Ron Paul is wrong about defense spending and the deficit

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In a September 15 column, Daily Caller senior editor Jamie Weinstein rightly criticized Congressman Ron Paul’s false yet often repeated claim that military spending is the primary driver of the federal deficit. Weinstein countered: “America is in trouble financially, but not because of our defense spending. It is our entitlements that put us in fiscal peril … This is really beyond serious dispute.”

In response, Bruce Fein, an advisor to Paul’s presidential campaign, penned a September 20 op-ed for The Daily Caller defending his boss, again placing the blame for the federal deficit squarely on defense spending. However, Fein is wrong on several counts.

To begin with, Fein failed to make any mention of entitlements and their pivotal role in America’s fiscal woes. This omission is egregious, given that entitlements make up nearly 60% of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. In contrast, total discretionary spending accounts for only 35% of the budget, with about half of that going to the Defense Department.

Indeed, official data show that government spending has spiraled dramatically — not because of the Pentagon, but primarily because of the growth of the rest of the federal budget, especially entitlements. Between 2000 to 2010, the U.S. government spent over $5 trillion more on non-defense programs than what the Congressional Budget Office had originally projected it would spend. (If you adjust for inflation, that number climbs to approximately $5.6 trillion.)

The spiraling growth of entitlements explains why Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (who served earlier as President Clinton’s budget director) said on September 20, 2011: “If you’re serious about dealing with the deficit, don’t go back to the discretionary account [which includes defense spending]. Pay attention to the two-thirds of the federal budget that is in large measure responsible for the size of the debt that we’re dealing with.”

But in truth, Congressman Paul isn’t all that serious about dealing with the deficit. What he is serious about is pushing U.S. foreign policy towards a reckless isolationism.

In fact, during a recent campaign stop in Iowa, Paul told voters that he would “work to maintaining” entitlements like Social Security (which he elsewhere called “unconstitutional”) while gutting America’s foreign and defense spending. “I want that money cut and that money spent here back home,” he was quoted as saying.

Paul bristles at being called an isolationist, preferring the term “non-interventionist.” But a more accurate term would be “neutralist.” And if the history of the 20th century has taught the United States anything, it is the dangers of neutrality in the face of real dangers.

The world remains a dangerous place. Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden, al Qaida and associated forces are now operating in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. With aspirations of regional hegemony, Iran continues to make steady progress towards a nuclear weapons capability in blatant and continuing violation of its international obligations — a development that does not seem to concern Congressman Paul. North Korea now wields nuclear weapons, and has sought to export the know-how and technology to state sponsors of terrorism like Syria.

Resurgent and rising powers also present latent dangers. Russia, soon to be led again by Vladimir Putin, is aggressively modernizing its conventional and nuclear military capabilities, and is willing to sell arms to almost any country, including despicable regimes like Iran and Syria. China is spending hundreds of billions annually to develop the military capabilities necessary to compete regionally — and eventually globally — with the United States.

Echoing the pre-World War II isolationism of lawmakers like Senator Gerald Nye, Congressman Paul’s response to today’s global challenges is to call for a retreat and lambast U.S. policies for causing problems abroad in the first place — essentially an amoral “blame America” foreign policy. For someone who professes to be a defender of liberty at home, such neutralism towards enemies of freedom is a curious contradiction, and in many ways is worse than President Obama’s own hesitancy to embrace the notion of American exceptionalism.

Far from protecting the United States from potential dangers abroad, Ron Paul’s isolationist foreign policy prescriptions would guarantee that we would succumb to them, and make him unfit to serve as the commander-in-chief.

Jamie M. Fly is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. Robert Zarate is the policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.