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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons)

Every political epoch has one: a third rail, an issue so electric that any mention of it tends to close discussion and slam doors rather than broaden discourse and widen debate. For 65 years, increased military spending has been the sacred cow no politician hoping to capture the Republican presidential nomination dared question. Although GOP stalwarts favored cutting every other area of government, the Cold War required massive expenditures on national defense. As the Communist threat crumbled — tellingly, under the weight of the arms race, a stagnant economy, and the costs of empire — conservatives flailed about to find a consensus on the new “unipolar” world. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 acted as a booster shot for national defense. Over decades of political convention, greater military outlays became the distinguishing mark of a patriot. However, the signs of an impending financial meltdown and the fatigue of never-ending nation-building have the American people demanding our fiscal house be set in order — even if it means cutting defense spending in ways consistent with our national security. At this moment, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson — the darkest of dark horse candidates in this year’s Republican presidential primaries — hopes the electorate is willing to reconsider one of his party’s most settled questions: that military cuts should be out-of-bounds.

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Governor Johnson (no relation) sees a looming threat to our national well-being. “My fundamental belief is that the biggest threat to our national security is the fact that we’re bankrupt,” he said. “Forty-three cents out of every dollar we’re spending is…being printed. If we don’t balance the federal budget, I maintain we’re going to have a monetary collapse.”

Johnson promises to introduce a balanced budget in 2013, a feat requiring a 43 percent cut in spending. Only a few budget items can be cut deeply enough to realize those kinds of savings: entitlements and national defense. “I do not know how you can have a discussion on cutting what we spend nationally without talking about military spending,” Johnson confessed. “I like to start off by talking about Medicaid, Medicare, and military spending.”

While reforming entitlements has become a hallmark of political courage in the GOP, that final program could endanger his political health. Undaunted, the very libertarian governor is doing plenty of talking. He has called for a 43 percent cut in defense spending.

“Can we provide a strong national defense for our country and still reduce military spending by 43 percent?” he asked. Answering his own question, he said, “My answer is: Yes.  And the operative word would be ‘defense,’ as opposed to offense — as opposed to nation-building.”

Cuts that deep require a reassessment of the defense apparatus and America’s place in the world. Johnson would immediately end our interventions in Iraq, which he opposed from the beginning, and Afghanistan, where he says the United States long ago met its military objective and is now bogged down in the fractious and perilous infighting between domestic factions.  Johnson opposed Barack Obama’s war in Libya from the outset.

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