By Ferguson, Niall
Newsweek , Vol. 158, No. 22
Byline: Niall Ferguson
Congress is poised to slash defense spending. Great idea--as long as China remains our buddy and the Middle East embraces brotherly love.
Fort Leavenworth in Kansas is the perfect place to go to think about the U.S. defense budget. The Combined Arms Center is the brain trust of the Army. All the Army's majors pass through it. Its alums include all the five-star generals of modern times: Arnold, Bradley, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Marshall. Its former commanders include David Petraeus. To meet its officer-students--nearly all of whom have seen action in Iraq or Afghanistan--is to see what is best about the American military today.
So should we slash the budget that pays these exemplary men and women? Only if you believe the currently fashionable arguments that mankind is getting ever more peaceable, the Middle East is entering a happy new era of democracy and peace, and China does not pose a strategic threat to the U.S.
First, the case for cuts. The U.S. remains a formidable military power. The Department of Defense has total military personnel of 1.4 million, about a fifth of whom are deployed abroad. The U.S. defense budget is larger than those of the next 15 countries combined.
The wars the United States has fought in the last 10 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not come cheap. Since September 2001, lawmakers have provided $1.283 trillion in budget authority for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, a huge financial crisis has blown a hole in the nation's finances that urgently needs to be filled. Even if interest rates stay at their current low levels, the growth of the federal debt means that within less than a decade interest payments are likely to exceed the defense budget.
For all these reasons, many in Congress thirst to slash defense. Already this year it has been cut by approximately $465 billion. The president, too, is in a hurry to wind down American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month he announced that only 150 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after the end of the year, down from nearly 50,000 today, ostensibly because of the unwillingness of Iraqi lawmakers to grant U. …