Terms of Engagement

The Military-Political Complex

Why is Barack Obama standing to the right of conservatives when it comes to cutting the defense budget?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

With the country’s eyes turned to South Carolina this week, I have a peculiar tale to tell of the Palmetto State:

The story begins in November 2010, when Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney unseated John Spratt, a 14-term Democrat, in South Carolina’s 5th District. Spratt, who sat on the House Armed Services Committee, was probably the last of a very long line of Democrats who had helped turn South Carolina into an archipelago of military bases. One of the biggest of them, Shaw Air Force Base, sits in the 5th District. But Mick Mulvaney didn’t think he had been elected to bring home more military bacon. So last summer, he outraged his hawkish colleagues by introducing an amendment to freeze current defense spending at 2011 levels. (The measure was trounced.)

This past fall, I went to talk to Mulvaney in his office. He told me with great pride that he had compiled the second-most conservative voting record in Congress. He was a small-government conservative, down the line. So defense spending, to him, was simply spending, and he had no intention of going along as his predecessors had. "We have ended up," Mulvaney said, "in the situation which Eisenhower warned us against, that we are so beholden to the military-industrial complex that neither party is willing to make the tough decisions." As he spoke, I thought I heard the late Sen. John Stennis — he of the eponymous aircraft carrier — spinning in his grave. Mulvaney said that at town-hall events he often cites the words of Adm. Mike Mullen, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, "The most significant threat to our national security is our debt." I asked whether any of the military veterans in the crowd came after him. Nope, said Mulvaney.

I later spent some time in the 5th District talking to Mulvaney’s constituents. My favorite interview was with Jim Vinyard, a Vietnam War vet who had turned the upstairs of his home into a shrine to the Marines. Vinyard told me that "political correctness" was eating away at America’s vitals, and he was extremely rough on Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and liberals generally. He said, however, that he had no problem with Mulvaney’s effort to hold the line on defense spending and, like presidential candidate Ron Paul, couldn’t see why America kept troops forward-deployed in Europe and Asia. His experience in Vietnam taught him that the battle for "hearts and minds" now under way in Afghanistan can’t be won. He was ready for the United States to get out.

Several themes kept coming up in my conversations in the district. One was a disgust at the federal government from which the Defense Department enjoyed no immunity — the classic Tea Party view. Another was disillusionment with America’s foreign adventures abroad and a wish to bring the boys home. Chauncey Gregory, who holds the seat in the South Carolina Senate that Mulvaney held before him, says he has grown so disgusted with recent interventions abroad that he would warn his 20-year-old son again joining the Army — an apostasy in that neck of the woods. A third issue was: Where’s the big threat? Terrorism didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as it had before. And China and Iran were problems for another day.

One of the inferences I drew from these conversations was that the very real threats of recession and unemployment had made the threats beyond U.S. borders seem remote and hypothetical. In a zero-sum calculus, foreign policy lost — a worrying prospect for anyone who wishes to revive Americans’ faith in their country’s capacity to do good abroad. Beyond that, I had the impression that the link between patriotism and defense spending, which hawks had encouraged for generations, was finally loosening. You can love the military without loving military spending. In the South Carolina debate this week, Paul claimed that he received more funding from currently serving soldiers than the other candidates combined. That sounds unlikely, but it would be telling if he got even as much as candidate Mitt Romney or the latter’s fellow hawks.

In the debate, Romney renewed his attacks on President Obama’s planned defense cuts, accusing him of gutting the Navy and the Air Force. He has said in the past that he would increase the defense budget by at least $30 billion a year. This line continues to get applause at the American Enterprise Institute and Conservative Political Action Conference. The Republican elite remains committed to a hawkish, big-spending policy and will keep hammering Obama as a peacenik, the way Republicans have done to Democrats for the last 40 years. It won’t resonate the way it used to, however, because too many ordinary conservatives have lost the faith. Paul arouses plenty of antipathy with his attacks on U.S. foreign policy, but he also gets a great deal of applause — more than Romney ever gets when he calls for more ships and planes. Polls consistently find that Americans are prepared to accept serious cuts in defense spending.

What does this mean for Obama? First, it’s unlikely he’ll pay any political price for the $450 billion in Pentagon cuts over the next decade mandated by Congress as part of the debt-reduction package. The public might not even balk at the additional $500 billion or so in automatic cuts triggered by the failure of the bipartisan budget panel. It’s not 2004 anymore, and Democrats can no longer be mau-mau’ed on defense spending the way they have been for so long. I’m not sure, though, that the Obama administration is convinced of this. Gordon Adams, a leading Pentagon number-cruncher with the Stimson Center, says, "The president doesn’t think he has political leeway, even though he does."

The fact that a Democratic administration can make deep cuts in defense spending does not, of course, mean it should. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that trillion-dollar cuts would have a devastating effect on national security. Three senior administration officials I’ve spoken to on the subject sided with Panetta — which makes Romney’s claim in the South Carolina debate that Obama favored a trillion-dollar cut a particularly brazen lie. Yet both former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and current far-right-wing Sen. Tom Coburn have recently issued reports calling for cuts of that magnitude. So has Kori Schake, a certified hawk who served in George W. Bush’s White House (and, full disclosure, is also a fellow contributor to Foreign Policy). I find their arguments convincing, and I find it odd for the Obama administration now to be standing to the right of such folk.

Of course "we live in a dangerous world," as hawks always remind us. The fact that Vinyard, the Vietnam vet, and Gregory, the state senator, don’t lie awake at night worrying about Beijing’s designs on the South China Sea doesn’t make China any less threatening. But do we really live in a more dangerous world than we did at the height of the Cold War, when spending never rose above $580 billion in current dollars — $120 billion less than the budget Obama inherited from Bush? A report from the Center for American Progress states, "President Obama would need to reduce the budget by about 40 percent, or close to $300 billion, to reach the budget levels established by Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton."

This debate will not end with the 2012 election — no matter who wins. But when an ultraconservative congressman from South Carolina can issue warnings about the military-industrial complex, you know you’re in a different place.

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