Why Obama Can—and Must—Cut Defense Spending

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As a result, one of the issues in the presidential campaign -- explicitly pursued in one of the debates -- was Romney's criticism of what he believed to be inadequate military spending. Romney was intermittently critical both of the decision to withdraw from Iraq and of the decision to commit to a firm withdrawal date from Afghanistan. Also, he called for hundreds of billions of dollars in additional military spending over the president's proposal for the next ten years. He memorably complained that we have fewer Navy ships now than we had in World War I -- effectively riposted by the president's reference to horses and bayonets. Romney's positions mirrored the official congressional Republican position, reflected in the Paul Ryan budget, which calls for significant deficit reduction even as it increases the military budget in real terms.

So for the first time since 1972, we had a debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in which the Democrat was for less spending on the military and the Republican for significantly more -- and the Democrat won. Even in Virginia, where the appeal to increase military spending was considered to be extremely potent.

Romney's decision to challenge the president on the grounds that he was spending inadequately on the military helps to establish the fact that the American public recognizes that we can reduce military spending below the levels that we needed when we faced the Nazis and the Communists. This realization should free Obama from the pressure to spend more and allow him to go forward with the modest reductions that he has advocated.

Going Further

But this leads to the second obstacle to reducing military spending to an appropriate level: the reluctance of the president himself to recognize that even further significant reductions -- phased in to reach an annual level of 20 percent below the current year's amount -- is wholly consistent with our national security, and is in fact essential if we are to reduce our deficit in a socially responsible way.

Even with the revenue increase we can achieve by raising taxes on the wealthy, serious deficit reduction must come in part from reducing military spending beyond what the president proposes, unless we make very deep cuts in the nonmilitary parts of the budget. The argument against this approach is easily disposed of by noting the ironic conversion of many conservatives, who generally argue that government spending can make no significant contribution to the economy, to a form of "militarized Keynesianism" when it concerns the defense budget.

I once asked Alan Greenspan in a hearing what the economic impact would be of cutting military spending versus other types of spending. His answer was that to the extent that your national defense requirements allowed you to cut the military, it would almost certainly cause less of an economic impact than most other cuts in spending. He analogized this to being able to pay less for insurance if prudent. This is not true of all expenditure -- for instance, some research and development has spillover effects, and such spending can and should be protected. Cuts in overseas bases, however, have no negative economic effect, nor does reducing nuclear stockpiles that exceed our current security needs.

The question regarding the economic impact of military expenditures is not whether spending on the military versus not spending at all will have a positive effect. If we are serious about long-term deficit reduction, then spending cuts have to come from somewhere, and the relevant question becomes whether cuts of the right sort in the military -- excessive overseas basing, excessive military intervention, a nuclear weapons stock far greater than is needed -- are more or less damaging to the economy than equal amounts of other federal spending.

Given the numbers involved, the major trade-off in putting together a total deficit reduction package is between the military and health care, by far the biggest nondefense spending item in our budget. Reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, grants from the National Institutes of Health, aid to hospitals, etc., clearly will have far worse social consequences than equivalent cuts in the military and, I believe, more damaging economic effects, because there is more of an economic multiplier from the health expenditures than from military spending.

The jobs argument, I acknowledge, is a more persuasive obstacle to cutting projects that have already been funded. It is a political truism that it's easier to prevent an expenditure before it starts than cut it off once it's already in effect. This means we can set a target of reduction, allow a number of current projects to go forward even if they lack sufficient military justification, and find savings by avoiding new commitments; this is much less likely to generate effective opposition. Weapon systems that have not yet been contracted for will not have nearly as many defenders as those on which the money is currently being spent.

The One Indispensable Nation?

The argument against military spending as a public works program is surmountable. The more politically potent obstacle to achieving responsible reductions is the extent to which the president and his advisers, while commendably willing to argue for less military spending than he inherited, remain committed to a view of America's role in the world that requires more spending than necessary.

Obama, like previous presidents, has been told that on his shoulders rests the defense of freedom in the world. To his credit, he is somewhat more skeptical of this argument than his predecessors. But two pieces of rhetoric illustrate the fact that the president still suffers from a cultural lag by accepting the notion that it is America's destiny to be the worldwide defender of freedom and order.

