In an interview published over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta blasted even the notion of allowing any military budget cuts going forward, insisting that following through on the sequestration cuts, mostly just cuts in the rate of growth rather than in real dollars, would turn the United States into a “second-rate power.”
“It would be a shameful act of irresponsibility if Congress just stood to the side and let sequester take place,” Panetta insisted. He gave no indication what he imagined another “first rate power” would be.
Indeed, even after the current cuts the US is overwhelming the most expensive military on the planet, and in the “worst-case” sequestration would still spend several times what China does at number two, and a factor of ten more than other “great powers” of the modern era like Russia, France and Britain.
Panetta even concedes in his interview that under that worst-case scenario the US could maintain its occupation of Afghanistan as well as its assorted wars in the Middle East, but that it would struggle to launch any additional wars on top of that, be it in northern Africa or against North Korea. It is hard to imagine, however, that being able to sustain that many open-ended wars at once is truly the measure of a “first-rate power,” a measure that would cover only a handful of empires across history, and even then empires whose huge expenditures came at an enormous domestic cost.