Friday, November 7, 2008

Will Obama Gut Defense?

That's the headline to a grossly misleading column by Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal.

He's taken the old Republican premise that Clinton slashed military spending and therefore left us trembling and vulnerable. But while his rant isn't useful, his chart is.

Note that for the last 30 years, defense spending has been about 5% of GDP. It was up to about 6% under Reagan and down to 4% under Clinton, but there hasn't been a lot of variation since the end of the Vietnam War.

What has changed is the planet. There isn't a Soviet Union anymore, which matters a great deal. Yes, there are still enemies to defeat, but none with two million tanks threatening to overrun Europe. That's how many there were in East Germany alone at the height of the Cold War, not to mention the significant buildup in warheads, tactical field nukes, and ground forces.

We still need planes, and ours should be the best in the world. And we need precision missiles and enough troops to flatten the Taliban. But there's a fundamental difference between today's world and the one of the Cold War, and shouldn't our budget reflect it?

Even if you bought the dubious premise that as an economy grows, it needs to continue spending a proportional percentage on defense (once a country is twice as rich, does it need twice as many warheads to be safe?), you can believe Stephens' own chart: we're still spending quite a bit on defense, and that hasn't changed in 30 years.

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