The Right Cuts

Controversy on Obama's new defense strategy is much ado about nothing.

When President Obama spoke at the Pentagon to outline his new defense strategy and budget reductions earlier this month, many conservatives condemned the strategy. Robert Kagan, for example, warned about the United States rendering itself weak by unnecessary defense cuts. Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly claimed that the new strategy means that America is no longer a superpower. In National Review, Arthur Herman accused the Obama administration of putting the United States on the brink of our weakest military posture since Jimmy Carter. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comptroller, Dov Zakheim, was concerned about the new defense strategy abandoning the old two-war doctrine.

Even more thoughtful commentators, like David Ignatius of the Washington Post, have overreacted. Ignatius argued that the budget cuts mark a genuine shift, one of the most important since 1945, and contend that the new strategy will shift resources to Asia at the expense of Europe. In his view, this will result in Europe feeling abandoned and China nervous.

But the fact of the matter is that the Obama speech and the roll out of the new strategy is much ado about nothing. It does not really make any significant fiscal or strategic changes.

Yes, the Pentagon will spend about 8 percent less than projected over the next decade. But this does not mean that the budget will be reduced, nor does it mean that the Obama administration will spend less than the Bush administration, which in real dollars increased defense spending to levels not seen since World War II. Obama is only reducing the projected levels of defense spending.

The Obama plan will reduce the projected levels of the core defense budget by $460 billion over the next decade. This means that from FY 2013 to FY 2017, spending will amount to $2.73 trillion. From FY 2008 to FY 2012, the Pentagon spent $2.59 trillion. Moreover, from FY 2013 to FY 2017, the defense budget will still increase, growing from $524 billion to $568 billion, an increase of about 8 percent.

The reductions fall far short of those proposed by the president’s own Deficit Reduction Commission (Simpson-Bowles), conservative Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators. All of those groups proposed reductions nearly double that of the Obama-Panetta plan. In addition, the cuts are far less than we made at the end of the Korean War, the Vietnam War or the Cold War. The United States will still spend more on defense than the next ten nations in the world combined and account for about 40 percent of the world’s military expenditures.

Nor is Obama abandoning the two-war strategy and pivoting to Asia away from the rest of the world. As analysts like Mark Thompson have pointed out, the charge that we are abandoning the two-war strategy ignores the fact that despite statements of secretaries of defense and flag officers going back decades, we never really had the capacity to fight two major conflicts simultaneously. As Thompson notes, the two-war construct was shot through with enough caveats and loopholes as to render it meaningless. This was demonstrated graphically in 2007 when the Bush administration had to acknowledge that it did not have enough combat forces to fight the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan while simultaneously dealing with the violence in Iraq. Admiral Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed it up very well when he told Congress that year, “In Afghanistan we do what we can, in Iraq we do what we must.”

Nor are we increasing our power in Asia at the expense of other areas. While our policy makers have paid more attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, including the war in Libya, we did not shift resources from the Pacific to the Middle East. The Navy has about fifty ships routinely deployed to the Pacific, including a Carrier Battle Group, thirty nuclear-attack submarines and eight ballistic-missile submarines. Half of the $350 million F-22 stealth fighter planes stationed outside the United States are based in the Pacific. The Global Hawk, an unmanned long-distance surveillance aircraft, had its first deployments from Guam. As Admiral Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, pointed out a few days after the review was released, “It’s not a big naval buildup in the Far East. We’re there, we have been there, and we will be there.”

While the president acknowledged that the reductions were in part driven by deficit concerns, reductions make sense even if the deficit were under control. The last thirteen years of unprecedented real growth in the core defense budget has permitted the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership to avoid making the hard choices that good stewards of taxpayer money should be making.