Fiscal policy

How Could the Pentagon Possibly Defend Us With the Budget It Had Four Years Ago?

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This week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to unveil detailed plans for about $260 billion of the $450 billion in savings that President Obama has asked him to find in the Penatgon's budget over the course of the next decade. Because those savings represent reductions in projected spending, as opposed to actual cuts, the defense budget would continue rising, but not as fast as it would under current law. Assuming all the "cuts" are enacted, total military spending will be about 8 percent less than currently projected. If you add the $500 billion in "automatic" defense cuts imposed by the legislation that resolved last summer's debt-limit dispute, the total reduction from projected spending is about 17 percent, bringing the Pentagon's base budget all the way down to a level last seen in 2007, when the country was not exactly helpless against its adversaries. Yet Panetta says that result would be "catastrophic," and every Republican presidential candidate, with the notable exception of Ron Paul, agrees, promising to prevent or reverse the cuts. Mitt Romney, who deems even the 8 percent reduction "irresponsible," says the additional cuts would "put our national security on the chopping block." At the October 11 debate, Newt Gingrich declared, "It is nonsense to say we're going to disarm the United States unilaterally because we're too stupid to balance the budget any other way." The New York Times puts such hyperventilating in perspective:

There were steeper military cuts after the Cold War and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

"Even at a trillion dollars, this is a shallower build-down than any of the last three we've done," said Gordon Adams, who oversaw military budgets in the Clinton White House and is now a fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington. "It would still be the world's most dominant military. We would be in an arms race with ourselves."

When guardians of the Pentagon's budget say returning to 2007 spending levels is unthinkable, what they really mean is that it requires rethinking what the military is for, and maybe even giving priority to operations that have something to do with national defense. For instance:

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, advocates saving $69.5 billion over 10 years by reducing by one-third the number of American military personnel stationed in Europe and Asia.

Three-thirds would be better, but at least Coburn is tenatively trying to think outside the box of our current commitments. So is Panetta (emphasis added):

In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.

Instead, he will say that the military will be large enough to fight and win one major conflict, while also being able to "spoil" a second adversary's ambitions in another part of the world while conducting a number of other smaller operations, like providing disaster relief or enforcing a no-flight zone.

The new doctrine is just as abitrary as the old one, but at least it's a little cheaper. I would even venture to say that reducing the U.S. government's ability to engage in pointless, costly, and destructive military interventions might decrease the likelihood of such interventions. "If the Pentagon saves nearly $150 billion in the next 10 years by shrinking the Army to, say, 483,000 troops from 570,000," the Times worries, "would America be prepared for a grinding, lengthy ground war in Asia?" If not, that sounds like a feature, not a bug.

In a recent NRO piece explaining why "Paul's Foreign Policy Is Truly Outside the Mainstream," Jamie Fly notes that the U.S. has engaged in 26 foreign military operations since 1898, or one every four years or so. "American administrations of both parties end up intervening in foreign conflicts and supporting our allies with overseas deployments because doing so is in our interest and because it embodies the values upon which our nation was founded," he writes. Fly thinks that's a good thing, but the standard seems infinitely elastic to me: As President Obama showed with his illegal war in Libya, there is no military operation that cannot be justified by broadly defined "interests," supplemented by broadly defined "values." Restraining military spending might just force future presidents to be a bit more cautious.