In a series of recent reports, Pentagon experts and budget-cutters like Sen. Coburn have proposed cuts of $1 trillion — almost exactly the sum of the $420 billion from the first round of cuts and the $600 billion that would be triggered by the failure of the bipartisan commission. The striking similarity of the details of these reports, despite their authors’ radically differing political views, implies that it’s not so very hard to find
deep reductions in so massive an enterprise as the Defense Department.
All propose a reduction in both civilian and military personnel; a redeployment of forces now stationed in Europe and Asia; the cancellation or shrinkage of planned procurements for fighter aircraft, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and missile defense; reforms in military health care; and a downsizing of the nuclear weapons stockpile. Even after such cuts, the United States would still be spending as much as it ever did during the Cold War, when it was in perpetual conflict with the Soviet Union, which it deemed an existential threat to the West.
But you won’t hear this from the Obama administration, whose officials
have been unwilling to propose anything deeper than the (notional)
$420 billion cuts of round one. A White House official told me that
Obama thinks that he has already made pretty much all the cuts in
discretionary spending he’s prepared to accept. So does this mean that the Obama administration is to the right of Coburn and Chambliss on
defense spending? When I posed the question in this form, the official
went silent, and finally said, “Let me get back to you on that. This
is incredibly sensitive.” When he got back to me later that day, he
disputed my use of “left” and “right” and pointed out that “as
commander in chief, the president has very unique responsibilities and
a very unique perspective.” The answer, in short, was yes.
The president does, indeed, have grave responsibilities; and the world
is certainly a very dangerous place, and his military commanders
probably make a very convincing case that they need all those soldiers
and all those weapons. But all the other wars have ended on a
Republican’s watch. And whatever success he — and George W. Bush —
have had against al Qaeda, Obama might still believe that he can’t
afford to reverse the course of defense spending as his predecessors
But he might be wrong. “He really does have political leeway,” says
Gordon Adams, a former national security expert in the Office of
Management and Budget during Bill Clinton’s administration and now a
leading member of the trillion-dollar-cut club. “But he may not
believe that he does.”
If the bipartisan commission collapses in disarray and the 2012
presidential campaign becomes a referendum on America’s fiscal future
— it can scarcely be otherwise — I hope Obama will find the courage to stand up to the Pentagon and its numberless minions and defenders. He may, as Adams suggests, find more profit in doing so than he expects.