Jacob Heilbrunn

Leon Panetta's War Against Budget Cuts

It's becoming increasingly clear that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta views his main job as going to war—to protect his department's budget. Almost since the day he entered office, Panetta has been blasting the notion of cutting spending on the military. His argument, of course, is that it will endanger defense, increase the threat of terrorism. A phalanx of neocons, led by William Kristol, has been making the same argument.

At a moment when the defense budget is nearing $1 trillion, it might be wondered why there isn't room to cut. But now Panetta has come up with a new argument: it would be bad for the economy. The idea of military Keyensianism—that defense spending stimulates the economy—has been around for awhile. Indeed, it's the one form of Keynesianism that the GOP seems to have embraced as well. Panetta says that if lawmakers don't reach agreement on their super committee, the cuts that are mandated by the agreement between President Obama and the GOP will have a devastating effect on the military—and the economy. 

Panetta predicts that unemployment will rise by 1 percent. The Marines and army would be the smallest "in decades," says Panetta's spokesman George Little, without offering any firm statistics. This reeks of scare tactics, not hard facts.

War is the health of the state, Randolph Bourne warned during World War I. Since then America has turned into a military leviathan. The radical Carl Oglesby died this week—he spent much of his life railing against military-industrial complex. But it is surely unprecedented that the defense secretary himself would invoke unemployment as a reason not to cut the military budget. Has America become so dependent on war that it cannot rationally examine its commitments and outlays?

The Wall Street Journal reports that Panetta has been hobknobbing, or, if you want to put a less polite term on it, conspiring, with defense-company heads to avert cuts:

Obi-Wan Panetta, you’re our only hope.

That’s the message that top defense-industry executives seem to have had in mind when they met this morning with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Mr. Panetta met with top defense industry executives this morning to discuss some of the concerns about preserving the health of the defense industry, as the department braces for a round of spending cuts imposed by recent the debt-ceiling deal.

The battle over the Pentagon has begun.