Does the administration really want defense spending cuts?

By Ben Adler
August 15, 2011

By Ben Adler
The opinions expressed are his own.

In the upcoming Super Committee deficit reduction negotiations, most Democrats believe they must order their priorities to reflect their values and stay on message. Their first choice for debt reduction should be increased tax revenues, second would be cuts to the Pentagon’s bloated budget, and third would be cuts to domestic spending, whether discretionary or mandatory (entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.)

Theoretically, the threat of cuts to national security spending, which will go into effect if no Super Committee deal is reached, gives Democrats leverage over hawkish Republicans to agree to increased tax revenues. Give up that leverage by saying that you’d prefer cuts to entitlement spending over cuts to the Defense Department, and you’ve given Republicans cover to claim that cutting entitlements while achieving no Democratic priorities is a fair offer.

So why would any Democrat, particularly a prominent member of the Obama administration, undercut the Democrats’ bargaining position by saying entitlement cuts are preferable to Defense cuts? It’s unclear, but that is what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is doing.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, “Panetta said that the roughly half a trillion in additional cuts in Defense Department spending that would go into effect if Congress fails to enact a separate savings package by the end of the year would be ‘unacceptable.’ Any further defense cuts ‘is going to damage national security.’”

Later, Panetta took to his department’s web site to reiterate the point. As foreign policy expert Michael Cohen explains, “If the committee fails to reach an agreement and across-the-board defense cuts are immediately put into effect Republicans can use a Democratic Secretary of Defense’s own words to argue that Congressional Democrats have weakened national security.”

This isn’t just a matter of petty politics. For Panetta to claim that Defense cannot afford to cut spending, and to even go so far as spooking Americans with ominous warnings of “damage” to national security, resembles fear-mongering normally associated with the political right.

The facts do not support his claim. The U.S. spends more than four times as much in absolute dollars, never mind per capita, than its nearest competitor, China. Just behind China rank longstanding U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom (third) and France (fourth).

So Panetta resorted to reviving the old Axis of Evil to argue against spending cuts, citing the threat of Iran or North Korea developing nuclear weapons. “We need to continue to watch them closely,” Panetta said.

That might be the case, but it’s also irrelevant to the way that we actually spend our military dollars. Defense spending increased 70 percent under George W. Bush.  As we now wind down the “Global War on Terror,” reducing our troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to focus on more efficacious targeted anti-terrorist operations, we should reap cost savings, as we did after World War II and, for a time, the Cold War. That’s why, as the Center for American Progress explains in a July report, we could save $250 billion to $300 billion annually by reducing our spending to the levels we saw under Presidents Eisenhower, Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Is Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, suggesting that those presidents exposed us to unacceptable security risks by under-spending?

Moreover, why does watching Iran and North Korea require us to  station over 500,000 troops in over 150 countries? Our global troop presence contains such anachronisms as more than 50,000 troops stationed in Germany, just in case the Soviet Union reconstitutes itself and invades Western Europe. The notion that we cannot afford to remove some of those troops or cut a few weapons systems without putting our national security at risk is ludicrous.

If anything, our military adventurism may make us more vulnerable, rather than less so, to the security risks of the modern era. As September 11 demonstrated, our massive military presence in foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia can actually increase the threat of attack from non-state actors.

Curiously, Obama has sent signals that he agrees with Panetta. “Last week we reached an historic agreement — reached an agreement that weill make historic cuts to defense and domestic spending,”Obama said in early August. “But there’s not much further that we can cut in either of those categories. What we need to do now is combine those spending cuts with two additional steps: tax reform that will ask those who can afford it to pay their fair share and modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare.”

Of course any ideal agreement will lower the trajectory of health care spending, but that isn’t mutually exclusive with trimming fat at the Pentagon. Obama’s own bipartisan deficit reduction commission endorsed doing both. So why is the Obama administration under-cutting its own bargaining position and the whole purpose of the Super Committee, which is to use the threat of military cuts to bring Republicans to the table?

Obama has consistently shown himself to be a pusillanimous and ineffective negotiator, but this is remarkable even by his low standards. It’s now up to Democrats to pressure their own administration or risk getting rolled in the Super Committee like they did in the deal to raise the debt ceiling that created the committee in the first place.

14 comments

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They will have no choice. It is high time we scale back useless operations. I am a defense contractor and I have witnessed the waste in my 16 year career overseas. Some operations are vital to our national interest but most are not.

Posted by Intriped | Report as abusive

Of course Obama wants to keep the national security state intact… like Bush, he views himself as a war president.

Obama peddled himself to the voters as an agent of change, but he delivered business as usual. It is like Bush’s 3rd term.

Hopefully the economy takes the change-meister down.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Just imagine the recurrent budgetary waste in Pentagon weapons procurement programs. At what level will Congress consider Pentagon waste as insignificant compared to social programs for the poor and derelict?
And what level will Congress seriously consider Pentagon annual budget inconsistent with security demands taking into account Obama won the Noble Peace Prize for at least talking about nuclear disarmament. Was it simply a side track or a serious undertaking by POTUS?

Military-industrial complex has grown in power ever since Eisenhower adminished it for its poilitical lobby and more war weapons for their inventory and whatnot.

Independent audit experts will find US Pentagon one of the most derelict agencies of Us Govt and consequently with no ultimate political responsibility, principally because Congress and its lobbyisat do the donkey’s work for them.

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

How is it unclear the entitlements should be a priority over defense cuts?

All entitlements are not bad, but it is clear that we in the US have gone well past what is reasonable vis-a-vis entitlements as we step into funding morality, people are permitted to make money and “a living” simply by having children in our welfare program, etc.

By default, entitlement cuts come first on the assumption that defense spending is appropriately in line (trust but verify, see below). Elimination of waste in entitlement programs comes first. These are far more discretionary than defense cuts.

We know there is waste in the defense program as well. So much so that I’d bet we could revitalize the NASA program by redirecting defense waste. We could fund plenty of innovation and improve government operations by optimizing costs, modernizing technologies, consolidating use of resources, and eliminating duplicative organizations and programs.

But all of this is true of the entire US government. I will assert that increasing the tax to “the rich” (Romney says it well when he notes companies are essentially people … so those who say tax the companies and the rich need to become far more precise and point to loopholes that should not exist, etc.) is UNNECESSARY if we eliminate waste and close gaps/holes.

ENOUGH of the stupid political wrangling. The “Democrats’ entitlement programs” and the “Republicans’ defense programs” is simply a STUPID basis of arguments. Our national budget and government operations need overhauling. Elected officials who cannot see and eliminate waste without somehow associating it with the opposite party across the aisle are WORTHLESS in office and should be removed.

Posted by tomwinans | Report as abusive

What better ploy to use against the right wing element in the Republican/TP than to use their own rhetoric and stir up the terrorist fears that they so often speak to as a means to get tax increases. On the other hand maybe the plutocrats that control our government are fearful of a domestic uprising such as in Egypt that may put their wealth and power at risk.

Posted by seattlesh | Report as abusive

Panetta should be blamed for his remarks, not Obama. Of course the military wants to continue it’s immense gravy train, with getting anything they want at any price. As others have mentioned, our foreign policy creates enemies, and waste and fraud are the rule, not the exception. We are concerned that bankrupt Russians are going to take over the world? How delusional can one be? The military can and should be scaled down. We have not had a war of defense since WW2. It was ridiculous for Obama to get a Nobel peace prize for merely suggesting a scale down of nuclear weapons. Our foreign policies have not improved, as we are engaged in more places now than ever. The military leaders see demons in every shadow, but they must be held on a leash rather than let to run wild. We need re-assessment of modern military needs and equipment, and the value of maintaining bases in so many places, most of which are capable of their own defense. Our military should not be used to prop up profits of multi-national corporations that owe allegiance to no country.

Posted by aligatorhardt | Report as abusive

Military spending creates jobs. Entitlements do not. It’s as simply as that.

Posted by bates148 | Report as abusive

Face it, the US is never going to cut military spending.

Considering the regime changes in the air. Considering riots in Western countries, the UK for example. Considering riots/flash-mobs starting to unfold in American cities like Philadelphia. Unless the economy pulls an unlikely miracle out of thin air it will get worse. The military think-tanks already know and expect this. American troops are being trained and conditioned for domestic applications, say controlling mobs.

The American military will soon enough be needed to protect the government/wealthy from the people themselves. The game is over, just not enough common people realize it yet. When they do Rome will burn a second time.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

With troops, ordnance and rendition camps across much of the globe, the US can easily lower its defense budget by at least 300 billions dollars a year, but Obama and his team have decided instead to target “entitlements” such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Posted by Blackorpheus | Report as abusive

Obama and the Democrats need to take a lesson from their adversaries and learn to stay on-message. Panetta should be paying attention to what his boss is saying and doing and keep his yap shut unless he’s playing off the same page.

On the other hand, in an oblique way he’s brought up the fact that ever since World War II, military spending has been one of the principal means of priming our nation’s economic pump. Furthermore, the Cold War, like it or not, provided an excuse for lavish spending on constant readiness to face down the Evils of Communism anywhere in the world, and maintaining the means to destroy the entire planet if it appeared the bad guys might actually prevail. Inefficient and immoral though that might have been, the “military-industrial complex” put more people to work, fostered more advances in science and technology (think of the Internet, and going to the moon), and provided us with a collective sense of purpose the like of which we’ve been searching for ever since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed. Our current feeble attempt to cast a rabble of radical Islamists in the same role as the Great Russian Bear just doesn’t cut it.

Posted by Art_In_Seattle | Report as abusive

I’ve stopped dissing the Obamists, it’s simply not worth the time. The Dems did their own little affirmative action number in ’08 and are now seeing the consequences. They compounded that by retaining Pelosi in ’10, and she is showing signs of increasing mental instability. Reid knows how the buy the unions and that’s the sum of his ability. Irony here is that I am NOT in any way a right-winger, I’m simply weary of the Dem tendency to complete ineptitude.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Stonewall defense cuts and it will get slashed beyond recognition, the officer corps will be dismissed and replaced, and current defense contractors banned for 50 years. Sound good?

No more offensive war capability. American politicians are incapable of not finding a use for such power. So if you don’t want your country turned into a war machine, gut the whole military and depend on our nukes. Attack us and you die, your land an unusable waste for 1,000 years. No more invasions.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

There’s way too many defense contractors in the red states to think that any meaningful spending cuts will occur in the sector–especially since they will have a hard time blaming the Democrats should any cuts actually happen to materialize.

Posted by duhhhh | Report as abusive

For those who depend on nuclear deterrent to invasion, consider that radioactive fallout does not stay in place; poison one and poison all. Retaliation would occur, resulting in nuclear fallout everywhere. When we all lose, then nobody wins.
As far as the idea that military spending creates jobs, that is fantasy. Until you can get the other side to pay for military needs, we are only spending our own money. The question is what do we get for that expense? It seems we get resources used up, people damaged and lost, health care costs for damaged soldiers escalated, support for military families must be paid, extra transportation costs for shipping supplies overseas to the troops, all negative costs and no return. If there is any advantage gained from stolen resources, those gains are taken by corporate groups and kept by managers.
What we should be spending that money on is the needs of our own citizens. We should be rebuilding America, not blowing up foreign countries, then rebuilding them at our own expense.

Posted by aligatorhardt | Report as abusive