Mark Steyn caught blathering nonsense about defense spending, discredits himself utterly

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This year, many people whom I liked and believed have utterly discredited themselves: Michelle Malkin, Thomas Lifson, and Rowan Scarborough just to name a few. Now Mark Steyn has completely lost any credibility he might’ve had.

How? By pontificating about an issue he evidently knows nothing about.

Steyn has recently written an NRO column wherein he claims (emphasis added):

Nevertheless, my friends on the right currently fretting about potentially drastic cuts at the Pentagon need to look at that poor 19-year-old woman’s wedding to her cousin rapist and ponder what it represents: In Afghanistan, the problem is not that we have spent insufficient money but that so much of it has been entirely wasted. History will be devastating in its indictment of us for our squandering of the “unipolar” moment. During those two decades, a China flush with American dollars has gobbled up global resources, a reassertive Islam has used American military protection to advance its theocratic ambitions, the mullahs in Tehran are going nuclear knowing we lack the will to stop them, and even Russia is back in the game of geopolitical mischief-making. We are responsible for 43 percent of the planet’s military spending. But if you spend on that scale without any strategic clarity or hardheaded calculation of your national interest it is ultimately as decadent and useless as throwing money at Solyndra or Obamacare or any of the other domestic follies. A post-prosperity America will mean perforce a shrunken presence on the global stage. And we will not like the world we leave behind.”

What is he wrong about, exactly?

About the claims that we rightwingers are merely “fretting” about “potential drastic cuts at the Pentagon”, that America’s military spending is “as decadent as useless as throwing money at Solyndra or Obamacare or any of the other domestic follies”, and that the military budget has been mostly wasted.

He’s wrong on all counts.

Firstly, the DOD budget (AKA the Pentagon budget) consists of two components: the core defense budget (which pays for the day-to-day maintenance, feeding, housing, training, and equipping of the military as well as the DOD’s health, R&D, and administrative programs) and the GWOT (OCO) budget, which pays for the Iraqi and Afghan wars (the former is scheduled to end this month).

While I believe the Iraqi war was a mistake and the Afghan war as it is currently being conducted is also a mistake, and one could credibly claim that GWOT spending has been wasted, the same CANNOT be credibly said of the core defense budget, which pays for the day-to-day maintenance of the US military. There is some waste in the core defense budget, as there is in the budget of every government agency, but it isn’t much, and it has nothing to do with Afghanistan, Iraq, or Islam. The core defense budgets of the last 11 years have been well-spent: on the day-to-day maintenance, feeding, housing, training, and equipping of the military as well as the DOD’s health, R&D, and administrative programs. New equipment has been purchased (albeit in inadequate numbers) and the US has deployed a limited ballistic missile defense system, as required by statute. The core defense budget is NOT a waste of money.

Which brings me to my next point: the sequester. The sequester will cut only the core defense budget, not OCO spending (which will go down automatically every year, to $80 bn in FY2013 and $50 bn in FY2014), and will slash that budget DEEPLY. Spending on Afghanistan and Iraq will not be affected by the sequester, while spending on military personnel, the force structure, equipment purchases, R&D, training, operation and maintenance, and DOD health programs will all be slashed dramatically. This will gut the US military completely. And contrary to Steyn’s claim that we rightwingers are merely “fretting” about “potential drastic cuts at the Pentagon”, we are rightly sounding the alarm bell and the cuts that the sequester will make WILL be drastic, not merely “potentially drastic”. They will amount to $882 bn in real terms, or $228 bn if inflation is not taken into account, over a decade. Defense spending will be cut by over 20% and will not return to its FY2011 level until FY2019 in nominal terms, and not until the mid-2020s in real terms. The USAF’s ICBM fleet will be completely eliminated, its bomber fleet will be cut by 2/3, the Navy’s SSBN fleet will be cut by 4 boats, from 14 to just 10, and plans for replacement weapon programs will be cancelled, leading to a total elimination of all three legs of the nuclear triad over time through nonreplacement. The USAF’s fighter fleet will be cut by 35%, the Navy’s ship fleet will shrink to its smallest size since 1915, the Army will shrink to its smallest size since the late 1940s, and the Marines will be cut from 186,000 men to just 145,000 troops, far short of what the USMC’s leaders say they need to protect America. Weapon programs will be closed across the board.

Steyn is technically correct that military spending won’t do you any good if you don’t have a clear global strategy or a clear definition of your country’s national interest, but the Bush Administration did (whether it was correct about its definition or its global strategy is a different matter). Moreover, a lack of a clear global foreign policy strategy or of a clear definition of the national interest is NO EXCUSE for any defense cuts. Nor can any clear statement of either of them be a substitute for a strong defense and for robust funding for the military.  Your definition of America’s national interest, and even the best grand strategy, will be completely irrelevant if you don’t have a sufficiently strong military to back them up and defend them. America needs BOTH a generously-funded defense AND a clear, hardheaded calculation of its national interest and formulation of its global FP strategy.

Furthermore, for Steyn to compare military spending to Solyndra, socialized medicine, or “any other domestic folly” is ridiculous, liberal, and wrong. Defense is the federal government’s #1 Constitutional DUTY. The federal government is OBLIGED by the Constitution to provide for the common defense and, by implication, to fund defense adequately. Solyndra, socialized medicine, and “other domestic follies”, on the other hand, are unconstitutional; the FG is prohibited by the Constitution to spend money on them. For Steyn to equate these two categories of spending – as so many other non-conservatives have done – is ridiculous, liberal, and wrong.

Finally, Steyn’s invocation of America’s share of the global military spending total – 43% (42.8%, to be exact) is ridiculous. Firstly, it is the result of underestimation of China’s and Russia’s military budgets, and secondly, it is in part due to the fact that European countries underinvest in their defense, expecting Uncle Sam to pick up the tab. (By comparison, in 1989, European countries were responsible for a full 50% of NATO’s total military spending.)

The US is not currently investing any significant amounts of money in its military. The core defense budget amounts to just 3.49% of GDP, and even the total military budget amounts to just 4.29% of America’s GNP. Even Jimmy Carter devoted a larger percentage of America’s wealth to the military when he was President. In real terms, the total military spending burden per capita (per 1 American) is smaller now than it was during the Reagan years.

So for Steyn to denounce defense spending as wasteful and speak lightly of the drastic defense cuts that the sequester will make is ridiculous, liberal, and wrong. Steyn clearly knows nothing about defense issues, so he shouldn’t comment on them. It is immoral to pontificate about issues on which one is ignorant. Steyn should resume writing about demographics or satire or whatever he specializes in, and shut his ignorant mouth about defense issues.


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