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Yes, the U.S. Can Afford to Help Its Allies

The Atlantic - Government
Thought Leader: David Frum
October 20, 2023
Source: The Atlantic
Written by: David Frum

As his address to the nation from the Oval Office last night underlined, President Joe Biden is expected to send a defense-appropriations request to Congress for perhaps as much as $100 billion to support Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, and to improve U.S. border security. It’s a big request—and it will galvanize a debate about whether the United States is doing too much.

Existing critics of Ukraine aid are already complaining that to add an effort to resupply Israel will prove too crushing. Is that true?

Let’s carefully tally American resources and American commitments.

Thanks to its remarkable rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, the American economy will this year produce $27 trillion in goods and services. In the fiscal year that ended on September 30, the U.S. spent about $850 billion of that $27 trillion on national defense. That rounds out at a little more than 3 percent of GDP. That’s only about half of the burden of defense spending that the U.S. shouldered during the final decade of the Cold War.

To date, aid to Ukraine has cost a fraction of that percentage. By mid-September, the total value of the aid provided to Ukraine by the U.S. amounted to about $75 billion. Nearly a third of that sum (about $23 billion) was the value of old equipment from Pentagon stockpiles, material that was on its way to becoming obsolete anyway. The remainder included funding U.S. government operations to support Ukraine—training, logistics, and so on—and direct assistance to the Ukrainian government.

If the president now asks for another $75 billion over the next two years, that will represent about a 4 percent share of the defense budget for that period—or roughly one-tenth of one penny for every dollar of national output. The United States should be able to cope.

And what about the Israeli piece of this budget request?

In normal years, U.S. assistance to Israel is worth about $3 billion. Almost all of that is spent by Israel to buy U.S.-made weapons and equipment. Israel is reportedly requesting an emergency supplement of $10 billion—in the larger scheme of things, a fraction of a fraction.

Nor will aid to Israel compete with the needs of Ukraine. Ukraine wants heavy equipment from the U.S. to fight conventional land battles. Kyiv needs fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles, and ammunition, ammunition, and more ammunition. According to a senior Pentagon source, the Israeli emergency request involves very different items from the U.S. inventory: principally, precision-guided munitions for Israel’s air force, components for its Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, and intelligence resources and advisers for its hostage-situation response. Israel is receiving some fighting vehicles and artillery shells, too, but on a completely different scale from anything Ukraine requires. Ukraine needs about 1.5 million shells a year; Israel wants a few thousand more shells on hand in case Hezbollah starts shooting from the Lebanon hills. Blasting away in Gaza would be brutal and futile.

The critics of American military-aid spending also grumble that its partners do not contribute enough. That image some Americans have of free-loading allies is false.

Total European Union contributions to Ukraine are roughly double the total of U.S. commitments. EU countries are providing many weapons systems, including eventually some two dozen F-16 fighters. They are also covering most of the cost of sustaining the Ukrainian economy.

Alongside the EU, the United Kingdom has spent $5.6 billion on military assistance to Ukraine in 2022 and 2023. Japan’s multiyear commitment—mostly economic and humanitarian—will add up to about $7 billion. The Canadian commitment to Ukraine will total about $7 billion over the years 2022–26.

Aside from all of this, the U.S. still has spare capacity, and can deliver more inventory to Ukraine without any risk to its own national security. Of the 2,200 F-16 aircraft purchased by the United States since the 1970s, fewer than 900 still remain in service. The Air Force would dearly like to retire and replace 125 of those 900. Donating those 125 to Ukraine would accelerate the Air Force’s wished-for modernization programs.

Costs, of course, have to be measured against benefits. The money to Ukraine is buying a powerful reinforcement of peace in Europe and across the world. The money to Israel will buy a similar deterrent to rogue aggression in the Middle East.

President Biden issued a one-word caution to Hezbollah and Iran about exploiting Hamas’s aggression against Israel: “don’t.” That warning has been bolstered by sending two carrier groups and a deployment of Marines to the region. Biden’s admonition has even more force because of what the Iranians have seen in Ukraine: a global alliance defending a democratic ally in defiance of Russia’s energy embargoes, nuclear blackmail, and disinformation warfare.

Some in the U.S. foreign-policy community harbor a fantasy that the U.S. can enhance its credibility with China by abandoning Ukraine. (One such dreamer, Elbridge Colby, was treated to a glowing profile in Politico recently.) This is like suggesting that a business can improve its credit by defaulting on some of its debts. Ukraine’s self-defense has delivered a needed check to authoritarian aggressors all around the world.

Democracy needs some wins against its most violent enemies. Ukraine and Israel both offer opportunities for the U.S. to realize valuable security gains without risking a single American soldier. Obviously, it’s important for American policy makers to proceed cautiously. Russia wields a nuclear deterrent. Gaza is a bad place to fight a ground war. But precisely by its generosity, the U.S. has earned the right to dissuade its partners from launching operations that seem ill-advised.

So what of the idea that the U.S. should back away from helping because it’s all too much trouble? Because the country that during the Cold War defended both Germany and Japan with its Army and Navy is now too feeble to aid two friendly democracies that ask only for material and technical assistance to defend themselves? Because a few dozen Republican House members and a handful of Republican senators are intimidated by Donald Trump and addled by social media?

For the U.S. to back away from its commitments for these reasons would be simply shameful.

The United States can succeed. The United States is succeeding. There’s never a good time to yield to bad-faith isolationism, but for a great nation animated by high ideals, this moment would be an especially bad time to do so.

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