A US Army soldier keeps watch at sunset from Combat Outpost Terra Nova in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar July 18, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced billions in military cuts in January, citizens of common sense welcomed the news. But the bloated Pentagon budget isn’t shrinking. Not yet, anyway. We’ll find out, when President Obama releases detailed figures, exactly what changes are planned. But those clamoring for big cuts shouldn’t expect much, if anything, to change this year. Obama, in announcing the results of a strategic review from the Defense Department—one, he stressed, he personally oversaw—stated it clearly: “Over the next ten years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: it will still grow. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration [and] larger than roughly the next ten countries combined.”
Since the late 1990s, Pentagon spending has roughly doubled, and that’s not counting the vast sums spent on misguided wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without any changes, military spending over the next decade or so would surpass $6 trillion. The administration has already conceded that about $450 billion of that will be cut, and the Congressional super-committee’s failure to reach an agreement last fall means that another $600 billion in military cuts is looming. But that’s not nearly enough.
The United States is an empire in decline, and current outlays are simply unsustainable. Not only can Washington no longer afford them (“Fiscal crisis has forced us to face the strategic shift that’s taking place now,” Panetta said) but Americans are tired of war, and public support for vast military budgets is evaporating. The review unveiled by Obama and Panetta doesn’t reflect that yet, but think of it as a down payment. There’s a growing realization in Washington that deeper cuts will have to be made in 2013 and beyond, just as post–cold war military spending declined by more than a third in the early 1990s.
As expected, Obama’s modest effort to rein in the Pentagon drew howls of outrage from most GOP presidential candidates and from a coalition of neoconservative think tanks called Defending Defense, led by the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and William Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative. “It is a ‘declinist’ strategy for an administration all too willing to accept the waning of American hard power and influence in the world,” said AEI.
The plain fact is that major weapons systems will have to be eliminated, the size of the Army and Marines will have to be dramatically reduced and America’s vast network of overseas bases must be slashed (the bulk of cuts should fall in these areas, rather than in salaries, pensions and benefits for troops and veterans). In slow-motion recognition of those needs, the Defense Department is planning to cut back troop levels. But it has also set in motion a major geopolitical shift away from land wars and counterinsurgency and toward air and naval operations in the Pacific to counter China—a surefire recipe for confrontation, since Beijing’s Communist leadership increasingly rests its legitimacy on returning China to its historic status as a major world power. It is thus unlikely to stand by and allow the United States to dominate its periphery. Far better to find a peaceful accommodation with China that recognizes Beijing’s legitimate national security interests and doesn’t seek US hegemony in the Far East.
For antiwar organizers, peace groups and liberals intent on reordering federal spending priorities—as well as some traditional conservatives, libertarians and Tea Party types who might be allies—the battle is just beginning. Along with fighting to cut Pentagon spending, they’ll have to come up with practical ways to convert military-industrial plants to civilian uses. And in a Washington obsessed with deficit reduction, they’ll have to fight just as hard to make sure that any savings are used to shore up Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.