A Tiny Cut in the Military Budget That Probably Won’t Happen Is Causing Panic in Washington

The bipartisan establishment is having a freak-out over the prospect of a modest cut to the defense budget. It’s not clear it will actually happen — but even if it did, the gargantuan US military budget would still be wasteful and counterproductive.

A F/A-18E Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron 37 (VFA-37) taxis into position as sailors on the flight deck prepare to launch another Super Hornet from the USS Gerald Ford on October 5, 2022. (Samuel Corum / AFP via Getty Images)

The sky is falling in Washington as the nation looks poised to plunge into an unspeakable crisis. Sure, millions of kids around the country are still living in poverty, homelessness is on the rise, and the United States remains unique in the world for having medical bills be the number-one cause of bankruptcy. But none of this is what’s currently causing dismay in the nation’s capital.

No, instead, the United States’ cartoonishly gigantic military budget might get a modest cut.

Emphasis on might, because it’s not clear this is actually going to happen. The deal Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) struck with the GOP’s Freedom Caucus to secure speakership of the House only mandates a general discretionary spending freeze to FY 2022 levels, with no specific commitment on the military budget. Freedom Caucus member representative Andy Harris is insisting reduced military spending wasn’t part of the deal, as is another McCarthy holdout, Representative Chip Roy, who says that “cuts to defense were NEVER DISCUSSED” and that it’s the “woke & weaponized federal bureaucracy” that will shoulder the burden instead. Incoming House armed services chair Mike Rogers, for his part, claims he’s “not worried” about the military budget.

But to a certain extent this doesn’t matter, because the apoplectic response from the political and media establishment toward so much as the prospect of military spending being cut by $75 billion has been revealing in itself. Calling it a “horrible idea,” Representative Tony Gonzales (R-TX) fretted about how he could ask US allies to up their military spending when he visits Taiwan in a couple of weeks when “America is going to decrease ours.” Consummate militarist Liz Cheney charged that “weakness is provocative” and that “our nation will suffer,” a claim echoed by another neocon-turned-liberal-darling, Jennifer Rubin, who warned that it signaled a lack of resolve to “America’s enemies” and quoted every flavor of Washington war hawk arguing the idea “makes only authoritarians, despots and dictators smile” and that “[Vladimir] Putin and Xi Jinping will win.”

The memo containing these histrionic talking points clearly went out to both sides of the political aisle, because it wasn’t just the Right parroting them. Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), who in an innovative twist does her CIA work from inside Congress these days, called it “an extraordinary departure” from the notion of investing in US national security. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser declared those GOP members who pushed for the cut part of a “pro Russia caucus,” while MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough characterized the proposal as part of a “radical” and “anti-American approach.” The Joe Biden White House, meanwhile, accused the Freedom Caucus Republicans of “push[ing] to defund our military” and “making us less capable of keeping the American people safe.

It’s really hard to get across how absurd this is. The military budget just passed by Congress is a record-high $858 billion, which was already $45 billion more than the president had requested in the first place. If it were cut by $75 billion, the budget would still be $6 billion more than what the next nine countries spent on their militaries combined in FY 2021. This topline figure is an understatement in any case, since it doesn’t include the unprecedented emergency spending authorized for the Ukraine war and leaves out a variety of other spending related to national security.

China and Russia, by the way — the two authoritarian states we’re told this 8 percent cut will empower  — spend, generously, $293 billion and (reportedly, and only as of this year) $84 billion on their respective militaries, which combined don’t even make up half of what US military spending would be if this cut actually happened. We’re also leaving out the fact that these are the only two officially designated adversaries on that list of nine big-spending countries, since all the others are either formal US allies (the UK, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea) or security partners (India and Saudi Arabia).

In short, anyone telling you cutting $75 billion from the US defense budget would “defund” the military or allow US adversaries to “win” (whatever that means) is either dangerously ignorant or, more likely, has utter contempt for your intelligence.

The problem is that Washington’s unstated rule is that military spending can never be cut, even a little, no matter how ludicrously colossal it is, meaning almost every single new budget must be bigger than the last. So, it wasn’t long ago that Donald Trump’s $750-billion military budget request for FY 2020 was the largest ever, only to be immediately outdone by the mammoth $778-billion budget Biden signed into law in 2021, which itself was $25 billion more than what he’d initially asked for.

More than even the obscene wastefulness of all this, it reflects a misunderstanding of US interests. The most dire threats to ordinary Americans don’t come from the designs of foreign governments, as terrible as those sometimes are, but from the panoply of domestic crises that leave them poorer, less healthy, and with lower life expectancies than other developed countries — with an impending global recession set to make all this even worse, the latest in a series of recent economic crises that have battered working Americans. It’s these crises, and US political institutions’ struggle to adequately respond to them, that exact far more damage to democracy in the United States and elsewhere than the comparatively feeble militaries of despotic foreign regimes.

Meanwhile, a crude overreliance on military supremacy can have the exact opposite effect on other governments’ behavior than what’s intended. Politicians think of this massive military investment and the global footprint it underwrites as a deterrent, but it can just as easily lead other states to feel less secure and take drastic, reckless steps out of a foolhardy cost-benefit analysis. This is why more than a few experts have warned that, for instance, recent aggressive US signals on Taiwan and China could wind up provoking the very war it’s meant to deter, something that is, on rare occasions, acknowledged even by hawkish US politicians.

All this is compounded by the chronic underfunding of the US diplomatic corps: if all you have is the world’s largest military, every problem looks like it can be solved via military means.

Tragically, while the establishment hand-wrings about its precious military budget, the most likely actual outcome of the deal between McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus is cutbacks in the domestic programs Americans rely on for health, housing, education, and more. The GOP had planned an attack on entitlements like Medicare and Social Security before the midterms, and Republicans — including Representative Roy, the McCarthy holdout who vehemently insisted military spending wouldn’t be touched — have already signaled these would be on the table as a result of this deal. “I’m all for a balanced budget, but we’re not going to do it on the backs of our troops and our military,” Representative Michael Waltz (R-FL) told Fox. “If we really want to talk about the debt and spending, it’s the entitlements programs.”

In other words, it’ll be the economic security of working Americans that’s sacrificed yet again.