The Best Offense Is a Cheaper Defense

Progressives don't need more reasons to be disappointed with President Barack Obama's handling of the deficit talks, but here's another failing that has not gotten much play: The administration has been so timid on defense cuts that some leading Republicans are now well to the president's left on this issue.

Sharply downsizing the Pentagon -- which is projected to otherwise spend over $7 trillion through 2020 -- is one of the most obvious ways to reduce deficits. Yet without the strong backing of the commander in chief -- not to mention the negotiator in chief -- big defense cuts will never happen.

Given the secrecy around the debt-ceiling talks, it is hard to know the administration's exact stance on defense cuts. But earlier this year, the president presented a plan that saved just $400 billion over 12 years by slowing the growth of -- not cutting -- Pentagon spending. This sum, never impressive, has come to look embarrassingly puny as deficit talks have intensified.

Most recently, the Gang of Six released a plan last week that would reportedly cut defense spending by $866 billion over the next decade -- or double what Obama proposed. Members of the Gang hardly have a reputation for being doves. One of its Republican members, Senator Saxton Chambliss, built his career in part by staking out hawkish security stances and serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Even bigger defense cuts -- on the order of $1 trillion -- are proposed in a plan that Senator Tom Coburn (another Republican Gang of Six member) put out by himself last Monday. One of Coburn's biggest savings would come from cutting $79 billion in spending on nuclear arms, a sacrosanct area for the right; Coburn also calls for removing many U.S. troops stationed overseas.

Of course, Tom Coburn is not the first prominent Republican to advocate such deep defense cuts. Pete Domenici, the co-chair of the deficit task force convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center, helped to devise a plan last year that would reduce security spending by $1.1 trillion over the next decade. The president's bipartisan fiscal commission, co-chaired by centrist Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, also called for about $1 trillion in defense cuts.

If ever the coast were clear for a Democratic president to take a meat cleaver to the Pentagon, it is right now. So why has President Obama been holding back?

One answer is Robert Gates, who resisted deep cuts during his final year as defense secretary. Along with appointing an economic team that was too close to Wall Street, keeping Gates on at the Pentagon was another way that Obama chained himself to a conservative status quo when he took office.

But even if Gates hadn't been at the Department of Defense, Obama probably would have deferred to the national-security establishment. He did not call for steep military cuts as a presidential candidate, and one of his biggest decisions during his first year in office was to approve a surge of forces into Afghanistan. In this area, as in others, Obama has been a big disappointment to progressives.

Will the president stake out a bolder stance on defense spending now that Gates is gone and Republican senators like Chambliss and Coburn have put big cuts squarely on the negotiating table? That question may be answered in days as more details emerge about the frantic budget talks underway between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

If Obama does embrace a much bigger military retrenchment, such a stance would fit well within his frame of "winning the future." As a student of history, Obama surely knows that great powers often decline as their national treasure is drained away in far-off wars and other nations take the lead in commerce and trade. Indeed, according to Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, the president entered office acutely conscious of the need to turn America's focus away from the Middle East to Asia, where China is busy reordering the global balance of power. Instead, Obama let the U.S. get sucked even deeper into Afghanistan.

This month, though, the U.S. officially began its troop drawn down in Afghanistan, and a long era of war that started on September 11, 2001, is coming to a close. That shift, along with the deficit challenge, gives Obama a chance to reset his national-security policy. Big cuts to the Pentagon will command more support if the president articulates a grand strategy that aims to bolster the U.S.'s geo-economic power and get our wealthy allies to share more security burdens.

Whatever the final budget target for defense, following through on these pledges won't be easy given the enduring sway of the military-industrial complex. But Washington veterans have reason to be optimistic on this score. Between 1989 and 1993, U.S. defense spending dropped by 20 percent -- in part because of the Cold War's end and in part because of the bipartisan budget deal of 1990.

The Pentagon is not invincible. It's been downsized before. It can be downsized again.

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