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In a June 30, 2010, Facebook post, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted excerpts from a speech she gave in Norfolk, Va., primarily on national security. At one point, she said, "Did you know the U.S. actually only ranks 25th worldwide on defense spending as a percentage of GDP?"
We didn't, so we decided to check up on her statistic.
We quickly tracked down the chart from which we suspect she pulled her factoid. (Her staff didn't return our e-mail query.) It's a credible source -- the CIA World Factbook -- and, as Palin said, the U.S. does rank 25th in the world, spending an estimated 4.06 percent of GDP on defense in 2005.
Case closed? Not really.
The list includes all countries, regardless of size, so some tiny countries outrank the United States on the CIA list. There's Eritrea at number 9 (with an economy about 1/1000th of the size of the U.S. economy); Burundi at number 11 (with an economy that's even less than 1/1000th the size of the U.S. economy); and Maldives at 13th (with an economy roughly the same size as Burundi's).
Given this competition, several other states on the CIA's list seem like veritable economic powerhouses, such as Mauritania at 14th, Swaziland at 19th and Brunei at 22nd.
Many of the states on the CIA list are modest-sized but live in a high-tension neighborhood -- the Middle East. They include the top seven, which are, in descending order, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Yemen. A bit lower on the list are Syria, Kuwait, Turkey and Bahrain.
All told, only four nations on the CIA list could be described as either industrialized democracies or major world players. They are Israel (6th), Turkey (16th), China (23rd) and Greece (24th).
Is there a better yardstick? We think there is -- using rankings of members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD is a group of 31 nations that are generally large, industrialized democracies. This list makes the comparison closer to one of peers.
To make this comparison, we looked at a comprehensive table of defense spending compared to GDP that was published by the World Bank. First, two caveats: The figures are more recent than the ones used to create the CIA list, so they don't compare exactly. And we should note that varying definitions and a tendency toward secrecy make international military comparisons tricky.
That said, compared to its 30 fellow members of the OECD, the U.S. trailed only one other member nation, Israel (at 8 percent of GDP, compared to 4.3 percent for the U.S.). In fact, the U.S. rate is double the rate of many of its peers. We also looked at China and Russia -- two nuclear powers that do not belong to the OECD -- and both of them also trail the U.S. in this measurement.
Todd Harrison, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said other factors set the U.S. apart.
"In absolute dollars, we spend almost as much as all other countries combined," Harrison said. "So saying we are 25th is a bit misleading and a selective use of facts."
We agree. Although she's technically correct, the numbers are wildly skewed by tiny, non-industrialized countries. We find her claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
Sarah Palin, "Peace Through Strength and American Pride vs. "Enemy-Centric" Policy" (Facebook post), June 30, 2010
CIA World Factbook, "Country Comparison: Military Expenditures" (table), accessed July 7, 2010
World Bank, "Military expenditure (% of GDP)" (table), accessed July 7, 2010
World Bank, "Gross Domestic Product 2009" (table), accessed July 7, 2010
OECD, list of members of the OECD, accessed July 7, 2010
E-mail interview with Todd Harrison, fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, July 7, 2010
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