Exploding Deficits Imperil U.S. World Commitments

In the late 1980s, some scholars argued that America was in decline. Our economy, they argued, soon would be unable to support our far-flung military commitments, forcing us to scale back.

They were wrong. Like everyone else, they simply did not anticipate the Soviet Union’s collapse, which left America as the world’s undisputed military colossus.

But now the issue they raised is more compelling than ever: Our military and economic policies are on a collision course. Our growing military commitments will cost huge sums. At the same time, we are destroying the foundation of our economy, which supports our military needs.

Pay one way or the other

Our choice: Pay the price at home to maintain our posture abroad, or bankrupt ourselves through more tax cuts and unnecessary spending, forcing us to curtail our overseas commitments and giving solace to nations and terrorists who would destroy us.

The answer is obvious, even if Washington is willfully avoiding the subject: Because national security demands that we maintain this new military posture, we must reduce our exploding deficits and return our budget to balance. Sept. 11, 2001 stripped away any sense that the global community will rally to confront the dangers. We cannot escape the indispensability of U.S. leadership.

  • The United Nations Security Council gave Iraq an ultimatum, then refused to enforce it. When future threats arise, expect the U.S. to sidestep the U.N. and build shifting “coalitions of the willing.”
  • France and other European countries stoke anti-Americanism, curry favor with Muslims and snub NATO by ignoring Turkey’s pleas for help with Iraq – secure that America will do the dirty military work. We should not be surprised. After years of European paralysis, the U.S. in 1999 stepped in to bomb the Serbians into ending their brutality in Kosovo. U.S. “unilateralism” didn’t start with President Bush and won’t end with him.
  • China, Japan and South Korea can agree only that although they are most at risk, the United States should solve the nuclear crisis with North Korea on its own.

Trends point to more U.S. world leadership, not less. The U.S. plans to spend $400 billion a year on defense this decade, at least 10 times the amount spent by any other nation. Yet while we have assumed the mantle of leadership, we may lack the resources to maintain it.

A weak economy, recent tax cuts and anti-terrorism spending have transformed huge anticipated budget surpluses into prospects for enormous deficits. The last thing the U.S. should do is adopt policies that will make its deficits worse. But President Bush’s new budget and proposed tax cuts would push the deficit to a record $338 billion next year before it settles down to $100 billion to $200 billion a year for the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Even that severely understates the problem. There’s also a possible extension of Bush’s 2001 tax cuts beyond 2010 and the costs of war with Iraq and its aftermath.

Add all that up, throw in more realistic projections of domestic spending, and annual deficits could top $500 billion, according to the Committee for Economic Development. That could panic Wall Street, send interest rates up and force policymakers to squeeze spending to reduce the red ink.

Guns vs. benefits

Defense spending will face particular scrutiny. The Pentagon will be no match for retiring baby boomers, who will use their political power to protect Social Security and Medicare.

But we can’t afford to shortchange defense. So we should dispense with any tax cuts that would increase long-term deficits. We should cut domestic spending not related to homeland security and a handful of other priorities, such as education and research. And we should reform Social Security and Medicare before they squeeze everything else out of the budget.

U.S. leadership abroad will cost real money. Washington policymakers should work to restore the budget to balance, ensuring that America can find the funds to support our role overseas. Our lives could depend on it – literally.