Why is it that during the last decade, when Republicans controlled all three branches of government, the national debt still exploded? Why is it that the last time a real conservative sat in the White House — Ronald Reagan — government grew astronomically?
If you asked the average conservative during the Bush years why government continued to grow so rapidly, the typical answer would have been that we were fighting two wars. When conservatives are asked why Reagan did not fulfill his promise to scale back the federal government during his tenure, they typically give one of two answers: either that the Democrats did not follow through on their pledge to cut spending or that we were in the middle of the Cold War.
"Wars cost money," Franklin Roosevelt once said, and no doubt any nation would pay virtually any cost to protect itself against a real threat. Conservatives almost unanimously supported Reagan's defense build-up because they believed the Soviet Union was a serious threat to our safety. Most conservatives gave Bush a pass on his profligate spending because they believed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were priorities. However, when it comes to today, are there any actual threats on the horizon that warrant what we currently spend on our military adventures?
Iran is certainly no such threat. To say that Iran may get a nuclear weapon and become a potential threat to its neighbors is one thing; to say that it is a threat to the United States is another. Yet too many conservatives continue to confuse the two, or as the former head of the U.S. Central Command retired Army General John Abizaid explained in 2007: "I believe the United States, with our great military power, can contain Iran ... Let's face it: We lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with nuclear powers as well."
Gen. Abizaid then put the notion of a potential nuclear Iran into even clearer context: "[The U.S.] can deliver clear messages to the Iranians that makes it clear to them that while they may develop one or two nuclear weapons, they'll never be able to compete with us in our true military might and power."
Abizaid makes an important and glaring point: No nation on earth can currently compete with America's military might. Iran is even near the bottom of the list. Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt explains: "One of the more remarkable features about the endless drumbeat of alarm about Iran is that it pays virtually no attention to Iran's actual capabilities and rests on all sorts of worst-case assumptions about Iranian behavior."
Walt then points out that the U.S. spends $692 billion on defense, while Iran spends only $9.6 billion, before noting that currently America has 2,702 nuclear weapons in deployment and 6,000 in reserve, while Iran has zero. "By any objective measure ... Iran isn't even on the same page with the United States in terms of latent power, deployed capabilities, or the willingness to use them," Walt says. "Iran has no powerful allies, scant power-projection capability, and little ideological appeal. Despite what some alarmists think, Iran is not the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and not about to unleash some new Holocaust against anyone."
Walt adds, "The more one thinks about it, the odder our obsession with Iran appears."
Odd indeed. There is a debate within the GOP right now between Tea Party members who recognize the need to cut government spending across the board and Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Tim Scott, who are willing to cut everything but the military. The problem is that second only to entitlements, you can't even begin to substantively balance the budget or reduce the national debt without addressing the black hole that is Pentagon spending.
There is no reason America can't have the strongest military on earth while still being fiscally responsible. Part of this balance necessarily means favoring foreign policy sobriety over constant hyperbole. It also means recognizing practical security realities.
The reality is that Iran is not a threat to the United States. Not even close. To the degree that conservatives actually believe that Iran is some great "threat" takes the Right straight back to the Bush era, when a zeal for spending cuts took a backseat to war fever. That some in the Tea Party are occasionally the loudest in desiring U.S. action against Iran makes the prospects for smaller government even dimmer.
Wanting to limit government and police the world simultaneously is a maddening yet enduring contradiction conservatives simply can no longer afford. Neither — quite literally — can this country.
Jack Hunter is the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul's The Tea Party Goes to Washington.