Time to get tough on defense spending

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

With the fixation on shrinking the budget deficit, why is over $700 billion in annual defense spending almost always off-limits for discussion? The mainstream media rarely explore possible cuts in the nation's largest discretionary spending item, and most politicians refuse to even consider the issue.

That's why the bipartisan Sustainable Defense Task Force's June 11 report recommending over $1 trillion in Pentagon cuts over the next 10 years is an indication that some sanity might arrive inside the Beltway. Convened by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) -- who raised this issue in an early-2009 op-ed for The Nation -- along with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Republican Reps. Ron Paul (Texas) and Walter Jones (N.C.), the task force not only sheds light on how to find needed revenues but also suggests a new national security framework for the 21st century. Some of the report's big-ticket items for savings over a 10-year period include $113 billion by reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal; $200 billion by reducing U.S. military presence abroad and total uniformed military personnel; $138 billion by replacing unworkable, costly weapons systems with better alternatives; and $100 billion by cutting unnecessary command, support and infrastructure funding.

But, the report argues, "significant savings" may depend on rethinking "our national security commitments and goals to ensure they focus clearly on what concerns us the most." It goes on to describe "a strategy of restraint -- one that reacts to danger rather than going out in search of it.... We need not stick around in foreign lands often. "Our military budget should be sized to defend us. For this end, we do not need to spend $700 billion a year -- or anything close. We can be safe for much less, provided that we capitalize on our geopolitical fortune. Our principal enemy, al-Qaeda, has no army, no air force, and no navy . . . . The hunt for anti-American terrorists is mostly an intelligence and policing task."

A reorientation of security policy will not come easily in light of what Nation reporter Ari Berman calls "the strategic class" -- the hawkish Democratic foreign policy advisers, the neocons, the think-tank specialists and pundits who abound in Washington and crowd out alternative policies and arguments. Lobbyists for defense contractors with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake are also formidable opponents to change.

This narrowing of options is abetted by a mainstream media that offer little exposure to new security ideas -- generated by groups left, right and center, inside and outside of Washington -- that challenge the status quo. Indeed, few in the media have covered the task force's report. Add to that mix the oft-used argument -- especially potent in an economy with double-digit unemployment -- that defense cuts are a jobs killer, and the prospect for the broader debate Americans need and deserve are dim. Defense spending, however, is one of the worst ways to create jobs per dollar spent. It makes far more sense to cut an increasingly bloated Pentagon budget than to reduce much-needed investment in jobs, clean energy, transportation and support for state and local governments, all of which stimulate the economy much more efficiently and contribute more to our national recovery.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tried to eliminate a few weapons programs. But, so far, he has mostly moved money from one weapons program to another. Making significant cuts in defense spending will demand more than just trimming unnecessary weapons programs and eliminating Pentagon waste and fraud. It will require rethinking our role in the world, as the task force report suggests. Is America Globocop or responsible Republic? As Globocop, we have spent over $1 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone. Isn't it time we had an honest and open debate on that question?

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post. She also sits on the board of the Campaign for America's Future, which sponsored the America's Future Now conference.

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