A Defense Cut?

Republicans are up in arms over signs that the Democratic leadership in the House may be considering cutting the defense budget.

Last week, Barney Frank told the editorial board of the SouthCoast Standard-Times – a local paper in Massachusetts – that the Pentagon’s budget should be cut by 25%. I didn’t believe this at first. The Democratic position on these matters has long been to support the Pentagon’s budget requests for fear of opening a line of attack for Republicans. But Congressman Frank’s office confirms that he did indeed say this.

You might say, so what? Frank is not on any defense committee and is probably just running his mouth for his liberal base in a reelection campaign. Maybe so. But Frank does not have a serious opponent and is close with the Democratic leadership in the House. It’s would be surprising if he got crosswise of Speaker Pelosi. Plus, you already have John Murtha, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, telling reporters that, because of the bailouts, defense spending will need some trimming (Murtha, who has taken to calling his constituents names, might actually lose his seat). So it’s fair to guess that we’re seeing an emerging position or trial balloon. Frankly, it’s shocking that any Democrat would take this stance a week before elections where they stand to gain a couple dozen seats by standing still. The Republican reaction (danger! war! surrender!) is utterly predictable.

It is also wrong. The truth is that we should cut the defense budget by more than 25%. The non-war defense budget has grown by around 45% since Bush took office, once you adjust for inflation. The Pentagon accounts for half the world’s military spending, most of which is irrelevant to counter-terrorism, and more than half of U.S. discretionary spending. The threats we face from rival militaries are historically small. We can save plenty of money and still be safe – probably safer, in fact, since our profligate defense spending serves our instinct to intervene willy-nilly around the world, creating enemies.

What’s important to keep in mind is that cutting defense spending requires cutting defense commitments and force structure. Frank is quoted saying: “We don’t need all these fancy new weapons.” That’s true, but you don’t save 25% of the budget by going after weapons procurement alone. You need to cut force structure. If you do that while keeping troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, sending a peacekeeping force to Sudan, defending Taiwan, threatening Iran, rebuilding a failed state or two, and defending Georgia and Ukraine from Russia, the military will scream in justified agony. Saving on defense starts with doing less.