The Fiscal Debate We Are Not Having

What with the entire national political debate being perpetually centered on fiscal priorities, it’s truly striking how little attention is being devoted (outside a few left-wing or libertarian precincts) to the option of a significant retrenchment of U.S. defense commitments. Yes, there’s plenty of talk, mostly from Republicans, about the deflationary impact of letting the scheduled defense spending sequestration go through (on this subject they are quite happy to be Keynesians). But after all, if there was a consensus that the country’s mammoth military advantage over all adversaries potential and actual was sufficiently safe (particularly at a time when other countries are struggling to make ends meet as well) to allow for a different strategy, we could happily fight over whether to devote the “hegemony dividend” to deficit reduction, domestic spending or tax cuts. And it’s worth remembering that it’s defense spending cuts without significant changes in the Pentagon’s missions or force structure that run the risk of underfunding actual security needs.

I mention this big-dog-that’s-not-barking after reading a semi-frivolous but still thought-provoking column by Businessweek‘s Charles Kenney that cites the much-derided remake of the Late Cold War paranoia classic Red Dawn to make its point:

The new version of Red Dawn, like the original, centers around a foreign invasion of the U.S. The country that manages to invade this time is North Korea, a pariah state with a military budget generously estimated at $9 billion, compared with about $650 billion for the U.S. The North Korean economy is so battered that famines are a regular occurrence. This inadvertently lends the movie’s plot a smidgen of plausibility, since any North Korean invasion of the U.S. probably could be defeated by a misfit band of teenage dropouts.

With the much-discussed advent of China as a “peer competitor” in security matters still a chimera, and with the Global War On Terror having been significantly pared back (and requiring a wildly different security apparatus in any event), it’s a pretty good time to engage the public on exactly what it wants and needs in the way of a defense establishment, particularly since (as Kenney points out) Americans themselves are less than alarmed about conventional threats to national security. It’s certainly worth a mention by mainstream media and politicians before we return to endless discussion of the tax code and “entitlement reform.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.