First, the president himself has referred to us as the "one indispensable nation" in the world. In practice, that has meant that any country facing difficulty can count on American intervention of some sort. This notion that America is globally indispensable is at the core of the impulse to expand our military budget far beyond our legitimate needs or the needs of allies who are in fact threatened and not capable of protecting themselves. We will have an appropriately sized military budget only when we accept the fact that there are a number of situations in the world in which we should be working to strengthen and encourage other nations so that we can be dispensable. The notion of our indispensability confuses what the military can do and cannot do. I would be morally conflicted myself by putting budgetary constraints on some of these interventions if I thought we could be useful.

We have a superb military. It is very good at doing what a military is best at -- stopping bad things from happening. It is not very good at making good things happen in societies that are foreign to us. The best trained and armed young Americans cannot create democracy in Iraq or eliminate corruption in Afghanistan. And they certainly cannot bring harmony to troubled regions elsewhere.

The second rhetorical example of the Administration's inability to break entirely from a Cold War view of America as necessary for preserving freedom in all of the world comes from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta is one of the outstanding people with whom I have served in government. He was an extremely valuable member of Congress, with strong progressive values and a commitment to implementing them. He did an excellent job, first as Clinton's budget director and then as his chief of staff, in advancing those values, and he was a very good head of the CIA when he returned to service for Obama.

But upon becoming secretary of defense, he lost the sensible perspective that he once had. In one of his earliest speeches in the new post, he lamented the fact that America had "hollowed out" our military after every war, and he pledged not to do so again after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were brought to an end. Hollowing out the military appears to mean, to some people in the defense sphere, reducing military expenditures when you are no longer fighting a war rather than keeping spending levels at the capacity to devastate a fully armed Soviet Union, wage thermonuclear war, and maintain a significant troop presence in Europe long after there is a need to protect our allies against Stalin and his troops.

The hollowing-out argument is particularly odd coming from Panetta because, in the first iteration of this lament, he included the Cold War as one of the wars whose end brought on a shrinking of the military. The problem is that the Cold War ended just as the Clinton Administration was beginning. And the budget director in the Clinton Administration at the time was Leon Panetta. In other words, when Leon Panetta, secretary of defense in 2011, complains that the Clinton Administration hollowed out our military after the Cold War, he is blaming Leon Panetta, budget director in 1993. As it happens, Budget Director Panetta wins this argument against Defense Secretary Panetta. Proof of that victory lies in what happened next -- despite the supposed hollowing out of the military, the Clinton Administration was able to achieve a significant military success in southern Yugoslavia, and the Bush Administration, inheriting the same military from Clinton, had the force to dominate Iraq in a fairly short period of time.

Still the World's Strongest Military

To be clear, this is not an argument against America continuing to be the strongest nation in the world. I want us to maintain that status. To some of my liberal friends, this may seem xenophobic. But as I look at the other potential candidates for the role, I'm glad that it is our country that holds the title. (If Denmark had the military resources to do it, I would be perfectly content, but choosing among Russia, China, Indonesia, and us, I choose us.)

That said, being the strongest nation in the world can be achieved much less expensively than at current levels. Obama deserves a great deal of credit for ending the war in Iraq, for committing to ending the war in Afghanistan, and for successfully withstanding Republican pressure to spend more on the military. But I believe he underestimates the extent to which the public is willing to support even further reductions, and I believe that he may appear to be overly influenced by being told that as president, he has the duty to continue to lead the indispensable nation.

The United States was indispensable in 1945 and for many years thereafter, given the weakness of other nations, including our closest allies, and the strength of the Soviet Union. But things have changed. We can no longer afford to be the indispensable nation extending a military umbrella over many allies on whom it is not raining -- and who can well afford their own protective gear if it does. Fortunately, there is no longer any need for us to play that role, and that in turn is fortunate because, for a number of reasons, we cannot succeed at the job when we try.

This all means that a major political task going forward for liberals is pushing for further reductions in military spending, an objective that we now know is not only socially and economically necessary but also politically achievable.

This article originally appeared in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, an Atlantic partner publication.

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

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