagon’s budget rose following 9/11 as the U.S. became embroiled in two land wars, as well as a broader global fight against al Qaeda. But the United States is now out of Iraq and will soon be out of Afghanistan. Moreover, we have made big strides in dismantling al Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden and other top leaders.

Given these new realities, what is the right level of defense spending going forward? Is there really a case for spending a third more on defense in the next decade than we did in the 1990s, as the House Budget Committee proposes?

Ryan’s blueprint doesn’t really attempt to make that case. Rather, it speaks generally of the need for American leadership in a dangerous world and avoiding America’s “decline as a world power.”