Short-sightedness on Defense Cuts

by Jamie M. Fly

As the debt-limit talks enter their final stages, reports are emerging that significant defense cuts may be part of the negotiated package. President Obama, for his part, already proposed cutting $400 billion in security spending over 12 years in his April 13 speech on fiscal policy. The White House is now apparently trying not just to lock that proposal in, but possibly convince Republicans to even go beyond it via the debt-limit negotiations.

Now that Secretary of Defense Gates — who had warned of the implications of the $400 billion in cuts — has left the Pentagon, the White House is increasingly highlighting defense as a potential source of significant savings.

On Wednesday, at his “Twitter Town Hall,” Obama said, “the nice thing about the defense budget is it’s so big, it’s so huge, that a one percent reduction is the equivalent of the education budget. Not — I’m exaggerating, but it’s so big that you can make relatively modest changes to defense that end up giving you a lot of head room to fund things like basic research or student loans or things like that.”

Obama’s statement was very misleading. One percent of the president’s proposed defense budget for 2012 equals only a fraction of his $77.4 billion education budget request — that is, 7.1. percent. Also, the Obama administration has significantly increased education funding (by more than 50 percent), over the course of its three budgets, while defense spending increases have barely matched the rate of inflation.

Indeed, defense has been targeted by the White House Office of Management and Budget each year as the administration compiled its budget requests. It has not been spared the axe by the appropriators on Capitol Hill, who have consistently funded defense at levels less than those requested by the president. In fact, projected defense spending over the next ten years in the current House budget resolution is already $315 billion less than the amounts the Obama administration projected in its FY2011 request.

All of this is despite the fact that the defense budget is not the source of America’s current fiscal woes. Unfortunately, it appears that in the debt-limit talks, both Republicans and Democrats are tempted to avoid the difficult choices posed by significant entitlement reform. Instead, they are contemplating going after defense spending, perhaps assuming there is not a constituency to defend the defense budget at a time when the nation is weary of overseas commitments and many Americans want a renewed focus at home.

This short-sightedness is not a surprise coming from the White House. It is, however, sad to see Republicans heading down this path.

Congressional Republicans should ask themselves whether they want to enter 2012 by surrendering the GOP’s traditional credibility on national security. If they endorse Obama’s ridiculous $400 billion in defense cuts — or even worse, agree to deeper cuts — Republicans risk assisting the president’s management of American decline, just as the United States enters a very turbulent and uncertain period.

— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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