Terms of Engagement

Can Obama Be Just Like Ike?

If you want to cut the defense budget, ask a Republican (just not these Republicans).

Photodisc/Getty Images
Photodisc/Getty Images

Cracks are beginning to surface in the longtime Republican consensus on defense spending. Although, as I wrote last week, most congressional Republicans are prepared to eviscerate the national government while preserving intact a colossal defense establishment, a growing number are not. This May the GOP-controlled House of Representatives cut $9 billion from a defense appropriations bill. And three of the most right-wing Republicans in the Senate signed on this year to the report of the bipartisan "Gang of Six," which recommended defense cuts of close to a $1 trillion over the next decade. One of those three, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, has made a detailed case for those cuts that includes significant reductions in weapons procurement and personnel.

The conjunction of this change in the political weather, the overwhelming imperative to reduce government spending, and the diminishing, if still potent, threat of global terrorism presents Barack Obama with a historic opportunity to reduce the defense budget to match America’s real national security needs. But so far, Obama, whose presidency feels less "transformational" by the day, shows no sign that he will seize that opportunity.

Ever since the Vietnam War, Democrats have lived in fear of being labeled soft on defense. In 2004, to take only one particularly egregious example, Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated the incumbent Democratic senator from Georgia, Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, by insisting that Cleland would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attack. Now Chambliss, like Coburn, has signed on to the Gang of Six report. But the fear reflex still runs very deep; Cold War Democrats like Hillary Clinton have been extremely reluctant to break with the generals on Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite their dovish reputation, or rather because of it, Democratic presidents in the modern era don’t stand up to the Pentagon and don’t threaten to take away the generals’ toys. It seems ironic — but actually it’s perfectly logical — that it was President Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, who cautioned Americans about the "military-industrial complex" and mandated the deepest military cuts in postwar history, lopping 31 percent off the defense budget in his first two years in office.

Indeed, a series of charts in "A Return to Responsibility," a report by the Center for American Progress, shows that it is Republican presidents, not Democrats, who have mandated significant cuts in defense spending. Eisenhower cut 27 percent overall, Nixon 29 percent, and President Bush H.W. Bush, who served only one term, 17 percent. Even Ronald Reagan, who lavished money on the Pentagon with the express purpose of bankrupting the Soviets, cut the budget by 10 percent during his second term. The great exception to the rule is George W. Bush, who increased spending by an astonishing 70 percent during his tenure. If we include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States now spends $700 billion a year on defense, a figure that, translated into constant dollars, was last reached in World War II.

Of course, the 9/11 attacks constituted a new threat to which the United States had to respond with new military capacities; but so did World War II, the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, generally. And it has been nearly 10 years since 9/11. Americans shun a Prussian culture of permanent militarism, and as each threat has waned, each president — each Republican president — has reduced both military forces and spending. None of them operated under the desperate fiscal situation we find ourselves in today. They pared back the Pentagon because, unlike the current generation of Republican leaders, they believed deeply in the state’s capacity and obligation to provide citizens the foundation of a good life. Eisenhower wanted to build a national highway system; Nixon wanted to provide national health care. Every dollar spent on defense was a dollar lost to national well-being. 

Defense spending now absorbs roughly a quarter of the national budget, and over half of discretionary spending. The current debt-ceiling deal reached by Congress and the White House would essentially eliminate increases over the next two years in a broad category that includes defense as well as homeland security, diplomacy, and foreign aid, and would then limit growth thereafter to 2 percent. If Congress chooses to apportion future cuts equally between security and non-security accounts, reductions in the former would amount to $420 billion — the figure the Obama administration uses to demonstrate the depth of its commitment to reducing defense spending. But the deal permits Congress to find cuts anywhere it chooses beyond the next two years, passing over the Pentagon and going after anything from the State Department to student loans. The $420 billion may be a chimera.

If, however, the bipartisan congressional "supercommittee" tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts fails to reach agreement — as seems extremely likely — then the automatic cuts this would trigger would lop another $600 billion or so from the Pentagon. The White House has discussed this plan as if it were the sort of doomsday machine dreamed up by a James Bond villain. Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has explained that the cuts are meant to be so self-evidently "unpalatable" that the bipartisan commission will feel compelled to reach agreement. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that such "hasty, ill-conceived" cuts would undermine U.S. national security.

Blunderbuss reductions do seem like a bad idea. But what about non-hasty, well-conceived cuts? In a series of recent reports, Pentagon experts and budget-cutters like Sen. Coburn have proposed cuts of $1 trillion — almost exactly the sum of the $420 billion from the first round of cuts and the $600 billion that would be triggered by the failure of the bipartisan commission. The striking similarity of the details of these reports, despite their authors’ radically differing political views, implies that it’s not so very hard to find deep reductions in so massive an enterprise as the Defense Department. All propose a reduction in both civilian and military personnel; a redeployment of forces now stationed in Europe and Asia; the cancellation or shrinkage of planned procurements for fighter aircraft, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and missile defense; reforms in military health care; and a downsizing of the nuclear weapons stockpile. Even after such cuts, the United States would still be spending as much as it ever did during the Cold War, when it was in perpetual conflict with the Soviet Union, which it deemed an existential threat to the West.

But you won’t hear this from the Obama administration, whose officials have been unwilling to propose anything deeper than the (notional) $420 billion cuts of round one. A White House official told me that Obama thinks that he has already made pretty much all the cuts in discretionary spending he’s prepared to accept. So does this mean that the Obama administration is to the right of Coburn and Chambliss on defense spending? When I posed the question in this form, the official went silent, and finally said, "Let me get back to you on that. This is incredibly sensitive." When he got back to me later that day, he disputed my use of "left" and "right" and pointed out that "as commander in chief, the president has very unique responsibilities and a very unique perspective." The answer, in short, was yes.

The president does, indeed, have grave responsibilities; and the world is certainly a very dangerous place, and his military commanders probably make a very convincing case that they need all those soldiers and all those weapons. But all the other wars have ended on a Republican’s watch. And whatever success he — and George W. Bush — have had against al Qaeda, Obama might still believe that he can’t afford to reverse the course of defense spending as his predecessors have.

But he might be wrong. "He really does have political leeway," says Gordon Adams, a former national security expert in the Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton’s administration and now a leading member of the trillion-dollar-cut club. "But he may not believe that he does."

If the bipartisan commission collapses in disarray and the 2012 presidential campaign becomes a referendum on America’s fiscal future — it can scarcely be otherwise — I hope Obama will find the courage to stand up to the Pentagon and its numberless minions and defenders. He may, as Adams suggests, find more profit in doing so than he expects.


James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola