The Right Question for the Defense Budget

“Can we afford the military budget?” Not quite the right question, but one being asked these days even in hawkish circles. It reflects a break in the Republicans' traditional reluctance to cut defense spending and a declining enthusiasm for changing other societies through force. The mix includes a re-emerged isolationist strain and new recognition that wars can no longer be charged on the national credit card.

The right question is, “What should our military budget be?”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney alluded to it at the Republican candidates' debate. On the war in Afghanistan, he said, “There will be some who argue it's too expensive now … . You don't make a decision about our involvement in a conflict based on dollars and cents alone or certainly not with regards to politics.”

He's right. War is a serious thing. If a war must be fought, the money must be found.

“Can we afford?” presumes that war is some sort of discretionary purchase. The question was utterly ignored in the George W. Bush years, when the money was simply borrowed.

Departing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates touched on right-sizing our military budget in his recent blunt talk to our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They're not pulling their weight in NATO, he complained, and characterized their defense budgets as “chronically starved.”

Gates said that “while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission (actually, Germany abstained from the U.N. Security Council vote), less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.” Many don't have the military capability to join the fight, whether or not they wanted to. And Libya, Gates pointed out, is in Europe's backyard, not ours.

“Furthermore,” Gates added in his most cutting remark, “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

America is tired. The U.S. taxpayer now covers three-fourths of the budget for an organization that protects the richest countries in Europe. Americans are asking, “Why is it us all the time?”

Part of the reason is that we've wanted it to be us. We have a huge military-industrial complex that our leaders in Washington reflexively feed with tax dollars. Over the years, Congress has funded weapons systems that the Pentagon didn't even want.

And if the U.S. is so gung-ho about using its military might to defend the West — and going it alone, besides — why would the rest of the West stop us? The money others save on their own defense pays for plush health care benefits and other public programs.

Many Democrats and Republicans now criticize President Obama for getting us involved in the Libya mission, arguing that we have no national interest there. But at least Obama insisted that Britain and France take the lead this time. The previous administration balked at sharing the reins, much less handing them over.

In 2010, the U.S. spent 5.4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, twice the percentage of NATO's second most active participant, Britain. We account for 43 percent of the world's military spending. China is No. 2, with a defense budget representing only 7.3 percent of the total.

Clearly, the United States can spend a lot less on defense and still fully secure the nation. Send some of that money over to the State Department, which is helping change societies by arming young people with new media. But in the end, the defense budget must be right, not just lower.