Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
after unveiling his defense strategy
at the Pentagon Jan. 5 (Reuters/Jason Reed)
Anyone who has lived through all the drama before knows to reach for the ear plugs when somebody with clout suggests trimming Pentagon spending. No matter how modest the proposed reductions, the howling begins instantly. Followed by accusations that the would-be cutters are putting American lives at risk. Followed by promises to spend even more on the military if only patriotic voters will cast the budget cutters out of office.
That's exactly what happened last week when President Obama presented a new military strategy for the United States coupled with a very small reduction in military spending. "Draconian," came the outcry. "Drastic." "Devastating." "Daaaaaaangerous." Mitt Romney, who almost everybody now thinks will get the Republican nomination, repeated his campaign promise of a 5 percent increase in Pentagon spending to keep Americans safe. While cutting taxes, of course.
That's right. After 13 years of increases that have boosted the Pentagon's core budget by 37 percent in real, inflation-adjusted, 2012 dollars, we're told we're still not spending enough. Never ever enough. The core budget, by the way, doesn't include money spent fighting wars. That's extra.
Draconian? Drastic? Dangerous? With the Korean War truce in place, the 1956 Pentagon budget of Dwight Eisenhower was $380 billion in 2012 dollars. Under Bill Clinton in 1998, the low-point of post Cold War spending, the Pentagon budget was also $380 billion in 2012 dollars. For 2013, however, if what an Office of Management and Budget memo says comes to pass, the administration will seek $523 billion for the Pentagon. That's $7 billion less than what the Senate-House conference committee approved for 2012. The budget would then be allowed to increase with inflation until 2017. The impact? That oh-so-scary cut would reduce inflation-adjusted Pentagon spending all the way back to what it was in ... 2007.
Not exactly the end of empire.
It would, in this election year, be tempting to blame all the caterwauling on the usual Republican efforts to paint Democrats as weak on defense, something that's been going on since the cries six decades ago of "Who lost China?" But, sad to say, we were told just a few months ago by none other than Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in language that outpaced the hyperbole of the Republicans by several miles that deeper cuts would amount to "doomsday," "shooting ourselves in the head" and a "hollowed-out" military.
Yet the majority of the President's own Simpson-Bowles commission, though it never managed to present an official report for lack of votes, itself proposed a 10-year cut of a trillion dollars in Pentagon spending. The commission was hardly a hotbed of pacifists. The Sustainable Defense Task Force also found a trillion dollars to cut. If the sequestration of funds required by the failure of the congressional supercommittee were to take effect, the total cuts would also be around a trillion.
Contrary to the shrieks, a cut that deep, more than twice what President Obama is proposing, isn't draconian. During the first decade of this century, not including money appropriated to actually fight two wars, the United States added a trillion dollars to defense spending. It now would be "doomsday" to cut a trillion? In fact, even that isn't enough.
The truths of our situation have been told so very many times. You don't need to go anywhere near xenophobic isolationists like Ron Paul to hear it. Or listen to dirty effing hippies. The late Chalmers Johnson told us. Andrew Bacevich continues to do so. As does Winslow Wheeler. And folks like Carl Conetti at the Project for Defense Alternatives. Sen. Bernie Sanders tells us. So does Rep. Barbara Lee.
There is no excuse for the United States to spend more on defense than the 14 next biggest spenders on the planet combined.
Having 800-odd overseas military bases spread over some 50 countries is so 20th Century in a 21st Century world in which bridges and schools are falling down and much of the social and physical infrastructure that isn't outright collapsing is obsolete.
It is perhaps not the greatest idea to have retired generals sitting on the boards of arms manufacturers so they can hawk pricey new weapons systems to their former subordinates at the Pentagon who then hawk them to selected members of Congress who then hawk them to their colleagues while raking in thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from...arms manufacturers.
We have a situation in Washington that Panetta said long before he took the SecDef's post amounted to "legalized bribery." A situation in which hundreds of defense contractors have defrauded the taxpayers of billions of dollars yet still received a 10-year total of $1.1 trillion from the government according to a Pentagon report.
Boondoggles in these weapons systems is rife. As even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, no dove, has pointed out, "Since 9/11, a near doubling of the Pentagon's modernization accounts—more than $700 billion over 10 years in new spending on procurement, research and development—has resulted in relatively modest gains in actual military capability." Many of those weapons should never have been built in the first place. But, since 1995, $32 billion was spent on weapons that didn't ever get built.
It seems more than a tad counterproductive to sell dozens of billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry to nations such as Saudi Arabia who may find some of those weapons useful to put down their own disgruntled citizenry. But it makes arms manufacturers happy.
Mismanagement and cronyism combined with a lack of accountability and so far unauditable accounting means we're pissing away scores of billions which does absolutely nothing to protect us. We don't know how much is being wasted because Pentagon spending is "too big to count."
We'd have much better security if our leaders would stop behaving the way they tell other nations not to behave, stop meddling in places where we make things worse and alter certain elements of U.S. foreign policy to focus more on cooperation instead of competition.
