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Q. How can you tell when William Kristol is giving bad policy advice?

A. His lips are moving. Or he’s typing. Or he’s writing an open letter for a bunch of hawks to sign. Or launching some new letterhead organization.

I refer, of course, to Kristol’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (co-authored with the presidents of the  the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute). The basic theme is that the world is very, very dangerous, and so the United States should not cut a nickel from its defense budget, even though we already spend more than the rest of the world combined, have most of the world’s major powers on our side, and possess a robust nuclear deterrent. So even though the country is also facing massive budget deficits, at least partly due to policies that Kristol has previously promoted, we need to build a wall around the defense budget and make sure it doesn’t get shrunk. At all.

Seriously, given Kristol’s track record over the past decade, you’d think that people who were hoping to be taken seriously in Washington would shy away from any association with his policy ideas. But to think that, you’d also have to believe that there was some degree of accountability in American political discourse, which is of course not the case. So despite the various disasters that Kristol and his associates have helped cause over the years, they are back with another well-orchestrated campaign to convince the country to do something foolish.

This latest proposal (part of a new “Defending Defense” initiative) has already attracted ample fire from a diverse array of experts and pundits, including FP’s Dan Drezner here. I see no need to pile on these various critiques, each of which makes good points. Instead, I want to focus on something that the critics have largely ignored; namely, how difficult it is going to be to make substantial cuts in defense spending, even in period of budgetary stringency, without simultaneously rethinking America’s overall grand strategy.

  • To start with, any serious attempt to cut defense spending would face opposition from Congressional representatives who want to keep defense contractors busy and military bases open in their states or districts. Thus, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ proposed that DoD save some bucks by closing the Joint Forces Command, the suggestion drew howls of protest from Virginia’s entire Congressional delegation. Was this because a separate Joint Forces Command was so essential to our national security? Of course not. It was because its headquarters was located in Virginia. When you consider how carefully the Pentagon scatters bases or sprinkles defense dollars in every Congressional district, you can see how hard it is going to be to make a significant dent in our current defense expenditures. And you certainly better not try to do so by trimming veterans’ benefits.
  • Second, as I’ve noted before, defense spending (and an activist foreign policy) are proudly defended by most prominent DC think tanks, many of whom depend on military contractors for a substantial part of their funding. This has been true of AEI and Heritage for a long time, but take a look at the funding sources for supposedly more “progressive” think tanks like the Center for New American Security. Inside the Beltway, defenders of a large defense budget are bound to be more numerous and better-funded than critics, thereby ensuring a chorus of “expert” opinion defending the budgetary status quo (or at the most, disagreeing at the margins).
  • Third, national security wannabes (i.e., civilians who aspire to careers in the national security establishment) have learned that critics of excessive defense spending aren’t taken as seriously in Washington and have a tougher time landing big foreign policy jobs. To be blunt, there isn’t that much daylight between hardcore neocons and energetic liberal interventionists, especially when it comes to preserving U.S. military preponderance or using that power against anyone we’ve taken a dislike to. So even though a lot of national security jobs are likely to open up in the next year or so (as Obama’s initial appointees cycle out) you shouldn’t expect to see advocates of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy replacing the current group. Sadly, most of the bloggers who’ve been eviscerating the Kristol et al position are not in line for big jobs in DC.
  • Fourth, cutting defense spending is going to be hard as long as we are still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, maintaining a globe-encircling array of military commitments, and letting most of our allies free-ride on our protection. As Drezner notes, Kristol and Co. vastly overstate the actual level of threat we face. But although U.S. forces are smaller than they were during the Cold War, we are still trying to patrol the same amount of real estate and the social engineering we’ve been trying to do in places like Afghanistan is very expensive, especially when compared to the strategic benefits it brings. Plus, we’ve burned up a lot of equipment over the past decade, and some serious money will have to be spent to re-equip U.S. forces once those wars are (finally) over.

Which brings me to my main point. Although it is mind-boggling to realize that five percent of the world’s population (the United States) now spends more on defense than the other 95 percent put together, this situation is hard to avoid when you see threats emerging virtually everywhere and when you think all of them are best met by an ambitious and highly interventionst foreign policy. If Americans want to be able to go anywhere and do anything, then they are going to have keep spending lots of money, even if all that activity merely reinforces anti-American extremism and makes more people want to come after us. (And for more on that latter point, read this book).

If you want to cut defense spending significantly, in short, you have to make some non-trivial adjustments in U.S. grand strategy. As some of you know, I think the United States would be both more prosperous and safer if we had a more restrained grand strategy and a more intelligent foreign policy. Until that happens, however, reducing defense spending itself is going to be an uphill fight, and our defense expenditures will be closer to the views of Kristol et al than to mine. Unfortunately.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he served as Academic Dean from 2002 to 2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he was Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences.

