Why is it that the national debt exploded between 2003 and 2007, when Republicans controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress? Why is it that even when Ronald Reagan, the last real conservative president, sat in the White House, government grew astronomically?
If you asked the average conservative during the Bush years why government continued to grow so rapidly, the typical answer was “We are fighting two wars.” When asked why Reagan did not fulfill his promise to scale back the federal government, conservatives typically reply by either saying that the Democrats did not follow through on their spending-cut pledges or that we were fighting the Cold War.
“Wars cost money,” Franklin Roosevelt once said, and there’s no doubt any nation would pay virtually any cost to counter a real threat. Conservatives almost unanimously supported Reagan’s defense build-up because they believed the Soviet Union was a serious threat. Most conservatives gave Bush a pass on his profligate spending because they considered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be top priorities.
History, math and FDR all tell us that wars cost money — and that war spending grows government. Most Americans accept that any amount of money that goes towards keeping America safe is worth spending — but are there any actual threats on the horizon that warrant what we currently spend on our military adventures?
This year, the United States will spend more on defense than it has at any time since World War II. We will spend more on defense than any other nation on earth and almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined.
During the Cold War, America was challenged by a superpower that had thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at us. But the Cold War is over. What monumental threat to the U.S. exists today that justifies spending more on defense than we spent during the Cold War?
Iran is certainly no such threat. To say that Iran having a nuclear weapon is a potential threat to its neighbors is one thing — to say that it is a threat to the United States is quite another. Yet, too many conservatives continue to confuse the two, or as the former head of the U.S. Central Command, retired Army General John Abizaid, explained in 2007: “I believe the United States, with our great military power, can contain Iran … Let’s face it — we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we’ve lived with a nuclear China, and we’re living with nuclear powers as well …”
Gen. Abizaid then put the notion of a potential nuclear Iran into even clearer context:
Clearly the development of a bomb in Iranian hands will cause other nations in the region to move in a like direction, and in a very unstable region like that, that is not good news… [But the U.S.] can deliver clear messages to the Iranians that makes it clear to them that while they may develop one or two nuclear weapons, they’ll never be able to compete with us in our true military might and power.
Abizaid makes an important and glaring point — no nation can compete with America’s military might, especially not Iran.
Foreign Policy’s Stephen Walt explains:
One of the more remarkable features about the endless drumbeat of alarm about Iran is that it pays virtually no attention to Iran’s actual capabilities, and rests on all sorts of worst case assumptions about Iranian behavior. Consider the following facts … GDP: United States — $13.8 trillion, Iran — $359 billion (U.S. GDP is roughly 38 times greater than Iran’s); Defense spending (2008): U.S. — $692 billion, Iran — $9.6 billion (U.S. defense budget is over 70 times larger than Iran); Military personnel: U.S. — 1,580,255 active; 864,547 reserves (very well trained), Iran — 525,000 active; 350,000 reserves (poorly trained), Combat aircraft: U.S. — 4,090 (includes USAF, USN, USMC and reserves), Iran — 312 (serviceability questionable) …
Most importantly, while the U.S. has almost 9,000 nuclear weapons, Iran has zero.
Many conservatives argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a serious threat to the U.S., even if it only had one nuke in its arsenal. Walt dispels that fantasy as well:
By any objective measure … Iran isn’t even on the same page with the United States in terms of latent power, deployed capabilities, or the willingness to use them. Indeed, Iran is significantly weaker than Israel … Israel also has more numerous and modern armored and air capabilities and a sizeable nuclear weapons stockpile of its own. Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal. Despite what some alarmists think, Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone.
As Walt concludes, “The more one thinks about it, the odder our obsession with Iran appears.”
Odd indeed. There is a debate within the GOP right now between Tea Party members who recognize the need to cut government spending across the board, and Republicans who are willing to cut everything but the military. Realistically, we can’t balance the budget or reduce the national debt without addressing the black hole that is Pentagon spending.
There is no reason we can’t have the strongest military on earth while still being fiscally responsible. Part of this balance necessarily means favoring foreign policy sobriety over constant hyperbole. It also means recognizing practical security realities.
The reality is that Iran is not a threat to the United States. Not even close. The conservatives who believe that Iran is some great “threat” are taking the right back to the Bush era, when zeal for spending cuts took a backseat to war fever. That some Tea Partiers are occasionally the loudest voices calling for U.S. action against Iran makes the prospects for smaller government even dimmer.
Wanting to simultaneously limit government and police the world is a maddening yet enduring contradiction that conservatives can no longer afford. Neither — quite literally — can this country.
Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.