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The tyranny of small percentages

Well, the Washington Post has misspoken again on defense.

Its editorial today brushes fact aside in its rush to endorse higher spending for defense by capturing 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) over the next 10 years. But the absence of clarity in the Romney tax platform, which makes the math for getting $2 trillion more for defense over the next 10 years difficult, is not the only part of the Romney defense plan that does not add up.

Have no doubt that the Romney commitment to 4 percent means an actual $2 trillion more. That's math, not speculation, though the Romney advisors tried to wriggle out of it earlier this week by saying it would be a slope to 4 percent of GDP. That's $2 trillion on top of the $5.7 trillion already projected for the defense budget by Secretary Leon Panetta, when he sent his budget to Congress in February. That's an increase of 35 percent.

And, pace the Post, that's a big number. Let's remember that the "supercommittee" couldn't agree to $1.2 trillion in budget savings. The Romney commitment would make that challenge pale by comparison. And meanwhile, the Post's editorial board tries to argue that 6 percent of U.S. GDP -- the average level of defense spending during the Cold War -- is not significant. Actually, they're right.

But calculating the share that defense eats of our economy is one of the most meaningless and deceptive arguments ever employed in talking about defense. It only tells you what it tells you -- the share of GDP. It says absolutely nothing about what we actually spend on defense, what we buy with the money, what capabilities we currently have, or what we might require. It's a nonsense number. And it is and always has been a nonsense number to foist on our allies. The real issues are capabilities and strategy, not the share of GDP.

The Post editorial simply runs away from a discussion of capabilities linked to strategy. It mindlessly endorses adding back the 100,000 ground troops currently leaving the force, despite the fact that they were only added to ease rotations in two wars, of which one is now over and the other ending soon. Ground forces always shrink after wars, and they should. The remaining U.S. ground force is larger than any nation's but China -- and China is frankly the last country we are going to invade with ground forces. (Remember the last ground war in Asia?)

Unless the Post's editors are endorsing a U.S. ground invasion in the Middle East (for which there is zero public support), there is precious little threat out there today that demands a large ground force, especially in the Pacific theater to which our attention is swinging. And even in the Middle East, the limits on what any U.S. ground force can accomplish have already been amply demonstrated.

The Post also mindlessly endorses the goal of buying 15 ships a year, despite the reality that we have not bought that many since 1986, not even during the George W. Bush years, not to mention that with the current prices of ships, such a goal is entirely unaffordable. Oh, but we need a 346-ship navy, the Post agrees, endorsing without analysis, the proposal of the Independent Panel on the Quadrennial Defense Review. The need for such a navy is highly debatable. The one we have today dominates far and away the navies of any other power, or any potential adversaries put together, including in the Pacific theater.

And though the Post asserts that this larger ground and naval force better fits current strategic needs than the Panetta projections, it provides no link between that force and any new strategic needs.

The reality is that, today, the United States has today the most dominant military capability on the globe. It flies, floats, and deploys everywhere and has global logistics, infrastructure, intelligence, communications, and transportation. The currently projected defense budgets, even a reduction from those budgets, would do very little to change that global dominance, as no other power, including China, even tries to maintain such a global capability.

There are far more pressing needs, in the civilian foreign policy world and, especially here at home, that could do vastly more to ensure our security than throwing another $2 trillion at the Department of Defense, on top of what is already the highest level of defense spending, in constant dollars, we have had since the end of World War II.

And the fiscal reality is that that defense budget is going to go down, whoever wins the White House in November. The challenge for either Obama or Romney is how to manage that drawdown sensibly. The experience of the 1990s, when the defense budget declined 30 percent in constant dollars, says it can be managed with no sacrifice to our national security. That's the debate we should be having on defense, not a phony argument about shares of GDP.

-/AFP/Getty Images

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