Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Ill-Considered Defense Cut

Barack Obama did a great job of cultivating an air of bipartisanship before he was inaugurated. Mostly this was a matter of selecting such centrists as Jim Jones and Bob Gates to senior national security positions while reaching out to Republicans like John McCain. But governing involves making choices, and when it comes to the budget it appears that the choices Obama is making are all too reflective of a man who not long ago had the most liberal voting record in the Senate.

His $825 billion “stimulus” package is loaded with enough budgetary lard to give fiscal conservatives a heart attack. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes :

We’ve looked it over, and even we can’t quite believe it. There’s $1 billion for Amtrak, the federal railroad that hasn’t turned a profit in 40 years; $2 billion for child-care subsidies; $50 million for that great engine of job creation, the National Endowment for the Arts; $400 million for global-warming research and another $2.4 billion for carbon-capture demonstration projects. There’s even $650 million on top of the billions already doled out to pay for digital TV conversion coupons.

Yet at the same time that Obama and the Congressional Democrats are throwing money at their constituencies it appears that they are stiffing the most important government department–the Department of Defense. According to news reports, “The Obama administration has asked the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to cut the Pentagon’s budget request for the fiscal year 2010 by more than 10 percent — about $55 billion.”

It’s possible that the president will still overrule this directive from the Office of Management and Budget, which is said to be opposed by Secretary of Defense Gates, but if he doesn’t he could be doing terrible damage not only to our armed forces but also to his carefully cultivated image of moderation.

Lest we forget, there is still a war on, and arguably more than one. The armed forces, and especially the army, have been stretched to the breaking point in recent years. They need vast amounts of money simply to “reset” equipment that has been degraded by the war effort. Beyond that, we need to enlarge the size of the ground forces  in order to fight and win in Afghanistan and beyond. With piracy running out of control, we also need a larger navy. And the air force has to continue modernizing to keep ahead of China and other potential threats.

This is not to suggest that there are no cuts that could usefully be made in the Pentagon budget. But it is a myth that you can excise “waste, fraud and abuse” while keeping vital programs. In the real world, muscle gets cut along with fat-and that is something that the United States cannot afford right now.

Just as defense cuts make no sense strategically or politically, they also make no sense economically. Remember, after all, that the administration is desperate to “stimulate” the economy. Well, extra defense spending can provide more of a stimulus than a lot of the boondoggle welfare programs that are currently being funded in the “stimulus” package. As Harvard economist Martin Feldstein notes :

A 10% increase in defense outlays for procurement and for research would contribute about $20 billion a year to the overall stimulus budget. A 5% rise in spending on operations and maintenance would add an additional $10 billion. That spending could create about 300,000 additional jobs. And raising the military’s annual recruitment goal by 15% would provide jobs for an additional 30,000 young men and women in the first year.

If President Obama wants to prove that he really is a centrist, he will overrule his green eyeshade types and tell them that with the nation embroiled in war and recession we should be increasing not decreasing defense spending.