With budgets and national priorities up in the air, this is a great time, or could be, for the liberal/libertarian Strange Bedfellows Coalition we’ve wished for in the past to get organized and tackle military spending. It could happen, if the politicians involved had the nerve, and creativity, to pull it off.
As evidence, consider an unexpected, wonderful new piece written by Thomas Ravenel, the Republican former Secretary of the Treasury in South Carolina. Ravenel is libertarian through and through, which means many progressives disagree with him on a number of issues. But not this time, as Ravenel’s libertarian dislike of empire-building and support for big budget cuts meshes perfectly with the views of “left-liberals” who want to start dismantling the U.S. empire, and who are also being forced to consider national debt problems. Here’s the beginning of Ravenel’s terrific essay:
Why do we have 227 military bases in Germany, 124 in Japan, and 87 in South Korea? Why must the U.S. taxpayer shoulder the cost of military defense for wealthy countries like Germany, France, Japan and England? Why should we defend South Korea from North Korea when South Korea has a GDP 35 times that of North Korea?
We have a national debt of $14.3 trillion and many so called fiscally conservative Republicans say that military cuts should be off the table. Military spending is 20 percent of our budget and represents half of our discretionary spending. The Pentagon budget has nearly doubled in real terms since 1998, and now is higher than at any time since World War II.
If our country goes bankrupt, would that be a national security issue?
Here’s why this all came up: If the new super-committee designed by the recent debt ceiling deal can’t come up with a deficit-reduction plan by the end of the year, it will trigger $500 billion in more, automatic reductions in Defense Department spending. Some members of Congress and the public — mainly “left-liberal” Democrats and libertarian Republicans — would welcome those kinds of cuts, as it would compel cutbacks in the size of our worldwide military commitments.
If libs and libertarians are going to join forces on military spending (which, as Ravenel points out, is qualitatively different from “defense spending”), they should do so quickly, before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s scare tactics become “accepted fact.” Yesterday, Panetta said that cuts going deeper than the $350 billion already scheduled to be cut over the next 10 years would have “devastating effects” on U.S. national security. But that’s only true if you consider it necessary for America to keep pouring money into our insane collection of nearly 1,000 military bases. What deeper military cuts would “devastate” would be the “defense” industry itself, not our national security. Therefore, it would be preferable to give defense workers free job training before phasing out their positions; we don’t need to add to the nation’s unemployment woes while cutting expenses.
Panetta succeeded Robert Gates, who ended his tenure at the DOD by pissing off the defense industry and its lobbyists with a call for deeper cuts in military spending; Panetta is simply carrying water for those long-entrenched D.C. powerbrokers, which don’t want to see their fortunes diminished. For more on that issue, check out yesterday’s Washington Post column by Fareed Zakaria. In it, Zakaria explains why Robert Gates is right on the money, and rails against the Congress-lobbyists-industrialists money-go-round — or as a friend explains it, “The lobbyists pay the congress people who provide the appropriations for the contractors who pay the lobbyists who pay ... as they all sing, ‘Let the Circle Be Unbroken.’”
The Strange Bedfellows Coalition has shown tentative efforts at coming together during the past year: Sens. Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul co-sponsored a measure to rid the Patriot Act of some its most offensive aspects, and Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul co-sponsored a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession at the federal level. The time is perfect now for a broader liberal/libertarian coalition to coalesce around the issue of military spending.