Raising the Alarm about Defense Spending—about Insufficient Defense Spending!

Yes, the new alarm from the Far Right, the ideological core of the political party that can find much additional funding for corporate agriculture but is unable to find a justification for the cost of the food-stamp and school-lunch programs, is that America is coming perilously close to being unable to defend itself.

Forget about even sustaining—never mind increasing—funding for social programs, education, or even infrastructure. If we don’t spend even more to be “safe,” hungry and under-educated children, seniors without healthcare, and collapsing bridges will be the least of our problems. Or so the argument is being framed and is likely to be framed with increasing intensity.

In an article for the New York International Policy Examiner titled “Dismantling the Arsenal of Democracy,” Right-wing talk-radio host Frank Vernuccio recycles the alarms raised by Frank Gaffney. Gaffney is currently the director of the Center for Security Policy (a Right-wing think-tank that Gaffney himself founded), a columnist for the ultra-conservative Washington Times, and the host of a program on Secure Freedom Radio.

For those who have forgotten, Gaffney was part of the national-security team in the Reagan administration. Since then he has been a conspicuous voice in the following organizations: the Set America Free Coalition, the Committee on the Present Danger, and the Project for the New American Century. He has famously charged that Saddam Hussein was responsible for both the Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center bombings, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is an active sponsor of Sharia Law, and that Islamists have now infiltrated even the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

Some of Gaffney claims have provoked others on the Far-Right to distance themselves publicly from what he has said. But, in a pattern that is becoming all too common on the Far-Right, they have for the most part expressed doubts about the credibility of his individual claims without quite denouncing him for making them and without at all challenging the broader ideological sources of his point of view.

So, to be clear, they may not necessarily disagree with anything that he is saying; rather, they may simply wish that he had not said those things publicly or said them in the way that he said them. We saw this pattern very clearly in the 2012 presidential election when the GOP leadership tried to distance itself from Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock not because they were expressing views far outside the mainstream of Far-Right thought, but because they had stated those views so guilelessly and unambiguously: that is, it was all too clear to anyone listening that they actually did hold the extremist positions that their opponents were attributing to them and were willing to say so plainly and unequivocally. In other words, their real fault was that they were too dense to realize that they had to soft-peddle their extremist ideology in order to be elected.

Gaffney’s alarm over our current state of military preparedness rests on his certainty that China represents the greatest threat to our status as the world’s singular superpower and yet China is the largest producer of the chemicals needed to fuel Hellfire missiles, of the magnets used in most high-tech equipment, and of the rare earths used in night-vision technology. Also, the Obama administration would like to close the Lima Tank Plant, the sole facility producing the Abrams tank.

Of course, what Gaffney ignores some basic facts that would serve to immediately diminish the state of alarm that he is trying so hard to escalate. I live in Lima, Ohio, where the Lima Tank Plant employs hundreds of local people in very well-paying jobs. I would like to see those jobs protected, and I think that it is foolish to mothball the one plant that is producing such a basic and necessary weapons system. But it is also very clear that the Defense Department now has more Abrams tanks than it knows what to do with, especially since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. When the military starts “mothballing” any equipment in warehouses on bases in the desert, it is an unmistakable sign that we may have an over-supply of that equipment. Likewise, Gaffney ignores the fact that efforts to expand the domestic production of rare earths are now being massively subsidized by the federal government. I am not knowledgeable about the chemicals used in the Hellfire missiles or the magnets used in high-tech equipment, but I suspect that given the size of our chemical industry and the worldwide capacity to produce electronic components, we can very likely find an alternative supply of those things if doing so becomes necessary.

More broadly, of course, Gaffney completely ignores that the United States now spends more on defense than the next 17 largest militaries in the world combined. In fact, because the spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been kept separate from the formal allocations for defense, and because the spending on homeland security has not only been a separate budget item but has also been kept purposely ambiguous, we don’t really know how much we are now spending on defense or, more precisely, have been spending on it for more than a decade, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Likewise, Gaffney completely ignores that we produce about 70% of the military equipment being sold internationally. We are, indeed, the world’s arsenal, though not simply for democracies. In fact, even when President Roosevelt coined the phrase “the arsenal of democracy,” to  which Gaffney has now so ridiculously alluded, most of the arms that we were producing went not to Great Britain but to the Soviet Union and to Nationalist China. And although Chiang Kai-shek may not have been quite as ruthless as Stalin, his regime was clearly more a dictatorial than democratic.

Most fundamentally, Gaffney has resorted to a trick, typically employed as a scare tactic, which has become all too common in our political arguments: he cites the percentage of increase without providing a context for measuring the impact of the increase. So, although it is very true that China’s defense spending has been increasing much more rapidly, by percentage, than that of the United States, the Chinese spending on defense is being measured against a much smaller base. Here are the most current figures. In 2013, the United States will spend $682 billion on defense, which represents 4.4% of our GDP and 39% of the world’s total spending on defense.  China will spend $166 billion on defense, which represents 2% of its GDP and 9.5% of the world’s total spending on defense.

Recall that under President Reagan, the United States increased defense spending dramatically, by hundreds of billions of dollars per year and it was then claimed that that increased military spending hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. In hindsight, it is very clear that although the Soviet Union could not sustain the military spending required to keep pace with our spending, the collapse of the Soviet Union was attributable less to the dramatic increase in those military expenditures (which, by the way, three decades later still constitute a significant chunk of our national debt) and more to the economic deterioration and the rising political dissatisfaction within the Soviet Union itself.

So before we start to give any credence to the Far-Right alarmists and start sacrificing even more of our domestic needs to still further increases in military spending, we should perhaps consider what previous escalations in that spending have bought us, beyond political catchphrases.

In a post made earlier today, John K. Wilson details Mitch Daniels’ determination, while governor of Indiana, to ban Howard Zinn’s histories from Indiana classrooms and to purge from the teaching of the social sciences at all levels what, in his view, are deliberate distortions of American history and little more than Leftist propaganda. But a common tactic of those on the Far-Right has been to concentrate public attention on what, in their view, ought to be eliminated from our public life. They are seldom as clear about what they will offer as a substitute for what has been eliminated. In this instance, I think that they need to be forced to explain how the view of history held by Gaffney and others on the Far Right has even as much credibility as–never mind more credibility than—Howard Zinn’s.

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