Republican presidential candidates sometimes express alarm that the national debt is approaching $20 trillion, but their defense policies are destined to grow rather than shrink this huge number. The contradiction between Republican fiscal rhetoric and their expansive military plans should worry primary voters concerned with leaving their children and grandchildren a solvent nation.
Last fall’s budget compromise added about $53 billion in defense spending over the next two years, primarily at the urging of Republican hawks. The new spending is theoretically offset by cuts and revenue enhancements elsewhere in the bill, but most of these deficit reductions are back-loaded.
Now that defense spending has expanded beyond the caps imposed as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, it seems likely that the higher expenditure level will be sustained in future years. Otherwise, there would be a one-time drop in the overall defense budget — an event that will surely prompt a rhetorical assault by retired generals and commentators on conservative media outlets.
More worrying is the intensifying pressure to maintain and increase our military presence in the Middle East. The Iran nuclear deal seems to have marked the end of Obama-era de-escalation. The trend is now toward the greater use of American military resources in the region, as evidenced by the decision to leave troops in Afghanistan past the end of the Obama administration and the use of Special Forces to engage ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. It is easy to see how an establishment Republican president like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would double down on this trend.
As I warned in a 2014 piece, the pressure to escalate the war against ISIS will be hard to resist. Looking further ahead, if or when the U.S. defeats ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Republicans will invariably demand an ongoing military presence to counter any re-emergence of terrorism. After all, we wouldn’t want to repeat the “mistake” Obama made when we pulled out of Iraq in 2011. The suggestion that friendly Sunni nations provide these boots on the ground sounds great on the debate stage, but will be hard to achieve.
A Republican president (with the possible exception of Trump) is thus likely to keep ground troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria for the duration. And it may not stop there. ISIS is active in Libya and al Qaeda has a chapter in Yemen. Since these two failed states are unable to quell their jihadist insurgencies, more American troops will be needed to counter them.
The logic that America, as the exceptional nation, must lead the global war on terrorism inexorably leads to the conclusion that our military forces must permanently occupy all weak Middle Eastern states harboring jihadist groups. By the end of the next Republican president’s first term, we could easily be involved in five separate occupations.
What would this do to the Overseas Contingency Operations fund — the off-budget kitty used to account for war-related costs? OCO could well balloon back up to the $100 billion level last seen at the peak of the Iraq War — and then stay there indefinitely. Since Republicans invariably oppose raising taxes, the expanded OCO would add trillions to the national debt over the next few decades.
And the costs don’t end there. Veterans Affairs spending has rocketed upward in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If we were to keep 10,000 or more troops in each of five hot spots indefinitely, we will have many more combat veterans to serve in future decades. If these forces see major combat, the VA will also be dealing with physically wounded warriors and cases of PTSD for decades to come.
So the idea that Republican policies will pay down the national debt does not square with their demands for military escalation. Further, the contention that the debt problem can be solved by restoring 4 percent annual GDP growth rates we had in the 1980s and 1990s is specious. Growth during these decades was assisted by the addition of Baby Boomers to the work force and, later on, by their professional growth. Now this generation is retiring, shrinking the pool of high-productivity workers. Unless we permit massive immigration — something opposed by most Republicans — we simply lack the demographic engine required to support 4 percent growth.
In the absence of accelerated growth, the demands of paying down the national debt seem incompatible with adopting a more militaristic posture. Several Republican candidates look to entitlement reform to square this circle. But because Republicans draw their support from older voters, they will be reluctant to make meaningful cuts to Medicare and Social Security in the near future. The Republican base’s thought process on entitlement reform was epitomized by the 2009 town hall attendee who told his representative to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Even if they lose the presidency and remain in the minority in both houses of Congress, Democrats should be able to stifle entitlement reform by scaring seniors in purple states.
So, for Republicans, there is no easy way out: their stated fiscal and defense policies simply don’t add up to a more manageable debt.