While the Pentagon budget is gargantuan, the total of our actual spending for national security purposes, after accounting for the core budget and the wars—about $670 billion this year—clocks in at more than a trillion, including the interest on debt incurred by borrowing to pay for past military spending. And even that doesn't count things like transferring the payment for thousands of security personnel left in Iraq to the budget of the State Department.
For all these truths, among others, what do we get in return? To choose between a Pentagon budget that's about 4 percent smaller than it is now or one that is 5 percent larger. Some choice.
If the 2013 core defense budget does come in at $523 billion, that will make it 20 percent higher, in real dollars, than the average annual core defense budget for the entire Cold War period from 1948-1992.
Our bloated war machine took nearly a 25 percent cut during the post-Cold War Clinton years. If we did half that now, lopped off a trillion dollars over 10 years, it would take the real-dollar core defense budget down to about $475 billion. That's 20 percent more than the Eisenhower 1957 budget, 20 percent more than the Clinton 1998 budget. In fact, it's the same amount, in real dollars, as the Bush defense budget of 2003. That's still 10 percent more than we spent each year during the Cold War when the United States faced off against the Soviet Union.
Not enough? Seriously?
In the latest Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Korb, a pragmatist but no dove, writes:
But the Pentagon does not have a resource problem. As even the Pentagon's strongest supporters agree, it has a management problem. Norbert Ryan, the president of the Military Officers Association, summed it up well in a recent Washington Times op-ed: "Almost weekly we see reports of gross mismanagement and cost overruns in expensive programs, few of which have any relevance to the wars our troops are fighting today," he wrote. ...
In truth, the Pentagon has become less and less efficient. In 2010, [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates, realizing that the taps for defense spending were closing, asked the services to identify inefficiencies. In a matter of weeks, they identified about $200 billion of redundant expenses. For example, the number of generals and admirals is now higher than it was in 1971, when the military was twice as large as it is today and when commands, such as the Joint Forces Command, duplicated the work of others. Yet, rather than using the gains to cover the overruns, Gates allowed the Pentagon to plow most of it back into new weapons programs.
It is clear that the Pentagon, as currently run, will continue to avoid the hard choices. And Congress will, too, because it likes the continual economic stimulus for its home districts.
Yes, quite clear. Because that's the way things are designed. That's exactly what Eisenhower said about it in his much-cited farewell address half a century ago. And the military-industrial-congressional complex was just a teenager then.
It's a mistake to look at the Pentagon's budget in isolation. As being all a matter of which and how many lethal widgets to buy and how many ships to build and what size the Army and Marines should be. Defense spending is driven by and interwoven skein of legitimate needs, pressure for jobs, the agendas of careerists, the bottom line of defense contractors and, most of all, the ideologues of American exceptionalism which, though they have their factions, have crafted a bipartisan foreign policy that has kept the U.S. war machine well-greased since before people who can retire this year with full Social Security benefits were born. It's become in the minds of most Americans the natural order. And politicians play that for all it is worth.
President Obama's new strategy announced last week is a step, though a limited one, in the right direction. The retreat from the strategy established in 1993 by Clinton Defense Secretary Les Aspin of being prepared to fight two simultaneous regional wars and win them without allies is a good one. In fact, the United States has never actually had that capability. Not even during World War II when Nazi Germany had to first be defeated, with the help of allies, before full attention could be focused on Japan. So, in fact, the White House is just acknowledging reality.
But the new strategy is still a hegemonic one. Our current leadership does not intone the term "empire" the way the neo-conservatives of the Project for a New American Century so brazenly did more than a decade ago. It seeks allies and favors more use of "soft power" and multilateral approaches, all processes disdained by its predecessor and by those who would replace it. But it is still adding new bases and eliminating few old ones.
It shouldn't be forgotten that the Obama administration, as shown by its earlier budgets, while winding down the costs of the Iraq war, sought in its early budget to increase core Pentagon spending in real terms even higher than it had been under George W. Bush. The modest cuts now being proposed quite likely would not have seen the light of day had the economy not plunged so far and deficits expanded so much. Be that as it may, the administration has done something we haven't seen for more than a decade, introduced a pause in the expansion of Pentagon spending. As noted, it is taking heavy flak for that and will continue to do so right up until November 6. We'll be hearing a lot of "weak on defense" from whomever gets the nomination and all his SuperPacs.
Building a majority coalition to cut the Pentagon budget, really cut it, and to give the squint-eye to other elements of U.S. national security spending, is a project that must be renewed. Everyone who has been part of that effort in the past knows the forces arrayed against us are powerful, well-funded and backed by propaganda that way too many Americans, including many liberals, have swallowed unquestioningly just as they bought into the Vietnam War and the Iraq War in their early days.
Politicians who challenge the orthodoxy are few. It is our job to elect more of them if we hope to make the changes that are so obviously needed. And doing that means doing the very hard work of educating their constituents to the reality of defense spending rather than letting them continue to believe the caricature crammed down their throats every day by the pundits and powers-that-be.