Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 11 April 2023


Liberals Have a Blind Spot on Defense

A muscular man in a green T-shirt, with close cropped hair, looks down at a check list in front of rows of shelves with various supplies.
A U.S. Air Force airman checks supplies bound for Ukraine.Credit...Marco A. Gomez/U.S. Air Force, via Getty Image
A muscular man in a green T-shirt, with close cropped hair, looks down at a check list in front of rows of shelves with various supplies.

Opinion Columnist

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Among the surprises of the war in Ukraine is that it has made Republicans much more dovish and Democrats much more hawkish. The switch has in some ways been startling, in other ways unsurprising.

But it’s far from complete.

In January, a Pew Research survey found that 63 percent of Democrats thought that U.S. support for Ukraine was either “about right” or “not enough.” Just 15 percent thought it was too much. By contrast, just 41 percent of Republicans thought that Washington’s support for Ukraine was either adequate or insufficient. A nearly equal share, 40 percent, thought it was too much.

Part of this reflects simple partisanship. Democrats broadly support the war effort because Joe Biden supports it. Many Republicans oppose it for the same reason.

But part of it stems from deeper convictions. The impulses contained in Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric — skeptical of foreign entanglements, parsimonious with taxpayer dollars — echo those of Robert Taft and Calvin Coolidge. By contrast, the instinct to arm Ukraine arises from the sort of moral convictions that also animated Franklin Roosevelt’s support for Britain in 1941 and Harry Truman’s stand in Berlin in 1948: a matter of keeping faith with democratic underdogs squaring off against aggressive tyrants.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Almost reflexively, most Republican politicians support large increases in military spending, despite otherwise claiming to champion budgetary restraint. There’s a good argument for such increases: U.S. military spending as a share of gross domestic product — around 3.5 percent, as compared with over 6.3 percent 40 years ago — is near historical lows, even as we face simultaneous and growing military threats from Russia and China.

But the argument for higher defense spending makes less sense if Republicans choose to turn their back on the world. If the war in Ukraine is just a faraway “territorial dispute” that does not engage our vital national interests, as Ron DeSantis suggested earlier this year, then why would a Chinese invasion of Taiwan be any different? We don’t need to spend $840 billion a year for a superpower-size military if we aren’t interested in behaving like a superpower in the first place.

What about Democrats? Liberals and progressives tend to be reflexively skeptical of military spending: “Waste, fraud and abuse” is a favorite phrase of Pentagon critics like Jon Stewart, never mind that it’s endemic to almost all government bureaucracies, including unemployment insurance and Medicaid. They’re also fond of citing Dwight Eisenhower’s warning from 1961 about the military-industrial complex, never mind that the complex is nothing like its former self. For purposes of comparison, the market cap of Lockheed Martin, the largest U.S. defense contractor, is roughly 5 percent that of Apple.

But liberals are now the principal driving force behind continued American support for Ukraine — support that would be hollow if it weren’t for Javelin and Stinger missiles, M777 howitzers and HIMARS rocket launchers, Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks, and millions of artillery shells. These are the tools that have so far spared most of Ukraine from Russian subjugation, as well as the products of that much-maligned military-industrial complex. Now liberals need to provide the means to achieve their own ends.

That hasn’t happened yet. The Biden administration touts the size of its $842 billion budget request, and in nominal terms it’s the largest ever. But that fails to account for inflation, which has hit especially hard in personnel salaries and weapons procurement. Under the administration’s plans, the Navy would continue to lose ships even as China’s navy — concentrated in one ocean, not four — grows. Our industrial base, as The Times’s Eric Lipton reported last month, is struggling to supply Ukraine with the ordnance it needs; what happens in the event of an invasion of Taiwan?

This is strategically unserious. It’s also ideologically unnecessary. “The military is the epitome of big government, with egalitarian wages, socialized medicine and the best government-run child-care system in the country,” wrote the Swarthmore College political scientist Dominic Tierney in The Atlantic in September. He might have added that defense spending is about as pure an application of a domestic industrial policy — with thousands of good-paying, high-skilled manufacturing jobs — as any other high-tech sector.

Liberals also used to be hostile to the military on the assumption that it skewed right wing, but that’s a harder argument to make when the right is complaining about a “woke military.” People who spend time around senior military officers know that they are rarely trigger-happy. The most stabilizing force in the first two years of the Trump administration was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the former Marine general whom Trump described as “sort of a Democrat.”

Too much of the world has become hostile to liberal values in the last few years, and no regimes have done more to promote the new illiberalism than Moscow and Beijing. They will not be shamed into better behavior by moralistic rebukes, much less thwarted from their ambitions by diplomatic condemnation. A liberalism that knows that it is both valuable and fragile should be willing to pay a premium for its own defense, and that of its most vulnerable friends.

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