Due to a general's plea for reinforcements, President Barack Obama is under increasing pressure to send tens of thousands more troops to aid American counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan—a potential turning point in that conflict that some are likening to the surge in Iraq.
Escalating a single war can be costly. And were foreign-policy hawks given their way, President Obama would also extend the American campaign in Iraq, construct a missile-defense shield that safeguards Poland and the Czech Republic, persist in aggressive military efforts to eradicate illegal narcotics abroad, purchase a new generation of costly fighter jets, expand the NATO security guarantee to more countries, continue multibillion dollar contracts to mercenary defense contractors, maintain the nuclear arsenal at present levels, and launch air strikes to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon.
Should our nuclear arsenal shrink? I haven’t any idea, but a better counterargument is required than “the military knows best.”
These are all demands that movement conservatives have made since President Obama took office less than a year ago—and whatever one thinks about them individually, it is evident that they are collectively unaffordable, and at odds with the strongest anti-Obama critique being offered by the right wing. It is folly, conservatives rightly note, for an insolvent, debt-ridden nation to pursue costly new government initiatives, especially when the American people already feel overtaxed. The national debt will reach $7.6 trillion this year. That's roughly $25,000 for every man, woman and child in the country!
Now that the spendthrift GOP Congress most recently responsible for that tab is out of power, along with the Republican president who enabled it, even the right's most partisan opportunists can join the correct right-of-center consensus that this level of spending is unsustainable. Hence the sensible conservative calls for painful program cuts, intense scrutiny of government waste, and a careful cost-benefit review of almost all federal spending.
• Tina Brown: Let’s Not Abandon Afghan WomenAlas, there is an exception: The right hasn't any interest in applying those measures to military spending. Conservatives are right to rank national defense as government's preeminent responsibility. That we maintain the most powerful military in the world, by a sizable margin, is an appropriate use of whatever wealth we produce; only an ahistorical fool would undervalue the peace dividend American hegemony has afforded.
But that isn't any reason to abandon conservative insights about government spending on every matter funneled through the Pentagon.
How does this attitude hurt?
Honest accounting is one casualty. The right is complicit in the dubious practice of tallying the cost of ongoing foreign wars as though they aren't normal outlays to be paid for "as we go," and factored into budgets like any other item. (The Bush administration once went so far as to assert that the Iraq War would pay for itself!)
Another casualty is cognizance of opportunity costs. The right can be counted on to remember that it isn't enough for domestic spending to do some good—the case must be made that taxpayer money is being spent in the best possible way by government, and better than it could be spent by the American people.
Apply that mind-set to the current debate about troop levels in Afghanistan.
Fighting Islamic terrorism to safeguard American lives should be a high priority. It isn't one we're overspending on. Are tens of thousands of additional troops in Afghanistan the best means of achieving that end?
The fact that General Stanley McChrystal wants more troops isn't enough to make that case. He is a man understandably focused on the narrow aim of maximizing success in his theater. Conservatives keen on granting his request must make a broader case: that investment in that effort, as opposed to any other, makes us most safe. It is a proposition that should be argued for, not assumed.
Unfortunately, the conservative movement's impulse is to afford military leaders too much deference. Take its stance on our nuclear arsenal. After the military presented a plan to reduce it, President Obama signaled his displeasure by demanding more ambitious cuts. "Obama knows more about weapons requirements than the military now?" conservative blogger Dan Riehl wrote, echoing many on the right. "I think it's time to start ringing the alarm bells with this guy, folks."
Conservatives respond quite differently when domestic-affairs bureaucrats claim special knowledge. Expertise in education, or welfare spending, or environmental stewardship is afforded some respect. Deference is tempered, however, by the understanding that people aren't very good at judging the relative importance of their own work, and that every institution is reflexively opposed to shrinking itself. Should our nuclear arsenal shrink? I haven't any idea, but a better counterargument is required than "the military knows best."
Lastly, conservatives upset at taxpayer funds spent on a corrupt organization like ACORN should summon the same outrage when money is allocated to war contractors guilty of misdeeds that are far worse.
"Whether it be soldiers electrocuted by cheap, poorly installed showers by KBR and Triple Canopy, the vodka- and drug-fueled pimping frat boys from the Armor Group or the gang rape of a female American contractor by her fellow KBR employees, there is seemingly no end to evidence that the proliferation of privatization has created a runaway Frankenstein of venality, arrogance, avarice and corruption and downright evil," Kelley Vlahos wrote in The American Conservative. "Take this latest bit about the Armor Group. Thanks to the Project on Government Oversight, which had the wherewithal to FOIA the goods on this group, we now know that there has been unfettered depravity—including, we heard last week, the procurement of imported, unwitting Chinese girls for sex—at our U.S embassy."
This behavior is anathema. Unlike the ACORN case, however, the sordid facts aren't provoking an outraged response, due in part to the right's curious habit of minimizing government misdeeds and excess when they relate to foreign affairs. This holds true even when misconduct threatens the war effort, as at Abu Ghraib, or squanders public money, as when subcontractors were caught overcharging for their work.
As a deficit hawk, I'd support all kinds of politically unpalatable measures to improve America's fiscal condition. Means test Social Security and Medicare! End the costly war on drugs! Cease agricultural subsidies, end the mortgage deduction, repeal prevailing wage laws, and abolish benefit-inflating public-employee unions! But even the passage of those politically untenable measures wouldn't absolve us of the need to more prudently weigh all policies beneath the banner of defense spending.
They ought to be accounted for honestly, weighed according to opportunity cost, skeptically evaluated no matter what military folks say, and subject to intense oversight as a guard against corruption. Military spending is too huge a percentage of American outlays to ignore if we're to regain fiscally sane governance—and beyond that, every dollar misspent is money that is unavailable for any future emergency. In that sense, more prudent defense spending itself makes us safer.
The solution is simple enough—the right wing need only apply its core insights and healthy skepticism of government to defense spending, just as it does to every other part of the federal budget.
That it does so isn't just a preference. It's a matter of national security.
Conor Friedersdorf writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.