Defense and the Deficit

You might think that with the Iraq War thoroughly discredited and recent polls showing that a majority of the public favors reducing defense spending, cutting the Pentagon's bloated budget would finally be on the table. Or at least you'd expect Democrats would propose cutting military spending instead of home-heating subsidies for the poor. But you'd be wrong.

Leaders in both parties profess to care about the $14 trillion national debt and the current $1.4 trillion deficit, yet when President Barack Obama proposed his budget for the coming fiscal year, he offered to cut miniscule domestic programs such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program while merely offering to slow the growth of the Department of Defense. Republicans countered by demanding further cuts to discretionary domestic spending.

Rest assured, that isn't because our defense expenditures are modest: They exceed our nearest competitors (China, France, and the U.K.) by a factor of almost 10 and make up 20 percent of the overall budget (not including defense-related expenditures in other agencies and the Veterans' Administration). Nor is the Pentagon efficiently using those resources: On Tuesday, Government Accountability Office auditors said that mismanagement added at least $70 billion to projected costs in the last two years.

With the parsimonious Tea Party movement ascendant across the aisle, it would seem like the perfect time to cut the bloated military budget. Indeed, some Tea Party leaders have publicly asked the Republican congressional leadership to do just that. But so far, neither party is taking the lead. With two expensive and unpopular foreign occupations and panic about the mounting deficit, Democrats are in the perfect position to reduce the size of our military. And there is more to be gained than efficiently reducing the deficit and simply protecting badly needed domestic programs that are being cut instead of defense: In the long term, having a smaller military will prevent us from resorting to force as the first response to foreign-policy conflicts.

Somehow, after the U.S. accumulated massive debts by cutting taxes, launching long wars, and expanding the national-security state under Republican rule, the Democrats have been completely outmaneuvered in responding to the public's concerns about the debt and deficit. But our long-standing refusal to cut military spending does more than squeeze other programs each time Republicans rediscover the budget gap under a new Democratic president. "Operation Odyssey Dawn" in Libya right now perfectly demonstrates the problem with maintaining such a huge military: Our massive military budget makes military interventions our foreign-policy weapon of first, rather than last, resort. "Having a big military encourages you to use it," says Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security Project and a former speechwriter in the State Department for the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, during the Clinton administration. "If you didn't have it, you might find an alternative."

Not only does defense spending encourage overuse of the military -- creating a snowball effect in which the overuse in turn justifies more spending -- it actually can have the perverse effect of making us less safe. Building more nuclear weapons, for example, does not enhance our security but rather encourages other nations, some of which have less stable governments and lower-quality security for fissile material, to build more of their own. "It's a widespread delusion that the more you spend for defense, the more security you automatically get," notes Janne Nolan, director of nuclear security at the American Security Project.

A pragmatic progressive vision of global security would instead emphasize the primacy of international law, multilateral agreements, and increased responsibilities by our coalition partners. The Obama administration, through the START treaty and its insistence on only going into Libya with U.N. Security Council approval and European and Arab Union leadership, has wisely adopted some of those principles, but making military intervention less easy would serve to continue this trend long-term. (Many Republicans, naturally, have reacted with characteristic churlishness, by opposing START and accusing Obama of wasting time on niceties such as compliance with international law.)

In fact, there are plenty of simple solutions that could save money without remotely endangering our vast military superiority. We could reduce the size of the Army and Marines to their pre-9/11 size, which is more than large enough to carry out any targeted mission, but not -- as it shouldn't be, and as we learned the hard way -- intended to carry out occupations and counterinsurgency strategies in multiple Middle Eastern countries for over a decade. Congress could stop appropriating money for weapons that the military itself has said it has no use for like the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. We could decrease spending on developing and building new nuclear weapons, since we hope never to use them anyway. Perhaps most important, we could reduce our presence and close bases in other countries such as Germany and South Korea.

Fundamentally, it seems that Democrats have become so afraid of being portrayed as soft on security or profligate tax-raisers that they are unwilling to push for spending reforms that are actually needed. In the years ahead, progressives will be faced with a choice: Do they want to challenge the paradigm that spending more on weapons and bombing more countries is the measure of one's commitment to national security? To really reduce defense spending will require the courage to redefine our strategic interests and our military role -- a task neither the president nor his foreign-policy advisers like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has undertaken. It will certainly meet immediate opposition. House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) sent a letter on March 11 to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) saying "We should not jeopardize the security of the nation by accepting across the board cuts to national defense without regard to inherent strategic risks." That leaves it up to liberals to articulate why cutting defense spending can actually reduce our strategic risks, but will they do so?

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