Shadow Government

The best offense is not cutting defense

By Dov Zakheim Recent reports that the Obama administration is planning a 10 percent cut of the defense budget are troubling. The administration has disappointed its left-wing supporters by appointing centrists, and, heaven forefend, Republicans. And this proposed cut looks more like a sop to the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic party than anything ...

By Dov Zakheim

Recent reports that the Obama administration is planning a 10 percent cut of the defense budget are troubling. The administration has disappointed its left-wing supporters by appointing centrists, and, heaven forefend, Republicans. And this proposed cut looks more like a sop to the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic party than anything else. 

While economists might debate whether adding to the defense budget would help stimulate the economy, cutting that budget will clearly result in lost jobs. The reason for this outcome is straightforward: personnel pay and benefits cannot be reduced. Maintaining a ready force involves training, exercises, and operations not directly related to Iraq, Afghanistan and one or two other locales (these will be funded by the supplemental). Cuts in operations and maintenance will lead to a "hollow military." The last time that happened, Ronald Reagan rode the issue of national defense to the presidency. If personnel and operations cannot be reduced, however, all that is left are the acquisition and military construction accounts. Cutting back on either set of accounts will result in job losses.

As Bob Kagan correctly pointed out yesterday, cutting the defense budget may frighten allies. If American defense cuts include the F-35 fighter, the administration will most certainly alienate its closest allies, virtually all of whom have contributed to, or intend to acquire, the new aircraft. Moreover, budget cuts will give the allies yet another excuse to contribute even less to their own defenses, much less to our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Will our adversaries be emboldened? They will certainly recognize that we are stretched thin militarily. And they may well recall that the Carter budget cuts of the late 1970s correlated with some of our most difficult challenges in post-war foreign relations, as we stood by helplessly while Iran took American hostages and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

What about foreign assistance? Here I think Kagan may have overstated Congressional Republican clout. There will certainly be grumbling, but it is far from clear that the Republicans will be able to do much more. Filibuster a foreign assistance bill, and alienate Israel and Egypt? I somehow doubt the Republicans could pull off that one.

Ultimately, however, what is $50 billion when the administration is about to expend nearly a trillion dollars — financed, no doubt, to a large extent by China – on an economic stimulus package? Historically, broad-brush cuts, like the current proposed 10 percent reduction, reflect a meat axe approach rather than a carefully reasoned policy.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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