H. Rowan Gaither Jr. advised the great men of his era. He helped found RAND, the original U.S. think tank. He headed the Ford Foundation and served on numerous presidential committees. Ultimately, President Dwight Eisenhower would tab him to chair an independent assessment of America’s national security needs.
For once, Ike got more than he asked for.
The Gaither report argued for an astronomical increase in defense spending to fight the Cold War. As if to underscore its recommendations, the Soviets launched Sputnik just weeks before Gaither delivered his report to the Oval Office.
After watching the Soviets win the “space race,” many Americans believed Moscow’s military power might soon overtake that of the United States.
Gaither’s report galvanized calls for checkbook warfare.
But Ike balked. “You can’t win a war by bankrupting yourself,” he said. Eisenhower understood that the art of great power strategy required balancing economic vitality with sound security.
Today’s White House would have Americans believe they are upholding Ike’s legacy. They are not.
This administration presents cuts in missile defense as providing “cost-effective and proven missile defense,” rather than calling them what they are: cuts. When it pulls back on commitments in Afghanistan, White House officials say they’re simply ensuring that we are “pursuing the right strategy,” rather than admit that they’re setting the stage for a cut-and-run. When they cancel the purchase of F-22 fighter aircraft, they claim they’re “not buying outdated Cold War weapons.” In reality, they’re just not buying the planes we need.
White House plans for the Pentagon seem driven not by the desire to spend smartly, but by the imperative to just spend less on defense — even though they seem quite content to spend hundreds of billions of dollars we don’t have on all kinds of “stimulus” projects like accordion festivals in San Antonio. So much for priorities.
The justification offered for cutting corners on defense is that we face tough economic times. Tough choices have to be made. But the White House is making all the wrong tough calls.
Cutting defense won’t keep Washington, D.C., from bankrupting the nation. The savage truth is that defense spending is far — very far — down the list of government spending priorities.
When Ike was in the White House, military spending was 50 percent of the federal budget. (No wonder he was reluctant to spend more.) Today, defense spending is less than one-fifth of the federal budget, and it’s going down.
National defense now ranks fourth in overall government spending priorities, falling behind the combined cost of Social Security and Medicare, public education and means-tested welfare aid. A recent report by Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation shows how welfare spending has leapfrogged the Pentagon’s budget. In 10 years, he said, our state and federal governments will shell out $10.3 trillion on welfare programs (and that’s not counting the trillion-dollar-plus increase in federal health spending proposed in Congress).
Thirty-plus years into the war on poverty, some 40 million Americans are still mired in poverty. The Great Society model is obviously not getting the job done. The war on poverty has become a spending quagmire. Indeed, the White House calls for spending more on welfare in one year than President George W. Bush spent on the entire Iraq war.
The preamble of the Constitution stipulates that the federal government must provide for the common defense for a reason: It is job No. 1 for Washington, D.C.
Ike was right in asserting that sound fiscal policies are part of providing national security. But taking shortcuts on defense is not the answer. And pouring ever-increasing sums of money into ineffective public programs is not the greater good. Expanding domestic programs that consume the nation’s wealth at an unsustainable pace neither grows the economy nor keeps the homeland safe.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).