Carolyn Lochhead / San Francisco Chronicle Washington Bureau – 2011-08-07 19:26:57
WASHINGTON (August 7, 2011) — After doubling in size during George W. Bush’s presidency, the Pentagon is about to go on a diet for the first time since 1998. Whether that means two years of skipping dessert or a 10-year crash diet depends on how Washington’s debt-ceiling deal plays out between now and December.
Two Californians will be central to the outcome.
One is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a liberal San Francisco Democrat who helped engineer a provision in the debt deal that exposes the Pentagon to nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade.
The other is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from Monterey who warned in his maiden press conference Thursday that such cuts are “completely unacceptable.”
Underlying the fight is the question of whether the U.S. military should remain the world’s global police force or downsize to a less-ambitious posture that reflects a diminished financial capacity.
“The defense budget is going to be cut, whatever happens with this particular law,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Frugal Superpower. The nation’s deficit problem, he said, is “so large that … in circumstances in which Americans pay more to the government and get less, they are not going to be as generous as they have been in the past in funding foreign and security policy.”
The debt deal lays out two rounds of defense cuts. The first is a $350 billion reduction in “security” spending over 10 years, only two years of which is locked in. The Obama administration had proposed those cuts in April as part of a general belt-tightening at the Pentagon.
But the second round could be much more severe. Viewed by Democrats as a way to force Republicans to accept the need for higher tax revenue, this round could force the Pentagon to share $1.2 trillion in 10-year spending cuts equally with domestic spending on such things as highways and education. These cuts could take $600 billion from the military, about a 10 to 15 percent reduction, depending on what is measured.
The cuts would take effect automatically if a new bipartisan super-committee in Congress fails to devise — or Congress fails to pass — an alternative plan that trims Medicare and other entitlement programs and raises tax revenue.
Panetta called this plan a “doomsday mechanism.” The deadline for action is Dec. 23.
The 12-member committee, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans who have not been named, could easily deadlock. Even if the committee agrees on a plan, the GOP-controlled House may not pass it if it contains any revenue increases.
The chances of the cuts being made depend on whether party leaders retreat from their hard-line stances during the debt talks.
Pelosi refused to cut benefits in Medicare, Social Security or other entitlement programs, while Tea Party-backed Republicans refused to raise any revenue, even by closing special-interest tax breaks.
The threat of Pentagon cuts could divide Republicans between Tea Party libertarians whose highest priority is taxes, and neoconservatives who staunchly support military spending.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top GOP supporter of the military, came out Thursday in favor of reducing tax breaks as a pre-emptive strike against defense cuts.
Last month, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released a list of $1 trillion in 10-year defense cuts that included everything from subsidized grocery stores on military bases to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Coburn study said the current Pentagon budget, not counting the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and adjusted for inflation, is larger than the entire defense budget during the Vietnam War, when more than half a million troops were deployed.
Defense hawks view such proposals with alarm. Thomas Donnelly, director of defense studies at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, denounced as “rubbish” the idea that the defense budget is too large, arguing that while it has risen steadily in dollar terms, it has fallen as a share of the economy.
“People in uniform are giving American taxpayers an immense return on their investment,” Donnelly said. “Even if you account for the wars, we are policing the world on less than a nickel” out of every dollar of the nation’s economy. He argued that the Defense Department could be eliminated this year and that would not close half of this year’s $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit.
U.S. military bases in Japan and Germany are necessary to conduct such operations as the Libya intervention and to protect Asia from an expansive China, he argued. A U.S. presence in the Middle East is critical to protecting the oil shipping lanes, which could prove far less costly than the economic disruption that might ensue if conflicts were to erupt in a power vacuum left by a U.S. retreat.
“If you think you’d like to share the world with the regime in Beijing, that’s what you’re going to get,” from big cuts in military spending, Donnelly said.
But Larry Diamond, a self-described defense hawk at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said the nation’s fiscal straits require a rethinking of defense policy.
“There is no way American society is going to stand for the kind of savaging of social programs that we’re seeing, and Depression-era suffering on the part of the unemployed who are running out of benefits and people becoming homeless and the rest,” Diamond said.
Those who support a smaller military point to four periods of retrenchment after World War II during the Eisenhower, Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. Cutbacks after the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Cold War were much larger in percentage terms than even the largest cuts contemplated under the new budget deal.
The Reagan-era military buildup peaked in 1985 and spending on defense fell by 36 percent by 1998, when the current buildup began, said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University.
Even defense analysts who consider the Pentagon bloated and its mission overextended, however, contend that deep reductions require not just cutting waste and inefficiency or weapons systems but a rethinking of the U.S. military posture. Mandelbaum recommends that the United States forgo all nation-building efforts while keeping such things as a strong naval presence in Asia and the Persian Gulf.
“What we can safely discard is the kind of intervention in which we have engaged in the two post-Cold War decades, in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya,” Mandelbaum said. “In all of those cases, whatever the original intention, we ended up encumbered with the unexpected, unwanted, difficult, costly, protracted, frustrating and ultimately not entirely successful tasks of nation-building.”
Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and former teacher at West Point, said the budget should flow from strategy, not the other way around.
“Given our straitened economic circumstances and in light of the monumental catastrophes of the past decade, what is America’s proper role in the world?” Bacevich wrote in an e-mail. “Simply reciting cliches about ‘global leadership’ won’t cut it. The time to make hard choices is at hand.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is central to the defense debate. She helped craft a provision for cuts that will kick in if a budget compromise is not reached.
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