When President Obama announced in May that Leon Panetta would move from CIA chief to Secretary of Defense, he touted the Washington insider as the man who could rein in defense spending while maintaining U.S. military superiority and keeping the United States safe. Under one worst-case scenario, the defense budget might be slashed by as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade.
Panetta, a former White House Budget Director and House Budget Committee chair, would make “tough budget decisions,” Obama insisted. Overnight, it became conventional wisdom in Washington that if anyone could get a handle on Pentagon spending, it was Panetta.
But just a month after taking the top job at the Pentagon, a grim-faced Panetta warned that Defense budget cuts could have disastrous consequences for the U.S. military. “If it happen[s], and God willing that would not be the case…it would result in a further round of very dangerous cuts across the board – defense cuts that I believe would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our military’s ability to protect the nation,” Panetta cautioned.
For a while, it looked as if defense spending would become the new budgetary piñata as Obama signaled his intentions to gradually wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and congressional policymakers desperately sought ways to address runaway deficits.
The Obama administration had planned about $400 billion in defense cuts over the next decade. However, under the terms of the August debt ceiling deal, if the Congressional 12-member House and Senate super-committee still has to agree to $1.2 trillion in budget savings over the next ten years. Otherwise, an automatic $600 billion in additional cuts to defense would kick in.
Critics have long complained about waste and fat in the Pentagon budget, but the jarring prospects of cuts totaling as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade has abruptly altered the debate and galvanized pro-defense lawmakers and their corporate allies.
As Congress departed for its August recess, there were growing signs that Panetta and other highly influential defense hawks were digging in to block any major defense cuts. Just last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck P. McKeon, R-Calif., and Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, wrote Panetta and White House Budget Director Jacob (“Jack”) Lew, urging the administration not take a math-based approach to defense cuts that might undermine national security.
The lawmakers cautioned that, the $400 billion of proposed defense cuts alone would represent “an unprecedented drawdown in defense while U.S. forces are committed to contingency operations in Afghanistan and Libya, and possibly still in Iraq. Moreover, the cuts would be made before “any substantial analysis of the future role, missions, and capabilities we want our military to perform.”
McKeon threatened to oppose the final version of the legislation raising the debt ceiling for fear it would lead to unacceptably large cuts in defense spending; he relented at the last minute, on August 2, under pressure from House GOP leaders. But McKeon and his committee allies will keep a close watch on the deliberations of the super committee that will be recommending major spending cuts later this fall. Defense hawks may get some unexpected help on the committee from Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., who is best known for his work in foreign relations, but as a Vietnam War veteran is a strong advocate of military readiness.
On the other hand, liberal committee House Democrats, including Reps. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, James Clyburn of South Carolina and Xavier Becerra of California, favor cutting defense spending over reductions in entitlement and other social programs. Liberals in the House and Senate will strongly object if the Pentagon budget is suddenly off limits to budget cutters.
The outcome of the looming debate over defense spending will carry important implications for the United States, as it tries to restore confidence in the government’s budget and financial policies while maintaining U.S. status as a world power. The decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the government’s AAA credit rating has hurt U.S. prestige, and came at the same time the U.S. suffered huge military losses in Afghanistan.
Joseph Minarik, a former colleague of Panetta’s and now senior vice president and director of research at the Center for Economic Development, said that the new debt ceiling agreement – including the threat of across the board cuts in defense if the special panel can’t reach agreement – forced Panetta to take a much more protective posture.
“That deal puts Leon in an awkward position,” Minarik told The Fiscal Times. “It’s not a situation of sitting down and analyzing missions and figuring out what we can afford. It’s a situation where the hat is going to be passed to him and Congress will say, ‘We wanted ‘x’ amount of savings.’ That’s a difficult way to budget.”
The Not So Sacred Cow
For years, making cuts to the defense budget was considered the untouchable third rail of American politics. Proposing cuts meant lack of support for the military, a charge that could prove costly in congressional reelection bids.
However, over the last decade, defense spending has increased 81 percent, with $687 billion spent in 2010 alone. It now accounts for half of all American spending . The American public has become war-weary as military operations continue in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the debate over the debt ceiling progressed through the summer, the once sacred defense budget was placed on the bargaining table.
Due for a Drawdown
Panetta’s comments sparked a lively debate among defense analysts over whether the cuts would actually impact American military capabilities. Hawkish analysts have echoed Panetta’s concerns.
However, an opposite view is emerging. Earlier this year, a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments found that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ plan to cut cost though reducing active duty troops and streamlining Pentagon programs would not adversely affect military effectiveness.
Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University, said that the changes proposed by Gates, as well as cuts contained in the debt ceiling agreement, better reflect the reality of warfare in the 21st century.
“Some missions are more likely than others. Nation building and counterinsurgency missions can be done with Special Forces,” he said. “After Iraq and Afghanistan, we won’t be deploying the Army and Marines to rebuild another country anytime soon.” Gordon added that after a decade of military buildup, the Pentagon was due for a drawdown, the forth since the end of the Korean War.
“This isn’t hacking away at defense, this is management. The United States still will have the only military force in the world capable of globally flying, scheming, and deploying,” he said. The proposed cuts are a manageable proposition, not a doomsday machine.”