Why Obama Can—and Must—Cut Defense Spending

The Cold War is over, the national budget is overstretched, and voters are on board. Will the president follow through on his chance to shrink the Pentagon?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

There were so many encouraging signs for liberals in the election results this year that one of the most significant has been overlooked. For the first time in my memory, a Democratic candidate for president argued for less military spending against a Republican candidate who called for great increases -- and the Democrat won. George McGovern was the last Democratic candidate to talk about spending less on the military. Subsequently, every Democratic presidential candidate was told that he had better look sufficiently tough on national security because a perception that Democrats were too weak vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was a major point of vulnerability. That is why Michael Dukakis, a public official with an extremely distinguished record, and a man of great dignity and integrity, staged an ill-conceived photo-op of himself wearing a helmet and riding in a tank, which became a negative factor in his campaign.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 reduced this pressure to some degree. Indeed, Bill Clinton was able to follow George H.W. Bush in beginning to reverse the enormous buildup in military spending dating to the Reagan Administration. The restraint on military spending that occurred was a significant factor in Clinton's ability to reach balanced budgets in his last years.

And then came September 11, which had two significant -- and very adverse -- budgetary impacts. First, we entered two wars -- financed, in a novel economic approach, by several large tax cuts -- which led to upwards of $150 billion a year over and above the base military budget. (The public does not fully understand that the defense budget is paid for to a certain extent as people pay lawyers who are on retainer, but who then get extra funds if they have to go into court.)

Secondly, the base budget itself was sharply inflated, and the moderating trends implemented by George H.W. Bush and Clinton were reversed as terrorism was cleverly used by the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush Administration to substitute for the Soviet Union as an existential threat to the United States. Under President George W. Bush, the base budget steadily rose from $287 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $513 billion in fiscal year 2009, and this increase continued in President Obama's first term, reaching $530 billion in fiscal year 2012. The combination of the two -- the base budget and "emergency" war spending -- led at the height of the "surge" in Afghanistan in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to yearly military spending totaling about $700 billion, far more than Medicare outlays, which totaled $452 billion in 2010 and $486 billion in 2011.

In fact, of course, the terrorists are murderous thugs whom we must combat, but who do not remotely present the kind of threat to our national security that came first from Hitler and then Stalin and his successors -- the reason historically that America got in the position of being by far the world's major military power. I have been greatly frustrated in the conversation about the need to do long-term deficit reduction by the extent to which establishment opinion focuses on "entitlements" -- namely efforts to provide decent means of support for Americans in our retirement years -- as a major cause of the deficit, and ignores the extremely large contribution made to this problem by military expenditures that are far beyond any rational assessment of our national security.

A Changed World

In the past few years, with Obama having completed the withdrawal from Iraq, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, and with the announcement of a plan to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 (too late, but an improvement over the open-ended commitment Obama inherited), it has become possible to get some political traction for our efforts to cut military spending. Because so much of that spending stems from overreach advocated by those who believe that America should be the enforcer of order everywhere in the world -- and because we subsidize our wealthy European and Asian allies by providing a defense for them so they need not spend much on their own -- there has been increasing conservative support for reining in the military budget. Ron Paul, who goes far beyond most liberals in his eagerness to impose severe military cuts, was a popular figure with a significant base of GOP support not despite taking this position but in part because of it.

Earlier this year, for the first time that I can recall, a majority of the House of Representatives voted to reduce the military appropriation recommended by the House Appropriations Committee. The cut was only $1.1 billion -- less than it should have been -- but it was a decision that froze spending at the previous year's level, and it passed by a vote of 247-167, with the support of both an overwhelming majority of Democrats (158-21) and a significant minority of Republicans (89-146).

Deficit reduction over the long term must include significant reductions in military spending along with tax increases on the very wealthy if we are to avoid devastating virtually everything we do to promote the quality of life at home. A realistic reassessment of our true national security needs would mean a military budget significantly lower not only than the one Obama inherited, but that which he now proposes. That is, by next year, we no longer should be forced to spend additional funds -- close to $200 billion a year at their peak -- in Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, we can reduce the base budget by approximately $1 trillion over a ten-year period (this includes the $487 billion reduction that Obama proposed in early 2012) while maintaining more than enough military strength to fully protect our security and those of our allies that genuinely need help because they are too poor and weak in the face of powerful enemies. (Should the nation decide in a democratic way to go to war again, that would require an increase in the military budget, and I would hope, in taxation to pay for it.)

Getting the military budget down to that level -- which would mean a reduction of about $250 billion from what it was in the first year of the Obama Administration -- faced two obstacles at the beginning of this past year. First was the traditional political concern that the Republican presidential candidate would have an advantage over the Democrat on the question of who can better protect our national security. Fortunately, Obama understood that things have changed, and that the American people are ready for a reduction in military spending. Mitt Romney, operating in the traditional conservative mode, missed it. One of the most important signs that the public was ready to support a rational -- i.e., significantly reduced -- military budget came during Clint Eastwood's ramble at the Republican National Convention. One of the few coherent things he said in that memorable debate that he lost to a chair was that the president should have announced his willingness to pull out of Afghanistan altogether. This criticism of the president from an antiwar position elicited cheers from the Republican delegates.

Presented by

Barney Frank, a Democrat, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 2013.

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