Is a Real Reduction in Defense Spending Possible?

Aug 06 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Leon Panetta (left) and Admiral Mullen (right)

In his first press conference since being sworn in as defense secretary on July 1, Leon E. Panetta and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked to the media about debt reduction issues.

Obviously, something has to be done about our out-of-control defense budget. Most of us realize we can’t cut everything else and not touch defense spending, but that seems to be what the Republicans are pushing. After all, the next war is always just around the corner. And the Military Industrial Complex Eisenhower warned us of is, a half-century later, firmly entrenched. Touching even a single penny of the defense budget seems to imperil our nation’s very survival.

For example, American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that even a 3 percent cut below last year’s level “alone may well be quite harmful.” And that doesn’t allow for the so-called “doomsday” or “sequestration” mechanism in the nation’s new debt-reduction law, which, the defense department explains,

automatically would kick in extensive spending cuts — $500 billion from defense spending over 10 years on top of $350 billion in spending reduction already identified over that period — if Congress fails to take further deficit-reduction action.

AEI’s analysis, which was authored (no surprise) by John Bolton, asserts that this sequestration mechanism would “risks grave damage to our national security.”

Our new defense secretary agrees, saying,

“But if it happened – and, God willing, that would not be the case – but if it did happen, it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board — defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation.”

Panetta says the results of the sequestration mechanism “would be completely unacceptable to me as secretary of defense, to the president, and to our nation’s leaders.” Panetta isn’t arguing against any reductions at all, but says that they must be made “based on sound strategy and policy, and with the best advice of our service chiefs and service secretaries on how to proceed.”

Keep in mind the sheer scale of American defense spending. As RMuse reported here in July, in 2009 “America spent more on defense than the next 16 countries combined, and that is 6 times the next biggest spender (China) and ten times the second biggest (Russia).” The House passed a $649 billion defense spending bill by an overwhelming margin that represents a $17 billion increase.

And Panetta is worried about cuts to our defense spending.

According to the defense department account of the press conference, Admiral Mullen agrees, and “said all the service chiefs agree with Panetta’s assessment of the legislation.”

 The chairman has long maintained that an unchecked and rising national debt is the greatest threat to national security, and that he understands defense spending must be controlled.

Controlled, significantly, does not mean reduced. Controlled, apparently, does not even preclude increases. But where is the justification for its continued rise? Where are America’s enemies? Yes, the world is a hostile place (partly because of American foreign policy from 2001-2008), but even with the rise of China as a world power, the Cold War is long over. Is this spending really justified by the facts on the ground?

The reasoning Panetta uses seems rather hollow. According to the defense department,

Across-the-board cuts imposed in the 1970s and 1990s resulted in a force left undersized and underfunded relative to its missions and responsibilities, Panetta said. The process “hollowed out” the military, he added, and the nation cannot accept this because the United States is at war.

Yes, we are at war – an asymmetrical war, not a world war. And we’re no longer engaged in ground combat in Iraq and our troops are scheduled to start leaving Afghanistan soon. Osama bin Laden – the great bogeyman – is dead and al Qaeda is in disarray. The Arab Spring showed that Islamic revolutions do not have to have a fundamentalist bent. Islam is capable of moderation.

Still, according to Mullen, “We face a broad and growing range of security threats and challenges that our military must be prepared to confront – from terrorist networks to rogue nations to rising powers waiting to see if we have lost our edge.” This is true, but look at our defense spending compared to that of the rest of the world. Do we really expect the rest of the world (or at least the next sixteen most powerful  nations) to gang up on us? Only that sort of doomsday scenario could justify continuing to spend as we have been spending.

The argument that “The U.S. military is involved in two wars and a number of other actions in the world” is not persuasive. Those wars were not defensive wars. We attacked Iraq for no reason – that war did not have to happen – and we essentially won the Afghanistan war with a bloodless coup in 2001 and then threw our victory away through the Bush administration’s indifference and incompetence. In both cases we’ve been fighting wars that we were not predestined to fight.

Mullen may claim that “American service members have had to be ready for a range of missions from earthquake relief in Haiti to providing support to NATO over Libya” but we could easily manage such events as they come up if we would simply stop attacking other countries and promiscuously spreading bases far and wide.

One idea people in Washington are all too often loathe to consider is the idea of peace. How about this: Maybe we don’t have to attack anyone for awhile. Augustine of Hippo’s “Just War” doctrine aside – and U.S. foreign policy should not be based on the philosophy of a long-dead Christian bishop – there is no war on America’s horizon.

It is unconscionable to cut spending in other important areas: our infrastructure, which is crumbling; on Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security; on healthcare for us and for our veterans (we love to give them guns but not bandages); the environment; science; education; cancer research; even our weather system, while increasing defense spending. The AEI’s “compelling evidence” is nonexistent.

Security threats are not the only threats America faces and the Pentagon needs to understand this hard truth, as does our President and our Congress and especially one of our two main political parties. Otherwise, what is it exactly our all-powerful military will be defending? A Taliban-like wasteland of unemployed, starving, apathetic citizens who have been disenfranchised and stripped of the rights our military is supposed to protect.

Image from Department of Defense




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