With an election approaching and at least some Americans upset about irresponsible spending, the president has finally expressed a political interest in cutting something. He says the Pentagon will spend "only" $525 billion next year. That's slightly less than the current $531 billion.
A cut is good, but this will barely dent the deficit. We could save much more if America assumed a military policy designed for defense rather than policing the world.
Presidential candidate Ron Paul gets criticized for advocating that. Paul's opponents, including many of my colleagues, complain about his "isolationist foreign policy."
But shrinking the military's role isn't the same as isolation. America can have a huge impact in the world without deploying our military. We already do. By all means, let our movies and music alarm mullahs. Let our websites and books disseminate ideas that autocrats consider dangerous. Above all, let's trade with everyone.
It's said that when goods don't cross borders, armies will. There's plenty of evidence to support that. A report funded by European governments says armed conflict in Muslim countries is far lower today than it was two decades ago. A reason? Trade.
Richard Cobden, a 19th-century British liberal statesman, said, "The progress of freedom depends more upon the maintenance of peace, the spread of commerce and the diffusion of education than upon the labors of Cabinets or foreign offices."
I agree. American music and consumer goods did more to bring down the Berlin Wall than our military did.
Ron Paul doesn't say that we shouldn't defend ourselves. He supported our retaliation in Afghanistan after 9/11. He says if we are attacked, or clearly threatened with attack, America should fight. That's defense. That's different from policing the world.
Today, America spends more on the military than we did when Russia threatened us with missiles. That's irrational. And we can't afford it.
Still, I am uncomfortable writing about defense. I'm surrounded by smart people who say America needs to spend more on the military. Some studied war for years. I haven't. My instinct is to believe the hawks.
Except, I covered markets. I watched government try to improve on them. Doing that, I learned that government doesn't do anything well. Why would that be different for military policy?
It isn't. In 2004, the U.S. military sent $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills to Iraq. That money disappeared. We don't know what happened to it. The U.S. official in charge said there was so much cash flying around his office that the staff called the packages "footballs" and threw passes to one another.