Why Obama Can—and Must—Cut Defense Spending

By Barney Frank

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?

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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.)


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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.

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/12/why-obama-can-and-must-cut-defense-spending/266138/