President Obama’s speech on “fiscal policy”— dollars and cents—on Wednesday touched briefly, very briefly, on defense. Having just written a piece for The Nation magazine on defense spending, I was listening carefully for what he’d say. Sadly, it hardly qualifies as a start.
Here’s what Obama had to say on Pentagon spending:
“The second step in our approach is to find additional savings in our defense budget. Now, as Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than protecting our national security, and I will never accept cuts that compromise our ability to defend our homeland or America’s interests around the world. But as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, has said, the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security is America’s debt. So just as we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense. And we can do that while still keeping ourselves safe.
“Over the last two years, Secretary Bob Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again. We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world. I intend to work with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs on this review, and I will make specific decisions about spending after it’s complete.”
Where to begin? First, the president spoke only of “wasteful spending,” but cutting the Pentagon budget means cutting deeply into real, tangible spending, not waste—cutting large numbers of troops, closing bases, canceling weapons systems, slashing Tricare (the military’s healthcare plan) and much more. Second, Obama suggested that Gates has cut spending by $400 billion, itself an exaggeration, and then suggests that between now and 2013 he can cut another $400 billion. But many independent and bipartisan reviews of defense spending (see my article) have proposed cuts of $1 trillion or more over the next ten years, more than doubling Obama’s measly $400 billion. And this week the People’s Budget, released by the Progressive Caucus in Congress, proposed cuts of $2.3 trillion in military outlays. While that’s laudable, it is politically unrealistic. But cutting a trillion bucks is perfectly doable.
It’s good that Obama proposed “to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world.” But as Winslow Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, points out:
“Unless this new review is a radical departure from previous ones, it will be a sham. If it is anything like the 2010 [Quadrennial Defense Review], it will not address the fundamental issues, and it will require none of the basic information needed to put together a competent budget and national strategy, nor a realistic plan the Pentagon can actually follow to reduce spending by $33.3 billion, or any other amount, per year.”
Of course, the Republicans are much worse, and for the most part—except for some rumblings from Senator Tom Coburn and other members of the so-called Gang of Six—the GOP is refusing to propose defense cuts. The Stimson Center’s Gordon Adams, who’s been critical of Obama’s modest plan for cuts, lambasts the Republicans for protecting the Pentagon. In a piece for The Hill, Adams and a colleague say:
“Last Tuesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proposed a 2012 budget that caves to the Pentagon bureaucracy and spares the Department of Defense from fiscal discipline. Ryan’s spending plan mimics Defense Secretary Robert Gates,’ which is more about the pretense of savings than actual prudence. It calls for $178 billion in reductions over the next five years, but most of these reductions are illusory and none of them lower the budget. Instead, they merely slow the growth that the department has said it would prefer.”
The country cannot sustain military spending of more than $4 trillion over the next decade, which is what’s on the books. And, more important, it’s not the right thing to do. But these opening bids are pathetically less than what’s needed