You might think that in a time of near-universal worry about the growing deficit, a Democratic president might take the opportunity to trim the defense budget by a few bombs. But holding military spending at its current levels—much less trimming it by the trillion-or-so dollars that experts say could be cut—apparently isn’t on the table. Obama wouldn’t even include military spending in his proposed spending freeze. As an influential critic of military spending once said about the country’s ongoing indulgence in defense pork, “Twenty years after the Cold War ended, this is simply not acceptable. It’s irresponsible. Our troops and our taxpayers deserve better.” That’s true, and could be pretty good guidance for a willing politician. And all it would take for the president to follow it would be for him to listen to his own advice. ~Peter Suderman
Peter is absolutely right that Obama’s military budgets are indefensible, but we certainly shouldn’t be surprised. Since he was elected to the Senate, Obama has never been a particularly strong critic of the size of the U.S. military, nor has he seriously challenged the idea that the military should be used all over the globe. Complaining about pork and waste in military spending is all very well, but when it does not include criticism of the sheer size of the overall military budget it is the equivalent of complaining about earmarks while ignoring entitlement spending. It is a fiscally meaningless gesture that is supposed to signal that you take excessive spending seriously when you obviously don’t. At the same time, Obama has been assailed from the start of his term as a neo-isolationist, defense-slashing fool. Despite continually increasing the Pentagon’s budget, he has regularly been accused of reducing it. His modest arms reduction treaty has been portrayed as a capitulation to Russia, and hawks simply ignore his funding for nuclear arsenal modernization because they have re-defined “modernization” to mean building an entirely new arsenal. Hawks have been screaming about Obama’s alleged hostility to missile defense at the same time that Obama pursues missile defense in eastern Europe. Even if Obama were inclined to cut military spending, the bipartisan caterwauling this would unleash would prevent him from making any headway. As we should all know by now, Obama doesn’t challenge or buck entrenched interests, and that is exactly what warfare state reform would require.
Suppose that Obama had proposed real, large cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. The hawks would be screaming even more loudly, but they would now be able to point to real reductions in military spending rather than inventing them out of thin air. This would probably be to the political advantage of Republican hawks, since the majority of the public is as indifferent to excessive spending in the Pentagon as they are to entitlement spending. Most voters are likely to react poorly to proposals that will “make America weaker,” as the hawks will inevitably claim. If Obama were actually the enthusiast for nuclear disarmament and foe of missile defense the hawks desperately need him to be, they would be hitting him twice as hard as they are now, but instead of making things up they would be attacking Obama’s actual policies.
None of this excuses the administration’s fiscal irresponsibility, but it should make clear that there will be no significant reductions in military spending until the leadership in both parties agree not to use those reductions to bludgeon the other side. If we do end up with a Republican House majority, that will in some respects be the worst of both worlds, since there is no powerful constituency in the GOP that wants military spending cuts and Presidents rarely offer to trim the part of the budget that gives them so much power and freedom of action. Republican Presidents typically wouldn’t think of doing this, and Democratic Presidents have no reason to try, since they are going to be accused of gutting American “defense” no matter what they actually do.
That makes things sound rather grim, and perhaps they are. The constituencies that strongly support reductions in military spending are progressives, libertarians and deficit hawks, which also happen to be three constituencies with the least influence in their respective parties when it comes to national security policies. Obama’s military budgets are huge because there are no significant political obstacles to making them that way and there are no political incentives to make them smaller. A first, small step in changing the way we talk about military spending involves referring to military spending as just that. If military spending is ever going to be reduced, most Americans will need to acknowledge that the vast majority of military spending has a tenuous or non-existent relationship to the defense of the United States. At the very least, critics of that spending should avoid casually referring to it as defense spending, when that is not the purpose of most of these expenditures.