Washington - With pressure to slash the 1.3 trillion-dollar federal deficit rising sharply, the public debate over whether to exempt the Pentagon from such cuts is moving rapidly toward centre-stage.
Two major bipartisan reports – including one commissioned by President Barack Obama -- released over the past 10 days argued against such an exemption.
But powerful Republicans, whose party win control of the House of Representatives and boosted their influence in the Senate in the mid-term elections earlier this month, seem determined to oppose any cuts to the U.S. military.
But a big unknown is what will be the attitude of the several dozen Republicans identified with the "Tea Party" movement who will take their seats in the new Congress in January. While some, notably former Republican vice- presidential candidate Sarah Palin, actually favour more spending on the military, others, led by Kentucky Senator- elect Rand Paul, have insisted that defence cuts must be on the table.
Whether these new deficit hawks will form an alliance with liberal Democrats – whose influence has actually increased within the party's Congressional caucus due to the defeat of many pro-defence conservative Democratic incumbents – to force cuts in military spending promises to be one of the more-interesting questions that will play out over the coming year.
In the current year, the Pentagon's budget stands at more than 530 billion dollars, not counting an additional 182 billion dollars it has been spending on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other overseas counter-terror operations. Altogether, the U.S. military budget makes up more than 40 percent of total global military spending and roughly five times more than the country with next biggest budget, China.
Indeed, largely as a result of the Bush administration's "global war on terror," the military budget has almost doubled over the past decade. It now constitutes 55 percent of the government's discretionary spending – spending that is not a legal obligation, such as Social Security, or Medicare -- and nearly 25 percent of the entire federal budget.
That makes it a tempting target for the deficit hawks.
Anticipating the coming battle, Defence Secretary Robert Gates tried to pre-empt the debate when he announced a plan to cut as much as $100 billion over the next five years from the Pentagon's budget by reforming procurement procedures, reducing the Department's reliance on private contractors, and other measures to reduce waste and inefficiencies. But those savings would be recycled within the Pentagon whose budget, in any event, should continue to grow at at least one percent per year in real terms.
"My greatest fear is that in economic tough times people will see the defence budget as the place to solve the nation's deficit problems…," he told reporters in August. He said it would be "disastrous (to) slash it in an effort to find some kind of dividend to the put money someplace else."
In October, however, 56 House Democrats, led by Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, and one veteran Republican, Texas Rep. Ron Paul (Rand Paul's father), published a letter to the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform – a group of greybeards convened by the White House to make recommendations for cutting the federal deficit – urging that it recommend real cuts in the Pentagon's budget.
As co-chairs of the "Sustainable Defense Task Force," the two men have argued that Washington should cut one trillion dollars from the projected defence budgets over the next decade primarily by quickly winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, closing down some of the more than 700 military bases Washington has spread around the globe, and eliminating expensive weapons systems of questionable utility.
Sensing trouble, three defence contractor-backed think tanks – the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative and the far-right Heritage Foundation – published a joint report entitled "Defending Defense" heralded by full-page ads in major newspapers.
"The defense budget is a relatively small slice of the 14- plus trillion dollar American pie," they claimed in a reference to total US gross domestic product (GDP). "And it's a shrinking slice," the report insisted, noting that the Pentagon's budget was set to fall from 4.9 percent of GDP to 3.6 percent of GDP by 2015, "even though the nation has assigned more missions to the military over the past two decades."
When, however, the National Commission, which was co-chaired by Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, came out with its initial report Nov. 10, it called for defence cuts of as much as 100 billion dollars by 2015 as part of a package of proposed spending reductions covering the entire federal budget. It specifically urged canceling several key weapons systems, notably the V-35 fighter jet, the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, and two kinds of actual and planned combat vehicles, among other cuts.
The recommendations were immediately denounced by the Republican leadership, including the likely chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, California Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, who warned that the country could not afford "cutting defence in the midst of two wars." Gates criticised the proposal as "math, not strategy."
At the same time, however, some Republicans, notably the two Pauls, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and other deficit hawks in the party, welcomed the report, arguing that it would help create space for a much-needed intra-party debate.
On Wednesday this week, another group convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) released a second set of recommendations for reducing the federal deficit.
Co-chaired by former Sen. Pete Domenici, who served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee in the 1990's and early 2000's, and Clinton's former budget director, Alice Rivlin, the group, which included former governors, local government officials, union and business leaders and Congressional staff, called for a five-year freeze on defence spending at current levels with a possible savings of some 430 billion dollars over that period and 1.1 trillion dollars by 2020.
Echoing the National Commission's report, it called for canceling the same weapons systems and also urged reducing the number of soldiers and marines by 275,000 – or about ten percent off total active-duty personnel and reservists – as current wars wind down.
After its publication, some 46 leading national-security analysts and retired senior policy-makers, including intelligence and military officers, released their own letter to the National Commission echoing the call for sharp cuts.
"We can achieve safe savings in defense if we are willing to rethink how we produce military power and how, why, and where we put it to use," the letter, which was sponsored by the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and the Boston- based Project for Defense Alternatives.
"The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed the limits of military power," it said, noting that the military needed to "prune" some of the missions, such as "regime change and "nation-building," that it had taken on since the end of the Cold War and "restore an emphasis on defense and deterrence."
"(F)iscal realities call on us to strike a new balance between investing in military power and attending to the fundamentals of national strength on which our true power rests," the letter asserted.
Briefing reporters about the letter, Gordon Adams, who served as the top national-security official in Clinton's budget office, said that events of the past few weeks were having a "snowball" effect on the national debate on deficit reduction.
"Despite the effort by Secretary Gates to protect real growth in the defence budget, it is simply not going to be viable either economically or politically to exempt the Department of Defense from the budget discipline that's coming," said Adams, who is currently based at the Stimson Center.
*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
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