GUY RAZ, host:
Now, the U.S. is unlikely to intervene in Syria as it has in Libya, and Retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor thinks that's a good thing, and not because he opposes democracy but rather all these foreign interventions, he says, are too expensive. Now, you've heard it before a thousand times: the U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined.
Just last year, almost a third of all tax dollars the federal government collected went to the Pentagon. So amid the anxiety over the national debt, Douglas Macgregor argues that the military will also have to make sacrifices. He says over three years you could cut the Pentagon's budget by 40 percent.
And he's laid out that plan in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, where he writes that a leaner military wouldn't just be more cost-effective but also a better fit for America's security interests.
Colonel DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Retired): We had this phrase, and I'm sure all of your listeners have heard it, war of choice, the emphasis on choice. If you look at all of the interventions that we have launched since 1945, beginning with Vietnam in 1965 and moving forward, none of them have changed the international system at all, and none of them have directly benefited us strategically.
The last military event that had a true strategic impact on the international system was the Second World War. So Americans need to understand that these wars of choice, these interventions of choice, have been both unnecessary, counterproductive, strategically self-defeating and infinitely too expensive for what we can actually afford.
RAZ: What happens? I mean, you're essentially saying you've got to starve the beast here.
Col. MACGREGOR: Yes.
RAZ: You've got to turn off the tabs.
Col. MACGREGOR: Yes.
RAZ: So in three years' time, a 40 percent reduction, you're saying the Pentagon is just going to have to adapt to that and it's going to force them to...
Col. MACGREGOR: Yes. All positive military change. If you look at the Soviet state, if you look at Nazi Germany, if you go back before the First World War and look at the Royal Navy and the British Army, the various military formations over the 19th and 20th centuries, what you discover is that the most innovation and the most positive change and adaptation to reality occurs not in a flood of money but in its absence.
That's when people have to sit down and come to terms with reality and realize that they cannot go on into the future and do what they've done in the past.
RAZ: Okay. The U.S. is expected to spend about $700 billion on defense this year. You're saying immediately you can cut about $300 billion out of that. Where would you actually cut the money?
Col. MACGREGOR: Well, first of all, you have a very bloated force structure. We have over 1,500 flag officers. We have...
RAZ: You're talking about generals and admirals.
Col. MACGREGOR: Generals and admirals. That's right. And we have enormous numbers of single-service headquarters, and we have multiple regional unified commands. These are the combatant commands emerged in the 1980s, largely in response to a Soviet empire that was already on the decline.
We don't need all of those headquarters. We don't need all of those commands. And they cost billions of dollars. No one has come forward and admitted that for the last 10 years, I would argue certainly since 1991, we have faced the weakest adversaries that we have ever encountered in the history of this country.
Now, what do I mean by that? You're talking about people with no armies, no air forces, no air defenses, no naval capability. You come to terms with the reality that the nature of warfare has changed, that technology; new technologies, new organizations, new force structures, new force designs, allow you to do things differently and more cheaply.
RAZ: In virtually every congressional district there is some component built or created that is for the defense industry. It employs many, many, many thousands of people all across this country. So realistically, how do you think that your plan would ever be implemented?
Col. MACGREGOR: Well, I think the plan can be implemented when people come to terms with an understanding that we have to deliver the services that were promised under Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. We cannot honor those obligations and do so without reducing defense and reorienting our defense posture to a world that's very different today from the one in which most of these forces were created and invented.
And what we have right now are very powerful military bureaucracies tied to the defense industries that want to stay in business that are quite frankly larger than we need, and we have congressional interests that want to sustain prosperity at home and see the military budget as a way to cultivate prosperity by redistributing income. This is an enormous problem, but we've got to deal with it because we can't afford it and it will ultimately consume us over time.
RAZ: That's Douglas Macgregor. He's a retired U.S. army colonel. He recently wrote about this subject for Foreign Policy magazine. The article is called "Lean, Mean Fighting Machine." His latest book is called "Warrior's Rage."
Douglas Macgregor, thanks so much for coming in.
Col. MACGREGOR: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.