The defense budget has already suffered cuts
I agree with many of the responses from other members of the Shadow Government community to my friend Kori Schake’s assertion that “we have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal debt,” and her contention that defense cuts need to be part of the solution to our fiscal woes. I will thus ...
I agree with many of the responses from other members of the Shadow Government community to my friend Kori Schake's assertion that "we have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal debt," and her contention that defense cuts need to be part of the solution to our fiscal woes. I will thus strive to avoid repeating many of the same arguments here.
I agree with many of the responses from other members of the Shadow Government community to my friend Kori Schake’s assertion that “we have a national security vulnerability of epic proportions in our federal debt,” and her contention that defense cuts need to be part of the solution to our fiscal woes. I will thus strive to avoid repeating many of the same arguments here.
My concern about Kori’s approach to the defense budget is that it ignores the fact that the Pentagon has already taken significant cuts during the Obama administration. While President Obama submitted budgets to Congress which allowed for growth barely at the rate of inflation, the appropriators consistently cut the top-line amounts allocated for defense, leaving the Defense Department with less than what Secretary Gates had stated was required to fulfill the missions that the military had been tasked to complete.
Critics often go so far as to allege that, even with these reduced funding levels year after year, the Pentagon has escaped “real cuts.” Most recently, the Associated Press did this in a story on Governor Mitt Romney’s statement that, if elected, he would reverse President Obama’s defense cuts. Yet the Associated Press overlooked an inconvenient fact in its “fact check”: in the months prior to the passage of the August 2011 deal to raise the debt limit deal, Obama not only bragged in a major policy speech that defense spending had been cut by $400 billion on his watch, but also said he wanted to repeat the cuts. The follow-up round of $400 billion or more in military cuts will now be enacted as part of the immediate reductions required by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
So, the reality is, despite what many of us defense hawks would like, defense has indeed been put on the table for both Republicans and Democrats — and cut very deeply.
This is concerning for two reasons.
First, defense is not what got us into our current fiscal mess. Drawn from publicly-available government data, the chart below shows that spending on social entitlements and other domestic programs has grown almost exponentially, especially beginning in the early 1970s. In contrast, national defense spending has remained comparatively flat, even when the emergency funding of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq is included.
That’s why Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in September 2011: “[D]efense is taking more than its share of the cuts. We’re doing in excess of $450 billion in reductions [under phase one of the Budget Control Act]…. [I]f you’re serious about dealing with the deficit, don’t go back to the discretionary account. Pay attention to the two-thirds of the federal budget that is in large measure responsible for the size of the debt that we’re dealing with.”
But besides the Pentagon, what other Federal department or agency has been repeatedly asked by the Obama administration to find efficiencies and savings? We have not seen the Secretary of Education or the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development trying to scrape together savings from their budgets the way the Secretary of Defense has had to do. In fact, the budgets put forward by President Obama for these domestic agencies have significantly increased. Yes, the Defense budget is much larger than its domestic agency counterparts, and Republicans have sought to cut non-security spending across the board. But this undue focus on finding savings in defense at the expense of our nation’s war fighters is solely because politicians are unwilling to make tough choices that might imperil their political constituencies.
This dynamic can be seen most clearly in the current work of the so-called “Super Committee,” which must make its recommendations regarding deficit reduction to Congress by Thanksgiving. If Congress then fails to pass a law by January 12, 2012 that reduces the federal deficit by more than $1.2 trillion over the next ten years, then a “sequestration” mechanism will further slash defense spending by as much as $600 billion. If that happens, then the cumulative impact of defense cuts under Obama’s watch will be huge: as the Republican staff of the House Armed Services Committee has laid out, as much as $1.029 trillion would then be cut from the amount that the Obama administration had told Congress would be needed to fund national defense over the next 10 years.
In the Super Committee’s deliberations, defense is essentially being used as a hostage, supposedly to force Republicans to compromise. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about the magnitude of potential cuts at these levels, but defense is likely to suffer unless Republicans and Democrats agree on a compromise that goes after the real drivers of our deficit — namely, mandatory entitlement spending — or unless the Budget Control Act is modified to avoid the catastrophic consequences of sequestration. Once again, defense has been and is part of the conversation, to the detriment of our ability to conduct the foreign policy that we need.
Second, views on how much can be saved from the defense budget usually are related to differing opinions about America’s proper role in the world. Kori makes an efficiency argument that we should be able to do more with the significant resources we already expend: “Spending does not guarantee capability; in many cases, it impedes finding better solutions and creates complacency.” This may be true, but all conservatives understand that government is by nature inefficient. In any government bureaucracy there will be waste and inefficiencies, and the Defense Department is no exception. Secretary Gates, with his rounds of efficiencies to reinvest in the services, already began to tackle this problem. But our military leaders are now warning that any further cuts will limit the military’s ability to fulfill its mission.
What should that mission be? Those on the pacifist left and the libertarian right who rail about our military spending do so because they want the United States to play a very different role in the world. They want to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq prematurely, and many of them do not see a threat posed by a nuclear Iran and are not concerned about the impact of China’s rise on U.S. interests in Asia.
If Americans are ready to withdraw behind our borders and pursue a fundamentally different security strategy than that pursued by recent presidents of both political parties, then we can certainly spend less on defense.
But that does not appear to be the case. There is no electoral consensus that the United States should not remain a Pacific power. Or that preventing and, if necessary, rolling back a nuclear-armed Iran is not in our interests. Or that we should not continue to reassure our allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, by retaining a significant force presence in those regions.
But while the Pentagon is being asked to do more, it is unfortunately being told to do it with less and less-and with little preparation. Even before defense planners can finalize an assessment of the impact of one round of budget cuts on military capabilities, they are suddenly being told to prepare for another round of even deeper cuts. Without matching this Washington “numbers game” with a strategic debate, what will result will be the “hollow force” similar to the one created by the Clinton administration’s defense cuts in the 1990s — a development now warned about by both former Secretary of Defense Gates and current Secretary of Defense Panetta.
If we all agree that the world in which we live is a very dangerous one, with a myriad of challenges that will face the United States in the coming decades, it is difficult to argue in favor of additional defense cuts given what the Pentagon has already endured just in the span of the last year. I’m all for reducing the financial threat posed by our debt and deficit, but not by cutting ever more from defense and thus weakening our nation’s ability to continue to meet the real threats that we’ll face in the coming years. Rather, we need the courage to address the real drivers of our debt and deficit — namely, mandatory federal spending on entitlements.
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