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
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
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
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
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.