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Romney's $2 Trillion Gimmick

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GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney is pushing a shortsighted and costly plan to boost his national security credentials. In a series of speeches and policy pronouncements last week, Romney promised to dedicate at least four percent of the nation's economic output to the military's base budget, increase naval shipbuilding by two thirds, expand funding for national missile defense, and grow the active duty ranks by 100,000. Romney's intention to shower so much money on the Pentagon -- on top of the huge increases of the past decade -- will compound the nation's strategic problems, as well as its fiscal ones.

The most striking thing about Romney's proposal is the staggering cost. Based on the most likely of three different sets of Congressional Budget Office projections, defense spending will total $637 billion (or 2.7 percent of GDP) in 2021. Romney's plan in that same year would cost taxpayers $900 billion. Cumulative defense spending for the ten-year period from FY 2012 to 2021, according to CBO projections, would total $5.811 trillion. Romney's plan would cost $7.857 trillion, a difference of $2.046 trillion.

That looks bad enough, but the actual gap between Romney and reality would probably be wider still. The CBO projections cited above don't include war costs, which may continue to accumulate in a Romney administration. The Iraq war is scheduled to draw to a close by the end of this year, and the Afghanistan mission is supposed to end in 2014. Romney's foreign policy advisers include some of the biggest boosters of the Iraq war; it will weigh heavily on their consciences if the country descends into civil war after the last U.S. troops are withdrawn. Meanwhile, Romney allowed that U.S. forces may remain in Afghanistan past the 2014 date, depending on the "best recommendations of our military commanders."

Even if Romney resists the urge to send tens of thousands of U.S. troops back into Iraq, and if he terminates the open-ended nation-building mission in Afghanistan, how will he pay for his plans? Two of three obvious options -- tax increases and deficit spending -- are almost certainly off the table.

That means that Romney will have to reduce other spending to pay for the growth in the military budget. Cutting $2 trillion exclusively from projected non-defense discretionary spending would amount to a 40 percent cut from the CBO's 10-year projections.

As daunting as the budget numbers are, the worst part of Romney's plan is its extraordinary myopia. Romney's four-percent gimmick is a slogan, not a strategy. Strategy weighs a nation's ends against its means, and adapts ways to achieve these ends within those resource constraints. A wise strategy also prioritizes the "must dos" from the "nice to dos." A country's threats do not rise or fall with its wealth. If anything, countries should be able to spend a decreasing share of their economy on defense as they grow richer. But U.S. military spending has nearly doubled in real terms since 1998, and we now spend more than at any time since the end of World War II, even though the threats facing this country are far more modest.

According to Romney, such expenses are necessary because the security of other countries is, and should be, the primary concern for American taxpayers and troops. U.S. troops, Romney claims, must maintain a constant watch in every corner of the world, and must be poised to stop conflicts before they occur. He, like President Obama and Hillary Clinton, believes that this global posture reassures U.S. allies, who might otherwise be tempted to defend themselves. And Romney likes it that way. So, while Romney last week scorned "the Europeans" who were sending their money "out to social programs...and shrinking their military year after year after year," his plan is likely to make that problem worse.

The United States has played the role of global policeman long enough. Reversing this state of affairs, and getting other countries to do more, and pay more, to protect their security, should be the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, Mitt Romney's decision to embrace the tired status quo practically ensures that other countries will spend even less on their militaries, while Americans pay more, and U.S. troops sacrifice more.

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Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.

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