Proposed Pentagon Cuts Part Of Obama’s Re-Election Platform: Less For Defense, No Entitlements Cuts – As For US Security: We Take Our Chances

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

January 6, 2012

WASHINGTON – So what is it going to be? Do we cut Medicare or the Pentagon budget? Says president Barack Obama: First we cut defense, and then we shall see. America is voting in a few months and there are more votes for me in keeping Medicare as is.

No national debate preceding defense cut announcement

This is pretty much the depth of strategic analysis behind president Obama’s recent announcement on drastic defense spending cuts. Look, we could talk about what is wrong with the way defense dollars are spent for months and still come to no agreement as to what is an appropriate level of spending. The fact is that no one really knows what an “appropriate level” is and in particular no one knows how best to spend any amount of dollars. The Pentagon is an enormous, strange beast that absorbs now about 4.7% of US GDP. It is true that by historic standards this is not especially high. But it is high in terms of total dollars and is much higher than what almost every country on earth spends. If you take out entitlements that absorb about 60% of total federal spending, defense spending, at about 20%, is the largest item in the US federal budget.

Enormous defense budget

That said, how do you determine a “good” total figure for the Pentagon, and how do you allocate the money among major spending categories? Think about it. You have weapons, of course. Those that we have need money to operate and maintain them. And then we have to budget for those we are planning to procure. But the big defense numbers are in people. An all volunteer force is very expensive. And then you have health care for everybody and pensions and more. Add to this, training, exercises, operations, logistics, jet fuel, regular fuel, the cost of keeping the Navy at sea, heating and and air conditioning for military installations in the US and around the world. And, finally, the cost of wars (when you decide to have them) that includes the immense cost of supplying hundreds of thousands of soldiers half way around the world, the cost of replacing lost weapons and the cost of caring for thousands of wounded soldiers.

Major line items

Given the forest of major line items, how do we determine “appropriate” budgetary allocations for the Pentagon? Who knows, really. And the numbers you come up with largely depends on your assumptions. Engagement, or retrenchment for America? Decades of peace ? Some turmoil here in there? Lots of turmoil? Turmoil we care about? Turmoil we decide not to care about? The rise of a major threat? The need to deter? The need to intevene? The need to occupy? Again, any defense spending estimate can be dismissed or supported by the way one wants to define “the national interest“, (think of would be president Ron Paul who wants America to stay at home), and the way one prefers to read current developments and determine what trends they indicate.

Wars of choice added to the mix

As an illustration, consider the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Both of them are “wars of choice“, as opposed to “wars of necessity“. In other words, we did not “have” to do this. Imagine total US defense spending from the end of 2001 (Afghanistan war began then) until now, minus the expenses related to these two long and costly operations, to which you have to add the legacy costs related to caring for tens of thousands of wounded or disabled veterans for years to come. An entirely different picture. These wars were political decisions, based on some rationale, of course. But it could have been entirely possible for a different US president to take a totally different course of action.

No compelling strategic rationale offered

That said, Obama’s announcement about significant defense cuts going forward is not the result of a real and clear reassessment of threats, nor is it based on a compelling redefinition of the national interest. In other words, the president did not come forward saying: “The world is happily at peace and we can rest assured that it will stay at peace for many decades. Therefore it makes sense to cut our defense budget and save all that money“.

There is no reasoned analysis behind these major defense cuts announcements. There is the pretext of the end of US deployments in Iraq at the close of 2011, plus the planned drawdown from Afghanistan. But, leaving aside the wisdom behind these developments, the end or planned end of two military campaigns does not amount to the elaboration of a new US military posture based on a cogent and publicly debated analysis of current and potential threats.

It is all about the elections

Therefore, the only possible conclusion is that this announcement is part of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. This is a nod at the anti military base within the Democratic Party and a nod at those who want the “good federal spending“, i.e. entitlements, to continue unabated, something that may be made a bit easier by sacrificing the Pentagon.

As I said, there could be plenty of good reasons for cutting military spending and/or specific weapons programs. But this should be based on some overarching rationale about potential threats and prudent responses.

Cut defense and not Medicare

Here the “strategic rationale” is called Obama’s re-election. The US is 15 trillion in the hole, while we keep piling up more debt at a tune of 1 trillion plus every year. As we have an election coming up, and as we have to make some gestures about paring down our spending, let’s start where it seems politically easier. Cutting defense hurts some important constituencies, no doubt. But cutting Medicare offends a lot more of the people who vote for us. So, which one do we pick? Well, you heard the president: we cut defense.

Short term political expediency is really poor guidance in planning for America’s national security. But this is the way it is done. America deserves better.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *