Zakaria on defense: don’t cut it, gut it

Posted: August 5, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , ,

Fareed Zakaria (a decade-long part of Newsweak Newsweek and a reliable voice on the decline of American power and influence) hails the possibility of massive defense cuts.  How massive is massive?  Over 10 years, the smallest number discussed is $600 billion in cuts and the largest is $1 trillion.  Zakaria offers such cuts would be “much-needed” adjustments “to an out-of-control military-industrial complex.”  He goes on to assert the defense budget has experienced huge growth in the last decade despite the fact we’ve “had no serious national adversaries.”

Zakaria’s ideas on the “military-industrial complex” are put into a better context here.  And his thought on our non-adversaries carry significant assumptions: North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, etc. must not be serious; alternatively, nations-of-concern like China and/or Russia must not be adversaries.  As it is, Zakaria’s position simply becomes a matter of defining “serious,” “national,” and “adversaries,” something he doesn’t bother with (except to say that whatever exists today–and in the last decade–isn’t it).

Zakaria’s ongoing lack of definitions and non-depth of discussion give way to hand-waving, ranting, assertion as explanation, ignorance, and not-articulated (but certainly optimistic) threat (and certainty) assumptions. Even though Zakaria whines that the U.S. accounts for half the world’s defense spending, he fails to consider in any way if we provide half (or more) of the world’s security/stability (which itself brings up the profound but unaddressed issue of security free-riders).

If you believe that all writing is autobiographical, you might suspect Zakaria’s real problem with the defense community is that it is well-funded, listened to, and held in high regard vis a vis the State Department.  The reality is neither Zakaria nor anyone else will ever make the weak (State) strong merely by making the strong (Defense) weak. 

Zakaria uses a particular time frame regarding his glorious defense cuts, the growth seen in the last decade.  Why?  Because the last decade was when the post-9/11 national security plus-up began (which was itself a rejection of the drawdown of the 1990s when the Defense Department carried much of the “peace dividend” burden).  Zakaria ignores the reason for the funding growth in the first place, the post-9/11 response intended to enhance national security.  

Now the effectiveness (let alone the efficiency) of the response to 9/11 can be argued all day.  Based on what we have observed to-date, the effort may end up as a sad blood-and-treasure pit along the lines of other recent good-government ideas like green energy, the stimulus or cash for clunkers.  So ponder if you will, the fact that every cut that’s now being discussed was once something that funding growth was intended to fix.  As someone once said, “While history and past experiences can be reasonable, useful, and even wonderful indicators…specifics regarding the future are often inherently unknowable.”

Zakaria bemoans the “cradle-to-grave system of [military] housing, subsidies…early retirement and lifetime pension and health-care guarantees.” In that regard, there is much to be discussed, but it (again) isn’t discussed in any way.  Instead, it’s the classic intellectual drive-by where a guy with a keyboard sprays us with his brilliance and “how-will-we-do-so?” questions are never brought up, let alone answered.

Finally, another important issue on defense spending is ignored in total: the impact of the consolidation of the defense industry in the 1990s.  This consolidation inadvertently led to a scarcity of ‘defense supply’ when just a decade later ‘defense demand’ was on the march.  Competition is a good thing for consumers (except apparently, with regard to an alternate F-35 engine) while redundancy (so that’s why there’s no alternate F-35 engine!) is a bad thing. 

Since we can’t have it both ways, trade-offs have to be made.  Of course, these trade-offs are often not made and the result is that government not only picks the winners but also sustains the losers (which therefore makes them winners, creating another definitional problem).  But back on point, as history has showed, excessive consolidation means reduced competition which has worked against the Defense Department on costs. That’s why OSD/AT&L has came out as being opposed to more large defense consolidations and mergers. 

What seems to most torment Zakaria is that defense funding might actually be a real reflection of national priorities.  Given the many priorities that exist, defense spending is the area most clearly and specifically chartered by the Constitution.  When we deceived ourselves and pretended we were flush with (borrowed) cash, everything could be fully funded, or even well beyond fully funded.  Someday, actual choices will be made and they are certain to involve discretionary cuts (defense and others) and reductions in transfer payments (those programs formerly known as non-discretionary spending).  That, as they say in the business, is a fact of life.

It’s possible (or even likely) the defense spending cuts being advocated for by Zakaria will move the nation back to a strategy of traditional deterrence, and should deterrence fail, “inflicting an unacceptable cost on our adversaries,” which is  somewhat akin to punishment. 

Punishment, should deterrence fail, might mean killing bad people (and killing enough of them to discourage the others who might otherwise try) and breaking their stuff.  This would be a move far away from the defense tactics de jour of counter-insurgency, nation-building, winning hearts and minds, and humanitarian relief efforts.  Given how things have worked out to-date in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps (to take this whole discussion full-circle and in a move Zakaria would likely not endorse) progressing back towards traditional deterrence is the national security way to go. 


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