Conservatives Offer up Defense Cuts

June 27, 2011

Intense efforts are underway to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt. The talks are now focused on the largest single element of discretionary spending, one which has nearly doubled in the last decade:  the defense budget. According to the Washington Post, an increasing number of conservatives agree with the president that reforms to defense spending must be part of the overall solution to reducing the national debt. This shift comes as the public questions how America’s military commitments abroad are paying off-something President Obama acknowledged in his speech last week when he announced the withdrawal of the surge troops in Afghanistan. “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” he said.

Leon Panetta will soon take over as secretary of defense amid a review of roles and missions, requiring that as we rethink budgets and spending, we also rethink the strategy that determines how and where America uses its military. Panetta will also be forced to deal with a Congress that says it wants to reduce spending, but still funds unwanted programs that several defense secretaries before him have tried to weed out.

Conservatives say defense cuts are on the table in talks to curb national debt. The Washington Post reports today, “As President Obama prepares to meet Monday with Senate leaders to try to restart talks about the swollen national debt, some Republicans see a potential path to compromise: significant cuts in military spending.”  The Post goes on to report that, “[T]he old GOP hawks are finding that their tea-party-influenced troops are more interested in saving money than protecting turf at the Pentagon. Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a leader among the 87 House Republican freshmen, said the military budget is widely viewed as loaded with pork that has little bearing on the day-to-day battles in Afghanistan and other hot spots.” Conservative policy experts agree. Bruce Bartlett, an economist who served in the Reagan and George. H.W. Bush administrations, notes the role Pentagon spending plays in America’s deficit: “No one is saying the defense budget is the sole source of the deficit, but the fact is that it has risen from 3 percent of the gross domestic product in fiscal year 2001 to 4.7 percent this year. That additional 1.7 percent of GDP amounts to $250 billion in spending – almost 20 percent of this year’s budget deficit. And according to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone accounted for 23 percent of the combined budget deficits between fiscal years 2003 and 2010.”

And as President Obama outlined in his speech last week announcing the withdrawal of the surge forces from Afghanistan, America’s power comes from its economic strength at home: “[W]e are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource – our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep and no horizon is beyond our reach. America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” [Washington Post, 6/27/11. Bruce Bartlett, 10/8/10. Barack Obama, 6/22/11]

Matching strategy with reality: “No country can buy perfect security.” Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense and Pentagon budget chief in the Reagan administration, explains, “No country can buy perfect security no matter how much it spends, and any attempt to do so will eventually reach the point of severely diminishing returns.” The National Journal’s James Kitfield notes, “[W]e’re becoming an unaffordable nation. We’re underwriting global security. We have troops, besides fighting three wars, in 120 countries on any given day… And that’s not sustainable. So there’s going to have to be a very fundamental debate about what really is — what risks we’re willing to take to do less. And that’s something that Gates said very clearly. He wants this debate to be about, what are we doing now that you are willing for us not to do? And what risks will you want to accept for us not doing that?”

The roles and missions review ordered by the president will seek to answer these questions. As Defense News reported last week, “[T]hree defense experts from across the political spectrum offered potential missions and capabilities that the U.S. military could shed as it looks to meet the president’s $400 billion savings target between now and 2023… The first mission that should go is counterinsurgency, according to Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Preble agreed, saying the United States should no longer be fighting insurgencies on behalf of foreign governments… Finally, Korb said nuclear weapons could also provide possible savings for the Defense Department. The United States should consider whether it still needs a nuclear triad versus a two-branched nuclear capability, he said. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is composed of bomber aircraft that can deliver nuclear weapons, land-based nuclear missiles, and nuclear weapons that can be launched from ships and submarines.” [Lawrence Korb and Laura Conley, 10/7/10.  James Kitfield via NPR, 4/18/11. Defense News, 6/23/11]

If Congress is serious about reining in spending and tackling the national debt, it cannot continue to insert wasteful and expensive defense expenditures.  A number of important defense spending measures this year – namely the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Defense Appropriations bill – have been filled with pet projects that do not serve either our economic security or our national security. As the White House said last week in its Statement of Administration Policy for the 2012 Defense Appropriation Bill: ”The Administration is committed to ensuring the Nation lives within its means and reducing the deficit so that the Nation can compete in the global economy and win the future.  That is why the President put forth a comprehensive fiscal framework that reduces the deficit by $4 trillion, supports economic growth and long-term job creation, protects critical investments, meets the commitments made to provide dignity and security to Americans no matter their circumstances, and provides for our national security. The Administration strongly opposes a number of provisions in this bill.  If a bill is presented to the President that undermines his ability as Commander in Chief or includes ideological or political policy riders, the President’s senior advisors would recommend a veto. While overall funding limits and subsequent allocations remain unclear pending the outcome of ongoing bipartisan, bicameral discussions between the Administration and congressional leadership on the Nation’s long-term fiscal picture, the Administration has concerns regarding the level of resources the bill would provide for programs necessary to meet national security.”  Similarly, earlier this month the House of Representatives passed a version of the NDAA that runs counter to the advice of national security experts by keeping the F-35 second engine on life-support despite the fact that the Pentagon does not want the second engine; impedes cooperation on missile defense; and obstructs implementation of New START. [White House SAP, 6/23/11. NSN, 5/26/11]

What We’re Reading

In promising a U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan will begin in July, President Obama is permitting his commanders to decide critical details, including the number of troops to depart first and whether any of those will be combat forces.

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, accusing him of crimes against humanity.

The Palestinian Authority officially announced its intention to turn to the United Nations in September in an effort to attain recognition of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders.

Senators John McCain and John Kerry said that Egypt’s interim military rulers wanted to transfer powers to an elected government “as soon as possible.”

Syrian dissidents are attending a conference in Damascus to discuss the country’s crisis.

A Freedom House report suggests that the authoritarian countries of the former Soviet Union have built governance systems that are resistant to reform and therefore increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable crises of the sort recently seen in the Middle East and North Africa.

Chinese authorities released prominent human rights activist Hu Jia, days after freeing renowned dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Greek lawmakers begin debating new austerity plans that must pass this week if the debt-ridden country is to receive the critical next installment of loans from its international bailout plan and avoid default.

One of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s brothers said that backers of the hospitalized leftist leader should not rule out armed struggle in the future, though they prefer to maintain power at the ballot box.

A UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia is holding its first hearing in the trial of four former top Khmer Rouge leaders.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times editorializes against pending federal legislation to further militarize the prosecution of terrorists, beyond anything even President George W. Bush proposed; the peddlers of fear and the phony tough-on-terrorism crowd have dominated the national security debate for too long.

Senator John Kerry argues that drawing down troops from Afghanistan is the correct move and that by focusing on the right tasks we can leave behind a stable Afghanistan.

Thanassis Cambanis examines the tug of war in public discourse on foreign policy within China between hard-liners who favor a nationalist, even chauvinist stance and more globally minded thinkers who want China to tread lightly and integrate more smoothly into international regimes.

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