The Pentagon Budget Battle’s Ratcheting Rhetoric

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns that additional defense-spending cuts will imperil the nation's ability to defend itself last Thursday / DoD photo by R.D. Ward

Glad to see the debt crisis has been resolved in the past two weeks while I was away. It has been plain to anyone paying attention for the past couple of years that military spending – or “security” spending as the Orwellians in the White House are now calling it – has to come down, and by more than the $400 billion President Obama said last April would have to be whacked by 2023. That’s why we said a trillion-dollar cut over the coming decade was a more likely target, and why we wrote a story detailing how that might work four months ago. Before anyone complains, let’s agree that defining what we think of as “defense spending” as “security spending” – as the Administration is now doing – makes sense. That’s because it includes the additional $200 billion or so we spend annually on homeland security, veterans, and nuclear weapons – items that are routinely folded into most other nations’ defense budgets.

We have never done that, and it gives us a shrunken figure for military spending that doesn’t serve citizens well. It also makes apples-to-apples comparisons difficult because such nomenclature has rarely been used before. That’s in part why the Administration did it. It has also become a way for the Pentagon to suggest recently that future cuts will slice deeper into those non-Pentagon – but very much defense-related – accounts than their own cherished programs.

But here is the key fact:

We are being forced to throttle back military spending by our own profound lack of money. We’re going to end up doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason. We need to rationalize defense spending based on the threats the nation currently faces. Now that the budget ax has been raised, the Pentagon and its advocates in Congress have begun warning that cuts beyond those already ordered by Obama would be disastrous.

But as someone who has watched this pas de deux unfold repeatedly for more than three decades, it is plain what is happening. The U.S. military is building fortifications around its current mission set, crafted in World War II’s wake when the U.S. military was the horsepower behind Pax Americana. Those days, frankly, are on the wane, and the U.S. military’s missions must be recalibrated to acknowledge the change.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta – in his first briefing as defense chief – said the additional “doomsday” cuts built in to the debt-reduction deal, absent an additional agreement on where to cut elsewhere, would be “very dangerous.” The military faces some $350 billion in cuts in its projected rate of growth under the budget pact Obama signed into law last week. But if a panel of lawmakers fails to hammer out additional savings, some $500 billion or more would be guillotined from the Pentagon. Panetta made it clear that additional cuts should come from increased taxes or Social Security and Medicare instead.

Panetta said it “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation.” (Emphasis added.) Panetta likes to boast of his Italian heritage, and Italians are sometimes hyperbolic (no complaints, please – my best man was Steve Tessitore). The notion that trimming military spending back to Cold War levels would damage the U.S. military’s ability to protect the nation falls into that category.

Panetta’s prescription is a recipe for the U.S. to continue spending as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, pretty much forever:

We face a broad and growing range of security threats and challenges that our military must be prepared to confront, from terrorist networks to rogue nations that are making efforts to obtain a nuclear capability, to dealing with rising powers that always look at us to determine whether or not we will, in fact, maintain a strong defense here and throughout the world.

Like the old saw about Nixon being the only President capable of reaching out to Red China, so it will be with the nation’s view of its military might. It may take a visionary leader – perhaps with a military background – to rejigger our global commitments, backed by a defense secretary with similar views. It was distressing, while out of town, to see Ash Carter elevated from his post as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, to the No. 2 position as deputy secretary of defense. Carter is capable, but hardly visionary. He lead the first Nuclear Posture Review in 1994 – a time ripe for radical change – but his NPR that year did little to argue for a new approach to the nation’s locked-in-Cold-War-amber nuclear thinking.

It’s bulletproof to cheer defense spending, and difficult to argue that it’s time for the nation to pull back from global commitments it has fulfilled for nearly 70 years. But that is going to happen; the sole question is will it be done smartly or stupidly.

Contrary to what Panetta and others tell us, we are not facing an avalanche of threats that require us to spend more money now than we did during the Cold War. We are safer now than we have been in our lifetimes, yet the public discourse – largely funded by those who stand to gain by continued plundering of the national weal – continually asserts otherwise.