A funny thing happened on the road to the 2010 Department of Defense budget request; the president and the secretary of defense ordered a 4 percent increase in spending and found conservatives lambasting them for "cuts" in the budget. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma even characterized the increase in spending as aimed at "disarming" America.
Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo has been cataloguing the right's distortions assiduously, and he's been a busy man. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia said, "The only place the president is willing to cut spending is on the armed forces." Politico reported on "sweeping defense cuts" without mentioning the larger offsetting defense increases. John McHugh of New York just made up a number and decided that the increase in spending "would amount to $8 billion in cuts in defense spending."
The origins of the nonsense appear to lie in a budgetary ambush planned by the Pentagon back in October, when it outlined "a new estimate for defense spending that is $450 billion more over the next five years than previously announced figures." The point of the exercise was to be able to characterize any increase in defense spending that was smaller than this new, higher level as actually a cut.
Further driving the narrative is the reality that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is making significant cuts to some specific programs, including the DDG-1000 destroyer (which had gotten so expensive that the Navy itself wanted to kill it off last year, only to have Congress and defense contractors restore it to life) the F-22 air superiority fighter, the Future Combat Systems boondoggle, and a presidential helicopter program that somehow became more expensive than Air Force One. The point of these savings, however, is to invest additional funds in military personnel and in more flexible weapons systems like the F-35 and the littoral combat ship that will allow the military to be prepared for the contemporary security environment, rather than simply bulking up on Cold War systems beloved by defense contractors.
The more legitimate critique of Gates and President Barack Obama is not that they're cutting defense but that they're not cutting defense. As Fareed Zakaria points out, the greater emphasis on unconventional operations is welcome, but the portions of the military budget devoted to great power deterrence are still fantastically large: "The U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft-carrier groups. China has none. The U.S. defense budget for 2009 is $655 billion. China's is $70 billion, and Russia's is $50 billion."
If you said that you were committed to keeping American defense spending at triple the level of China and Russia combined, I think that would strike the man on the street as prudent. In practice, though, it would imply heavy cuts.
And while genuinely necessary defense spending is among the best investments we can make, maintaining redundant capabilities is among the worst. Advocates of unnecessary systems have taken to arguing that defense spending produces jobs. This is true in the short run, but over the long term it's a terrible strategy: Were spending lower, the private sector could invest more in businesses that make goods for consumers, or the public sector could deploy it to provide us with infrastructure, better health, or a more educated population. An unneeded missile just sits around useless; we might as well light people's tax dollars on fire.
But even if the ambitions of Gates' budget reforms are modest, progressives would still do well to hope something very much like it passes. As small as his proposed changes are relative to the scale of what we probably need over the long term, they are sweeping relative to the scale of what's generally assumed to be politically possible. Dwight Eisenhower's famous mention of a "military-industrial complex" was originally supposed to be a "military-industrial-congressional complex," and the latter is the correct term. Defense contractors make sure to locate production for favored programs in states and districts represented by the key congressional figures. And the military brass is good at cultivating relationships on the Hill. Simply put, what's in the budget currently is there because powerful members of Congress want it to be there. And a new president has only a very limited ability to bend powerful members of Congress to his will.
Consequently, Gates' shifts in priorities stand a good chance of being gutted in Congress. And if they are, the vast majority of Congress members will simply relearn the lesson that efforts to rein in Pentagon spending are fruitless, and the entire country is forever at the mercy of a small circle of industry executives, high-ranking officers, and influential members of key committees. But if the reforms aren't gutted, that will show that under the right circumstances, change is possible. If Gates' proposals go through, in other words, future Congresses can seriously contemplate the idea of a defense budget that shrinks (either in real dollar terms or as a percent of the economy) but if they go down, then we'll be stuck with the status quo as far as the eye can see, with serious consequences for our economy and general well-being.