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Trimming a bloated defense budget

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I come not to bury the manifesto issued last week by President Obama's debt-reduction commission, but to praise the most welcome of its ideas: Slash defense spending along with everything else.

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The panel's co-chairmen, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, identify $100 billion in defense cuts that could be made in 2015. That would be too little and too late, but what's almost revolutionary is the notion that if we're ever to get this nation back on sound economic footing, we have to cut what Dwight Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex" down to size.

The United States accounts for 46.5 percent of the world's total defense spending, according to a widely accepted recent estimate. The next-biggest spender is China, which has undertaken an immense buildup to become a military as well as economic superpower - yet accounts for just 6.6 percent of the world's total.

And while the debt-ridden U.S. government shells out for nearly half of all global defense expenditures, our most loyal, stalwart, shoulder-to-shoulder allies - Britain and France - pitch in just 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively, of the world total. Somebody's getting a free ride, and we're getting stuck with the bill.

Bowles and Simpson properly classify defense spending as discretionary, meaning we are able to make choices. This should be axiomatic. But it has been Republican Party orthodoxy to inveigh against "big government" and its out-of-control spending while blithely ignoring the nearly $700 billion we're lavishing annually on the Pentagon, as if every penny were somehow preordained and inviolate.

This may become a point of contention as the unorthodox Republicans elected in the GOP wave come surfing into town. Wariness of "foreign entanglements," to use George Washington's phrase, is a prominent strain of Tea Party thought. The Republicans will have to deal with calls to cut Pentagon spending from their side of the aisle.

The debt panel chairmen's proposed defense cuts, meant to be "illustrative," include civilian and noncombat pay freezes, a 15 percent cut in procurement, shrinking or eliminating some foreign bases, and $28 billion in "overhead" savings that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already pledged. But Bowles and Simpson don't state the obvious, which is that a much more effective way to cut defense costs would be to bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a September report by the Congressional Research Service, the two wars have already cost $1.1 trillion. That figure doesn't include an estimated $170 billion for the current fiscal year - and there's no real end in sight.

As Obama promised, we are withdrawing from Iraq; the cost of George W. Bush's epic misadventure has fallen to "only" an estimated $51 billion in 2011. By contrast, the price tag for Obama's expanded war in Afghanistan has nearly doubled since Bush's last year in office.

It should be noted that Bush never bothered to put the Iraq and Afghanistan costs into his budgets. Obama at least accounts for these expenditures transparently instead of pretending that money spent for war somehow doesn't count.

Overall, the federal budget is expected to run a $1 trillion deficit this year. In effect, we're borrowing money from China and using some of it to keep a measure of order in Afghanistan. This is allowing the Chinese to sign contracts and build infrastructure that will let them exploit Afghanistan's vast mineral wealth - while we repay the borrowed money with interest.

And what kind of return are we getting on our $119.4 billion investment in Afghanistan this year? Our enemy, the Taliban, remains powerful and entrenched. Under Gen. David Petraeus, our forces are trying to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy. But one prerequisite - a trustworthy local government that deserves and wins popular support - does not exist. The administration of President Hamid Karzai is seen as riddled with corruption, and Karzai himself can be as inconstant as a zephyr.

In an interview with The Post published Sunday, Karzai demanded that a key element of Petraeus's plan - nighttime "capture-and-kill" raids by Special Operations forces - be halted because they generate such anger among civilians.

"The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life," Karzai told The Post.

All right, then, let's save American lives and a ton of money. Let's oblige him.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

The writer will answer questions at 1 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.



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