Defending Strategy, Fiscal Responsibility

September 13, 2011

As the super committee reconvenes, prominent conservatives are working to take defense spending — more than 50 percent of discretionary spending — off the table, and calling into question the debt deal their colleagues negotiated. Basic facts suggest a different approach. Measures enacted thus far have only slowed the rate of growth in the defense budget, while experts point to two wars financed entirely by government borrowing. In order to maintain our security, grow the economy and reduce the deficit, we must start with an honest assessment of the capabilities we both need and can afford — a strategy to deal with the world we actually face and a willingness to cut what we don’t need.

After saying defense should be on the table, conservatives now say defense should be off the table.  As the first meeting of the super committee, charged with deciding the cuts called for in the debt deal convened, last week Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) sought to take more than 50% of discretionary spending off the table. “Defense should not have any additional cuts,” said Sen. Kyl. According to CNN, he “also told the group that he would quit the special committee rather than consider further defense cuts.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) backed Sen. Kyl’s position, calling the debt deal that conservatives agreed to “a philosophical shift that I’ll have no part of.” Yesterday the House Armed Services Chair continued that sentiment. The Hill reports, “House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Monday, if forced to choose, he would support tax increases before further cuts to the Pentagon budget. …A McKeon staffer later said the chairman opposes both options under what his boss views as a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ scenario. The California lawmaker said he never has voted for a tax increase.”

Aside from the fact that pre-empting any serious discussion about how to reduce the debt is the quickest way to ensure draconian cuts are made automatically by the “trigger,” such a position goes against approaches that conservatives advocated earlier. Many have said real defense cuts should be a part any serious deficit reduction plan. Earlier this year House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said: “Everything’s got to be on the table. Everyone in this town must go through what people at home are doing-which is doing more with less, and prioritizing what we should be about.” Yesterday, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said GOP lawmakers who hail from districts with a robust military presence “still believe that if we’re going to have an opportunity to engage the president; we have to do so with everything on the table.” On the Senate side, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) chided his fellow conservatives, saying, “Historically, you’ve had a lot of Republicans who have refused even to consider the possibility of cuts in the area of defense… I don’t think we have that luxury anymore.” [The Hill, 9/12/11. Jon Kyl and Lindsey Graham via CNN, 9/8/11. Eric Cantor via Mother Jones, 1/4/11. Sen Mike Lee via Business Week, 5/31/11. Tim Scott via The Hill,  9/12/11]

When “cuts” aren’t really cuts. TIME’s Mark Thompson points out that, “Of course, while military platforms have been cut, the military budget continues to grow. That’s a function of the skyrocketing rise in the cost of weapons and personnel. Most discussions about planned future levels of U.S. defense spending involve scaling back the rate of growth, not cuts. Funny – no, make that sad – how often such basic facts get lost in this debate.”

Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense for the Reagan administration further notes, “The debt ceiling deal does set hard caps on security spending for the next two years, limiting the security budget to $684 billion in 2012 and $686 billion in 2013. These reductions, however, amount to less than 1 percent of the security budget, which currently stands at $688.5 billion. The $350 billion figure assumes that Congress will voluntarily maintain similar caps on security spending through 2021 in order to meet the bill’s $1.5 trillion target for overall spending reductions. Given Congress’s terrible track record on reining in defense spending over the past decade, the likelihood that a significant portion of these cuts will never materialize remains high. Further, due to the debt ceiling deal’s broad definition of ‘security spending’-which encompasses funding for the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and State, as well as the country’s intelligence agencies-Congress could potentially keep security spending within the caps without touching DOD spending at all, instead slashing the budgets of the other, already underfunded ‘security’ agencies.” [Mark Thompson, 9/8/11. Lawrence Korb, 8/11/11]

Military and defense spending played a significant role in increasing the national debt. As Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writes, “Increased defense spending, together with the Bush tax cuts, is a key reason why America went from a fiscal surplus of 2 percent of GDP when Bush was elected to its parlous deficit and debt position today. Direct government spending on those wars [Iraq and Afghanistan] so far amounts to roughly $2 trillion-$17,000 for every U.S. household-with bills yet to be received increasing this amount by more than 50 percent.” In addition, Stiglitz points out that these were the “first war[s] in history paid for entirely on credit.” Korb expands, “In the 13 years from fiscal year 1998 to FY 2012, the baseline defense budget (in constant dollars and exclusive of war funding) has grown to $553 billion from $374 billion – an increase of close to 50 percent.”

In addition, as the New York Times explains, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consumed nearly $1.5 trillion in direct funding from 2002 to 2009. To that must be added costs such as interest on war debt and long-term healthcare for veterans. Experts at the Eisenhower Research Project recently found that “The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt.” [Joseph Stiglitz, 9/1/11. Lawrence Korb, 7/7/11. New York Times, 7/24/11. Eisenhower Research Project, 6/29/11]

There’s a right way to do cuts and a wrong way – start with a strategy that addresses likely threats, and budget to achieve it. “The key to a successful build down will be linking strategic and mission discipline to this need for fiscal discipline. This means setting mission priorities for the military,” notes Gordon Adams, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. Spencer Ackerman of Wired magazine explains the challenge facing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: “His real test is how he can craft a smaller budget that supports a more sustainable strategy – one that cuts back on ground wars and personnel costs and emphasizes maritime, air and cyber dominance.” Even before those tough choices, Inside Defense reports that a new study by the Pentagon’s Defense Business Board says, “The Defense Department can absorb budget cuts of 5 percent to 15 percent without sacrificing readiness and global commitments if officials look to downsizing strategies employed in the private sector.” [Gordon Adams, 7/7/11. Spencer Ackerman, 6/8/11. Inside Defense, 9/13/11]

What We’re Reading

The Taliban attacked the U.S. embassy and ISAF headquarters in Kabul, employing multiple suicide bombers and gunmen.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad said he will pardon and release two U.S hikers who were charged with espionage and held for two years.

Yemeni President Saleh has authorized the country’s vice president to negotiate a power transfer deal with the opposition.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Cairo to offer assistance for Egypt’s democratic transition.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko called for the country’s nuclear power plants to be brought back online following the Fukushima disaster.

German Chancellor Merkel said that the eurozone must do everything possible to remain intact during the financial crisis.

Nigerian President Goodluck ordered the military to restore order in the restive city of Jos.

Retired Army General Perez led Guatemala’s presidential field in Sunday’s election, but could not garner the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a November runoff.

By the end of the year, the U.S. military presence at the sprawling Baghdad base known as Camp Victory will be a thing of the past, as the remaining 24,000 troops depart.

A memorial in New York City to the victims of the 9/11 attacks opened to the public.

Commentary of the Day

Daniel Drezner analyzes the CNN Tea Party debate and why the candidates have not spent a significant time debating foreign policy.

Vanda Felbab-Brown examines Afghanistan and its challenges once the American military withdraws.

Yasaman Baji suggests that uncertainty and confusion, particularly among the highly factionalized conservatives that have dominated Iranian politics since 2005, appear to be the order of the day seven months before next March’s parliamentary elections.

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