Military Budget Criticized for Spending Too Much, Not Spending Enough
As Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday to begin pushing for the Obama administration’s defense budget, the Pentagon’s spending plans were already taking flak from the political left and right.
One side says proposed cuts are not deep enough; the other side says the cuts are too deep. The fate of the final military budget may rest on how the fight within the Republican party plays out. For the first time in decades, some Republicans, Tea Partiers and libertarians who ran on a pledge to reduce federal spending say defense cuts should be on the table.
The Obama administration’s proposed military budget for fiscal year 2012 calls for spending $553 billion on the base budget, and $118 billion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for a total of $671 billion. The amount requested for the base budget marks an increase of $4 billion over last year’s request for 2011, although it is $13 billion less than what last year’s budget projected for 2012.
The administration proposes significant cuts in the area of wartime spending, requesting $41 billion less for fiscal year 2012 than last year, to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. troops are supposed to be gone from Iraq by the end of this year.
The liberal critique is voiced by Lawrence Korb, who argues the proposed military budget locks in spending at extraordinarily high rates. “It’s higher in real terms than we had on average during the Cold War, it’s higher in real terms than the Reagan build up, and in the first decade of this century under President George W. Bush,” said Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration and is now with the Center for American Progress. “You put in the war funding and it’s higher than anytime since World War II.”
Winslow Wheeler, who worked on defense budget issues for Republican and Democrats on Capitol Hill, said the defense budget was a “continuation of business as usual of the Gates variety. There are some minor fixes around the corners, such as a minor reduction in the rate of growth in the out years [and] the cancellation of a small number of the low hanging fruit in the acquisition budget.”
The Defense Department proposed base budget for next year, which includes spending on new weapons, personnel, operations and maintenance, research and development, and construction, is expected to increase less than 1 percent over the next five years, rising to $611 billion by 2016. On top of that, the Obama administration’s five-year defense plan forecasts spending $50 billion a year for the war in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The proposed military budget over the next five years was reduced by $78 billion, compared to last year’s proposed five-year plan, reflecting numerous cuts Gates directed the Defense Department to make. However, as Democrats and Republicans seek to reduce the federal deficit, Wheeler said this was “not nearly what is needed for defense to be on the table.”
On the other side of the debate: A coalition of conservative think tanks — the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and the Foreign Policy Initiative — released a statement Tuesday saying the significant cuts “appear divorced from America’s current strategic reality” and that they will “put America at risk and make it more difficult for the United States to fulfill its global responsibilities.” The statement added that “ignoring our military modernization needs in a time of peace is perilous.”
Defense budget watchers say it’s unclear what Congress will do with this military budget. “For the last 10 years the certainty was that the Pentagon budget was going up. And now the only thing that is certain is that we don’t know where the defense budget is going,” Wheeler said.
The election of numerous Tea Party-backed candidates who campaigned on reducing the federal budget has introduced a new element in this debate and added to the confusion, Wheeler added. “The acknowledgment that the deficit has to be addressed on the one hand, but the Republicans reluctance to touch the defense budget on the other hand make it unclear where things are going to go.”
However, other defense budget watchers believe at the end of the day, wanting to appear tough on defense trumps wanting to cut the defense budget.
“When it all comes out, the Republicans will not go below the president’s request,” said Tom Donnelly, another former defense budget Capitol Hill staffer who is now director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Harkening back to a traditional Republican tactic of labeling Democrats soft on defense, Donnelly asked, “Do Republicans want to be weaker on defense…than Barack Obama?” Donnelly said the Republicans will be seeking to position themselves for the next presidential election, and they will not want to be seen as cutting into defense. And he said it’s even “conceivable [that] the Republicans could add to the defense budget.”