Don’t Bet on Obama Reining in Defense Spending

February 18, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the World Politics Review on February 18, 2009

Many Americans believe that Barack Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress will lower defense spending and restrain the militaristic foreign policy it underwrites. The coming years should destroy that myth. America’s overly aggressive and fiscally reckless defense policy will survive the Democratic majority.

The Obama administration inherits runaway defense spending and leadership of a military that wants more. Non‐​war or base defense spending will be more than $515 billion in fiscal year 2009. Adjusting for inflation, that’s 40 percent higher than the defense budget when George W. Bush took office. Add the wars, nuclear weapons research, veterans, and homeland security, and you get about $750 billion. That is more than six times what China spends, 10 times what Russia spends and 70 times what Iran, North Korea and Syria spend combined.

This explosion in spending comes despite a historically benign threat environment. Invasion and civil war, which traditionally justified militaries, are unthinkable here. North Korea and Iran trouble their citizens and neighbors, but with decaying economies, shoddy militaries, and aversion to suicidal behavior, they pose little threat to the United States. Russia and China are incapable of territorial expansion that should worry Americans, unless we put our troops on their frontiers. And unlike us, they are out of the revolution export business. Terrorism is chiefly an intelligence problem arising from a Muslim civil war. Our military has little to do with it.

A military posture of restraint — one focused on U.S. defense rather than quixotic efforts to promote social transformation and dampen all instability — would allow us to spend half what we do on defense. We’d be safer for it, because lower spending would discourage us from meddling in others’ conflicts.

The Pentagon doesn’t see things that way, of course. True, Obama’s principle defense advisers, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have recently spoken about hard choices ahead. But they support budgets that avoid those choices. Both claim that the United States should devote a minimum of 4 percent of gross domestic product to defense, even in peacetime. Because GDP generally rises, this would ensure an annual increase in defense spending, liberating it from old‐​fashioned considerations like enemies. Base defense spending is about 3.3 percent of GDP. Getting to 4 percent would require a $94 billion a year increase.

The Pentagon’s draft fiscal year 2010 budget, drawn up last year under Gates, set a base of $584 billion — or $70 billion above FY 2009. Pentagon observers called the request an attempted fait accompli. If Obama held spending level, rejecting the increase, hawks could blast him for “cutting” defense.

To its credit, the Obama administration refused to be bulldozed. With the bailout and stimulus sucking up dollars, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently told the Pentagon to try again, setting the base at $527 billion, a slight increase above fiscal year 2009. Neoconservatives predictably called this a cut and a boon to our enemies.

The administration’s appetite for conflict with the Pentagon appears limited, however. According to Insid​eDe​fense​.com, Gates is still pushing for a base budget of $540 billion, although that might include costs previously covered by supplemental war requests, which have increasingly funded programs barely related to the wars. Moreover, OMB is reportedly planning increases in the Pentagon’s out‐​year spending. The Bush administration’s future defense plan saw spending leveling off starting in FY 2009. Obama apparently plans to restore spending growth. Recession and competing demands should limit the increases, but large cuts are unlikely.

That shouldn’t surprise us. Obama’s vision of American security requirements is nearly as grandiose as his predecessor’s. He sees security as indivisible, defining all instability as a danger to Americans that requires our management. He wants to preserve and expand our Cold War alliances, which long ago ceased to serve our security. He embraces Washington’s hubristic notion that our national security bureaucracy can “fix” failed states. Bush chose to fight “terror” by targeting “evil.” Obama plans to do so by attacking “hopelessness.”

Obama will hear little official dissent from these ambitions. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tend to agree with neoconservatives on the need for a large military that intervenes in places like the Balkans, Iraq, and Sudan — as do, in general, the chairmen of the relevant Congressional committees. Republicans, of course, will shout “surrender” at any defense spending cut.

Obama will not deliver a humble defense policy. What we can hope for is better management of our empire. But that, too, will require an enormous military.

About the Author