Leaders of both parties agreed that the cuts were crude and ill-advised. To circumvent their negative effects on national security, Barack Obama’s administration loaded Pentagon spending into a separate budget for overseas contingency operations, or OCO, which was originally designed for unexpected wartime spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of the Obama administration, OCO included funding for fighting pandemic diseases, the broader U.S. presence in the Middle East, and European security. Defense and budget experts from both parties, including Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, have criticized OCO for years, pointing out that most of it should be part of the regular defense budget. The sequester caps on spending are likely to expire in 2021, meaning nonemergency wartime funding can finally be merged into the regular budget.
Warren has been a critic of OCO for many years, and has called it a slush fund for the Pentagon. In her Medicare for All announcement, she proposed eliminating OCO, and said she would take $800 billion from the defense budget over 10 years. That number seems to be the total amount in OCO (now $77 billion a year) plus inflation. Warren justifies this approach by saying that the United States must end the forever wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
But Todd Harrison, a budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has dived deep into the details, told me that the forever wars account for only about $20 billion in OCO annually. The remaining billions include funding for things such as the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, much of U.S. Central Command, and the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), which is intended to bolster U.S. forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Although Warren said that some of what was funded in OCO could be moved over to the regular budget, her campaign did not say how much, or what, would be transferred.
In the week following Warren’s announcement, European policy makers worried that EDI might be on the chopping block. I asked the Warren campaign, and a spokesperson clarified that Warren sees EDI as a priority and will fund it if elected president—the first formal guarantee it has made to fund something from OCO. The spokesperson also said that if elected, Warren would cut Pentagon spending by the total amount of OCO, but that some of those savings would come from the regular budget. One way or another, her administration would reduce the defense budget by approximately 11 percent.
For many commentators, going after OCO by name sounded serious and detailed—very much on brand for the candidate with a plan. In truth, it was an accounting trick that allowed the campaign to evade questions about what it would actually cut.
How much money, for instance, does Warren intend to save by reducing the American footprint in the Middle East? In the Democratic presidential debate in October, Warren said she would withdraw U.S. troops from the region. A campaign spokesperson immediately clarified that she was talking about U.S. combat troops. But Warren’s focus on OCO will renew speculation that she meant what she literally said. If Warren just ended all operations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—which would be a difficult task— that would still leave a half-trillion-dollar hole in what she hopes to find from the Pentagon for Medicare for All.