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5 Comments

  1. Mike D on the 09. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    Bloody Bill,
    The Empires Shill,
    I will tell you what is right,
    I will tell you when to fight,
    Bomb Iraq, Bomb Iran,
    We must keep bombing Afghanistan,
    Just don’t ask me,
    To Join The Army.

  2. KG on the 09. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    Its not national defense anymore. Its imperialism … big difference.

  3. Mihail on the 09. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    This Ashkenazi piece of garbage should be hung immediately.let not forget that Neocons are mostly jews.
    They are the so-called neo-cons, or neo-conservatives. A compact group, almost all of whose members are Jewish. They hold the key positions in the Bush administration, as well as in the think-tanks that play an important role in formulating American policy and the ed-op pages of the influential newspapers….

    Seemingly, all this is good for Israel. America controls the world, we control America. Never before have Jews exerted such an immense influence on the center of world power.” Uri Avnery, “The Night After,”

    Counterpunch, April 10, 2003.
    http://www.realzionistnews.com

  4. D Costa on the 09. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    Most Jews are communists whether they say they are liberals or conservatives. Basically they have no party line but tribal solidarity and unconditional love for Israel at the expense of America. They have infiltrated both parties, all institutions, all religions and every crevice of this nation.

    Bill Krystol and Henry Kissinger and Joseph Lieberman and other traitors and warmongers should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

  5. D Costa on the 11. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    Professor Stephen Walt thank you for shedding light on certain aspects of the war-machine and naming the individual(s) responsible for this atrocity against humanity in clear language–without mixing the truth with half truths and baloney.

    General Smedley Butler said war is a racket. General Patton wrote in his diary about how Germany was destroyed in WW2 and the part played by Eisenhower.

    You and Maidhc O’ Cathail have written fantastic articles about those who are instrumental in waging wars–which they call “war against terror”–yet the real terrorists who wage and sponsor terror: Zionist Israel and Zionist Jews are so far unaffected–and they have continued their terror on innocent Muslims and their tyranny on American citizens specially those who are their critics.

    I have personal experience of being spied upon since 2006–not by Muslims–but by the usual suspects: Jews. I live in Providence RI [where Mossad spies have invaded this city in increasing numbers in the last 2 to 3 months] run by a corrupt Jewish mayor and a corrupt Jewish police chief.

    These people watch everything I do: my whereabouts, whom I speak to in person and on the phone, my web activities including whom I email etc–and now they even live around me in several apartment buildings scattered around where I live including the same apartment buiding I live. If I speak to anyone the person becomes reluctant to talk to me again because the spies have warned them about what a “dangerous” person I am. [I am a 65 year old retired woman MD with plenty of grey hair who has seen the world and who have knowledge of the real engineers (social, racial, geo {HAARP generated twisters, earthquakes, heavy rain and mudslides and levy breaches to cause floods and deliberate arson fires that have destroyed millions of homes, chemtrais] financial, banking, mortgage, educational, medical, legal and other atrocities like the poisoning of our water supply and food supply, vaccines) and the wars they have waged WW1, WW2 and others to kill and destroy humanity.

    Not to mention the murders of so many people who have stood in their way or they merely perceived that they were a hindrance–or they were envious of these people of the Anglo-Saxan descent like the Germans–and I have written about these various things and even mailed letters with this information–I gathered from reading and through speaking to over thousand people, most of them were Brown University students and their parents and visitors to Brown. Among the things I discovered was the relationship between the president of Brown who is/was a friend to Goldman Sachs bankers as well as to Providence mayor and police chief and how some of the Brown crimes ended up in the Providence police log. Brown University went international so now they can bring more criminals to Brown including Mossad agents–and give them PhDs and all kinds of degrees–while engaged in spying/drug/hooker business and organized crime against American people.

    These thigs they dont want you to talk about.

    Jewish mayor and police chief cannot be relied upon to protect non-Jewish critics of Israel and Zionist Jews and these two represent part of the Jewish tyranny their critics face.

    They started spying on me in 2006 when I first started criticizing Anti-American, anti-white, anti-Christian activities of Jews and the spying activities have got escalated since then.

    There are decent FBI officials still serving the FBI although the leadership of this organization is corrupt as the head is a Zionist stooge–who has continued his tyranny on American citizens from Bush to Obama. Same thing is seen with the Home Land Security where the leadership has changed but tyranny has continued.

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