In 2012 Barack Obama delivered a stinging blow to Mitt Romney during one of the presidential debates:
“You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets… We have these things called aircraft carriers and planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
“It’s not a game of battleship where we’re counting ships, it’s ‘What are our capabilities?'”
Three years later, and the Republican Party has not moved beyond Romney’s count-the-tanks approach. It’s easy politics; hammering the Democrats for lowering spending and projecting an image of security that is easily understandable for the public.
This obsession over numbers does little to advance the debate over American security and international policy.
The Republican Numbers Game
The topic arose during the first Republican primary debate earlier this year.
There was a broad consensus among the current slate of candidates that military spending must increase. The military, designed as former Governor Huckabee so eloquently put it to ‘kill people and break things’, was lamented for falling into disrepair under Obama’s leadership.
Ben Carson argued forcefully that a recent dip in military spending was limiting American overseas policy:
“Well, what we have to stop and think about is that we have weakened ourselves militarily to such an extent that if affects all of our military policies. Our Navy is at its smallest size since 1917; our Air Force, since 1940.”
Chris Christie took the issue further, laying out specific targets:
“I agree with what Dr. Carson said earlier. The first thing we need to do to make America stronger is to strengthen our military, and I put out a really specific plan: no less than 500,000 active duty soldiers in the Army. No less than 185,000 active duty marines in the Marine Corps. Bring us to a 350 ship Navy again, and modernize the Ohio class of submarines, and bring our Air Force back to 2,600 aircraft that are ready to go.”
Christie’s ‘New Model Army’ was not costed out. On the other hand, Marco Rubio has put a budgetary figure on what his plans would mean, claiming he would increase military spending by $1 trillion over the next ten years.
Rand Paul clashed with the Senator from Florida on the issue during a recent debate, though primarily on the basis of limiting government spending, not on the merits or necessity of such a budget increase.
Rand Paul notwithstanding, running for President as a Republican still requires a hawkishness that almost automatically necessitates increasing military spending. Being a hawk in contemporary American politics is all too often translated into a rhetorical arms race of numbers.
How Much Does the U.S. Spend?
At the moment, defence accounts for roughly 16% of all federal spending in the United States.
To put that into an international context, America spendings more on its military in real terms than at least the next seven highest spenders combined.
Since the end of the Cold War American power has often been gauged by the pre-eminence of its military might, not its ability to develop alliances and international peace agreements. The desire to maintain hyperpower status has meant that policymakers have been content to pump government expense into the military machine.
This has been the case for years, and does not seem to be threatened by the fact that President Obama has reduced spending due to the closure of high intensity American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is worth noting that, although military spending as dipped under President Obama, it is still at a high level relative to recent years.
Obama has taken defence budget to a position comparable to that of George W. Bush prior to the troop surge in Iraq. Despite this, Republicans like Marco Rubio claim it is necessary to ramp up spending to ensure security.
The logic of Senator Rubio and Mr Huckabee ignores the fact America cannot simply buy security. The most immediate contemporary threat of ISIS does not require more military hardware, but more intelligent ways of neutralising potential threats and building alliances to suffocate aggressive ideologies.
In addition, focusing on troop numbers, naval figures, and budgetary increases does nothing to address the potential threats of the future, including cyber attacks and espionage.
The Military-Industrial Complex Revisited
During his farewell address in 1961 Republican President Dwight Eisenhower warned of what he called the ‘military industrial complex’.
Eisenhower pointed out that climbing levels of military spending, even during the height of the Cold War, were not based solely on strategic or tactical need. Instead, the arms industry, military establishment, and certain legislators in Congress aligned to perpetuate a policy of growing military spending.
Jobs in certain parts of America relied, and still rely, on the U.S. government signing contracts for military production. Politicians from the states of these workers subsequently vow to protect their employment, while simultaneously allying with military figures to argue that such spending is necessary to maintaining international U.S. leadership.
Defence companies like Lockheed Martin have sophisticated lobbying tools in Washington D.C. and are responsible for employing Americans throughout the country to ensure broad support politically.
The end of the Cold War has done little to undermine the military industrial complex. Instead, after 9/11 military spending steadily increased, with George W. Bush sending defence costs soaring with two high profile international wars.
The result is that, even with a widespread reassessment of international threat and the American response, there is a bulwark of opposition in D.C. that will obstruct any significant reform of military spending.
The Republican numbers game is here to stay, and will continue to shape how Americans view security in the 21st century.