alliances, Biden administration, China, defense budget, Defense Department, inflation, Lippmann Gap, military, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, Taiwan, Trump administration, Ukraine, Ukraine War, Walter Lippmann
As made clear by its latest proposed defense budget, the Biden administration is creating an ever more serious Lippmann Gap problem – and courting greater and greater threats to U.S. national security in the process.
As known by RealityChek regulars, this term refers to a danger warned of by twentieth century philosopher and journalist Walter Lippmann – who argued that a country whose foreign policy objectives were exceeding the means at its disposal to achieve those objectives is headed for big trouble.
And practically since it entered office, that’s the fix into which Mr. Biden’s expansive foreign policy goals on the one hand, and his Pentagon budget requests on the other, keep sinking America. Worse, this year, the predicament seems especially worrisome, since the President is conducting foreign and national security policies that inevitably are super-charging tensions with both a nuclear-armed Russia and a nuclear-armed China.
No matter whether you believe either or both of these policies are necessary or not (and I view the Biden Ukraine/Russia policies as unforgivably reckless, because no vital U.S. interests are at stake, and his China policies unavoidable, because Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing prowess has turned it into a vital interest), you have to agree that fire is being played with.
This past week, the administration revealed that it will be asking Congress to approve $842 billion worth of spending on the Pentagon and its operations proper. (As usual, the annual defense budget request additionally includes tens of billions of dollars worth of extra spending, practically all on Energy Department programs for maintaining the country’s nuclear arsenal.)
It’s a lot of money. But it’s only 3.15 percent larger than the funds finally approved for the Defense Department for this current (2023) fiscal year. And when you factor in the administration’s estimate of inflation for 2024 (2.40 percent), in real terms, it’s barely an increase at all. Worse, if you believe that inflation might stay considerably higher, then we’re looking at a prospective defense budget cut in real terms.
Either the President believes that (1) the U.S. military can already handle both the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and a Ukraine War that might at least spill over into the territory of treaty allies; or (2) that neither event will happen; or (3) that they’ll be spaced out neatly enough to enable existing U.S. forces to handle them one at a time; or (4) that a marginally bigger defense budget will at least put the Pentagon on the road toward building the capabilities it needs to handle these new potential threats before they actually materialize.
Do any of these strike you as safe enough bets?
Nor is this type of Biden administration defense budget request anything new. Last year at about this time, the fiscal 2023 Pentagon budget request was unveiled. `As you may recall, “last year at about this time” was roughly a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, and after President Biden resolved to help Kyiv turn back Moscow’s forces. He ruled out using American boots on the ground, but began providing major military assistance and significantly adding to the U.S. military presence in countries throughout Europe – including those right next to Ukraine that Washington had already promised to protect with nuclear weapons if necessary because (unlike Ukraine), they’re members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In addition, since the previous August, the President had stated several times that the U.S. military would come to Taiwan’s rescue if Beijing attacked. Even though the White House has sought to walk back these comments, their number plainly means that the United States has taken on another sizable defense commitment.
But that fiscal 2023 budget request – again, made in March, 2022 – sought only 4.2 percent more in defense spending than was finally approved for fiscal 2022. And after the administration’s expected inflation rate expected, the rise was only 1.5 percent.
Further, Mr. Biden’s first defense budget request (for fiscal 2022), made in April, 2021, sought Pentagon spending that was only 1.6 percent higher than that finally approved for the final Trump administration budget year.
It’s true that this modest Biden request was much bigger than the proposal made by his predecessor for fiscal 2022. But it seemed way too paltry given that at the heart of Mr. Biden’s approach to foreign policy was the promise that America would come charging “back” from four Trump years of alleged retreat from the world stage and in particular neglect of defense alliances.
Of course, defense budget requests are only the first step in the defense spending process, and Congress will surely push through some increases as it’s done in years past. Also crucial to remember: The amount of military spending doesn’t automatically translate into more or less fighting prowess, since spending priorities within the top-line outlay can be and often are shifted to generate more bang for the buck (or achieve other newly added objectives). Indeed, that’s what one aim that the President says he’s aiming to achieve.
Nonetheless, the overall initial budget request certainly limits the extent to which specific programs can absorb more funds without overly shortchanging other important programs. It also tends to exert a gravitational effect on Congress’ political ability to add (or subtract).
Two other big problems to worry about. First, the latest inflation estimates by the Pentagon have been way off. For the 2022-23 calendar year, the actual inflation rate has so far turned out to be nearly three times greater (nearly six percent as of February) than the estimate for that fiscal year (2.2 percent).
The estimate for 2023-24 of 2.4 percent roughly matches the latest forecasts of the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office. But as noted, even if correct, the extra outlays will be minimal in after-inflation terms, as I’ve argued previously, politicians’ great temptation to stimulate the economy with all sorts of giveaways as a new presidential election cycle gets underway could well keep price increases robust.
Second, decisions to spend even much more on, for example, new weapons or troop readiness can take years to result in more effective forces. So even much bigger Biden requests were never going to work instant miracles.
At the same time, the global threat environment is hardly moving at a snail’s pace. And recent reporting from The Wall Street Journal describes what a mammoth strategic transition the Defense Department needs to make – from a force focused on fighting a Middle East-centric global war on terror to one able to handle two great power threats.
The option that I’d prefer is for closing the Lippmann Gap by reducing some U.S. defense commitments (principally relating to Ukraine, along with further downplaying the Middle East) along with hiking military spending faster (to cope with the mounting Chinese threat to Taiwan). But at the rate the Biden administration is going, America’s worrisome mismatch between its foreign policy reach and its grasp seems sure to keep worsening.