David Stockman writes in today's New York Times:
Mr. Ryan professes to be a defense hawk, though the true conservatives of modern times — Calvin Coolidge, Herbert C. Hoover, Robert A. Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower, even Gerald R. Ford — would have had no use for the neoconconservative imperialism that the G.O.P. cobbled from policy salons run by Irving Kristol's ex-Trotskyites three decades ago. These doctrines now saddle our bankrupt nation with a roughly $775 billion "defense" budget in a world where we have no advanced industrial state enemies and have been fired (appropriately) as the global policeman.
Indeed, adjusted for inflation, today's national security budget is nearly double Eisenhower's when he left office in 1961 (about $400 billion in today's dollars) — a level Ike deemed sufficient to contain the very real Soviet nuclear threat in the era just after Sputnik. By contrast, the Romney-Ryan version of shrinking Big Government is to increase our already outlandish warfare-state budget and risk even more spending by saber-rattling at a benighted but irrelevant Iran.
This strikes me as off-base in several significant ways.
First, "imperialism" suggests that America wants to rule the world. But rather than turning the defeated countries — the Soviet Union, Iraq — into American colonies ruled from Washington, we've retreated while they've ruled themselves. The Soviet Union was imperialist in the way it ruled its Warsaw Pact satellites. American neoconservatives are not imperialist.
Second, the idea that current levels of American defense spending are somehow dictated by "policy salons run by Irving Kristol's ex-Trotskyites." This ignores the possibility that there might possibly be some other factors influencing America's defense budget, among them:
- Defense contractors and their lobbyists
- Congressmen with military bases or defense-related industry in their districts
- The fact that the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were attacked by Islamist militants on September 11, 2001
Third, Mr. Stockman claims that "today's national security budget is nearly double Eisenhower's when he left office in 1961." That is true by some measures by but not by others. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, in 1961 defense spending was about 9.4% of GDP; in 2011 it was about 4.7%. By that yardstick, defense spending hasn't doubled, it has halved. Similarly, in 1961 defense spending was 50.8% of the overall federal budget; in 2011, it was a mere 19.6%. The big problem with the federal budget isn't that defense spending has doubled since 1961, it is that spending on everything other than defense has been growing even faster. (Which is not to say that there is no room for cutting in the defense budget, just that Mr. Stockman's statistics are misleading.)
Fourth, Mr. Stockman confidently deems Iran to be "irrelevant." It's irrelevant until it sets off an atom bomb in a Western city or shuts down the Persian Gulf oil supply. Then it would be quite relevant.