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Want a Larger U.S. Military? Then Finally Pay for It

February 24, 2014

The New York Times reported Monday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is has proposed cutting the U.S. Army from its wartime peak of 570,000 troops to as few as 440,000. Under pressure from the 2011 sequester and the recently inked Murray-Ryan budget plan, Hagel's blueprint would shrink the active duty Army to its lowest strength since World War II.
Many conservatives are predictably apoplectic about the reductions. But they shouldn't be. After all, while Uncle Sam was adding $2 trillion to the national credit card to pay for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush and his Republican allies were draining the U.S. Treasury with unprecedented wartime tax cuts.

Hagel, Fox News gleefully reported, is "drawing criticism that the drastic changes will hurt U.S. security."

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, warned that the cuts would hurt military readiness. And he said the country is only in this position because the Obama administration and Congress will not seriously take on cuts to entitlements.
"It's all being sacrificed ... on the altar of entitlements. This president cannot take on mandatory spending, so all we've done in the Congress -- and this president -- is basically cut discretionary spending," he told Fox News.

McCaul is conveniently ignoring the entirety of American history in the 21st century and the unfunded wars the U.S. has been fighting since it began.
In 2011, the Congressional Research Services put the price tag on America's post-9/11 wars at $1.28 trillion. A 2013 Harvard study estimated that the total cost to the U.S. Treasury so far has reached $2 trillion. In keeping with another analysis from researchers at Brown University, the Harvard team forecasts that in the years to come the total figure including veterans' pensions and health care could balloon to $4 to $6 trillion. As the Washington Post noted:

Spending borrowed money to pay for the wars has also made them more expensive, the study noted. The conflicts have added $2 trillion to America's debt, representing roughly 20 percent of the debt incurred between 2001 and 2012.

That's because after September 11, President Bush didn't follow FDR's example and ask Americans to pay higher taxes to defeat Al Qaeda. Instead, Bush cut them.

In 2001, as you'll recall, Bush signed his $1.4 trillion tax cut into law. Two years later, Bush and his Republican allies in Congress passed a second round of cuts forecast to cost $550 billion over the ensuing decade. (After Bush became the first modern president to cut taxes during wartime, in 2009 Barack Obama became the second with his stimulus program that delivered the largest two-year tax cut in American history.) As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained in 2009, the Bush tax cuts accounted for about half of the deficits during his tenure and, if continued, would generate more red ink that the two wars, TARP, revenue lost to the recession and the cost of Medicare Part D combined. And when most of the Bush wartime tax cuts were made permanent as part of the 2013 "fiscal cliff" deal, President Obama and Congress guaranteed the hemorrhaging of red ink would continue for years to come. As the Washington Post put it last September:

Despite multiple deficit-reduction deals during the past three years, the national debt is projected to swell to 100 percent of the economy by 2038, due primarily to the enormous cost of caring for an aging society. Making matters worse: tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans made permanent during last year's fiscal cliff showdown. If the tax cuts had been allowed to expire, projections showed the debt dropping to 52 percent of GDP during the next 25 years.

And that means it will be very difficult indeed for the United States to maintain or expand its current defense footprint. Unless, that is, Republicans decide they would finally like to pay for it.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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