Hawking the tea parties

James Carafano Director, Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
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There’s a lot of speculation that Tea Partiers may jump on the Left’s “cut defense spending” bandwagon.  Doubtless the White House would love to bring fiscal conservatives on board with its effort to slash the Pentagon’s budget.

Given the strong libertarian strain among some Tea Partiers, there’s at least a chance that the Left may be able to co-opt the movement and turn it against efforts to maintain a robust national defense. Likewise, with tales of $600 hammers and $1,400 toilet seats part of the national psyche, fiscal conservatives unfamiliar with the Pentagon’s growing need to replenish and modernize after eight consecutive years of war may just assume there’s plenty of fat in military budgets that can be slashed at no risk to national security.

They’d be wrong.

But while the Left woos Tea Partiers to view national defense as just another budget category—like national parks or farm subsidies, there is push back from the Right.  As Josh Rogin notes in Foreign Policy:

Sarah Palin is waging a battle inside the Tea Party movement to exempt defense spending from the group’s small-government, anti-deficit fervor.

There’s no telling how big and bitter the brouhaha may get.  But if defense spending ultimately becomes the battleground issue that determines the soul of the Tea Party, the smart money says that Sarah Palin and her ilk will ultimately carry the day. That’s because the conservative movement has always been a big tent and, historically, most of those under it have embraced enthusiastically–or at least accepted—the wisdom of pursuing peace through strength.

In addition to having history on their side, hawks in the Tea Party movement have present day realities they can reference to make a compelling case for greater—not lesser—defense spending.

The fact is the U.S. military today is greatly strained to perform all its missions with the forces at hand. The notion that a military with significantly reduced forces, materiel and capabilities can defend the nation against ever increasing threats over the long-term simply defies common sense.

Here, money is not the issue.  America can afford to defend itself. Defense spending is not what has fueled our unprecedented deficits. In reality, defense spending (as a percentage of GDP and the federal budget) is near historic lows. Taking defense spending to zero won’t solve Washington’s over-spending problem. To restore fiscal sanity, the real high-value targets are entitlements and welfare spending, not the Pentagon.

Most of the defense budget goes directly to maintaining and supporting the people that defend us. Yes, we can spend more efficiently here without cutting capability (such as planes, ships, and people).  But if and when we do make those changes, the savings resulting from those efficiencies must be reinvested in defense to maintain readiness and prepare for the future.

Forcing the military to make unnecessary trade-offs, accept too much risk, assume that potential threats will never materialize, or ignore global responsibilities will only produce a hollow force that is unready, unable, and woefully insufficient to keep the nation safe and free. It would jeopardize not just our lives and livelihoods but the freedom of future generations of Americans.

Over the next few months, we’ll get a better fix on where the Tea Party movement will shake out on national defense issues.  Will Tea Parties start to get agitated about non-budgetary defense issues–like the New START treaty with Russia (a bad deal on nukes) or the timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan (an arbitrary date that may be used to call for a premature exit)?  If so, it will indicate that the movement is joining the peace-through-strength camp energized by Ronald Reagan.

On the other hand, if this new coalition loses its commitment to the Constitutional requirement to “provide for the common defense,” it will probably just drift apart. And the Left would be just fine with that outcome.

James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.