The second part of President Obama’s fiscal policy speech on April 13 addressed the defense budget. He dealt with that issue in two paragraphs. In the first, he assured us that he would “never accept cuts that compromise our ability to defend our homeland or America’s interests around the world,” but noted that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has said that “the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security is America’s debt” — so just as “we must find more savings in domestic programs, we must do the same in defense.” In the second paragraph, he stated:
“Over the last two years, Secretary Bob Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again. We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world. I intend to work with Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs on this review, and I will make specific decisions about spending after it’s complete.”
There are some politicians who seem to resist every effort to streamline the defense budget or cut any weapons program. In my view, we cannot afford that attitude. According to a schematic from the Office of Management and Budget, in the President’s proposed 2012 budget just under 20 percent of spending would be for various defense-related matters. Such a large portion of the federal budget cannot be “off limits” if we mean to achieve serious deficit and spending reductions. I therefore think the President is right in saying that we must look to the defense budget for cuts.
I also think the defense budget raises much larger strategic and societal issues. In fact, I wonder whether our focus on defense spending hasn’t encouraged generals and Presidents — including this President — to be more internationally adventurous than they should be. At present America has troops in Iraq, troops fighting in Afghanistan, and troops participating to some extent in the NATO mission in Libya. We seem to be involved, to some extent, in activities in Pakistan, Yemen, and other parts of the world. We have military bases spread across the globe. In the years since World War II — when our country was responding to a direct attack from one country and a declaration of war from another — has the United States ever tried to do so much militarily in so many far-flung places of the globe at the same time?
The nature of our military capabilities also has had an impact, I think, on our willingness to engage in some form of military action. We have unmanned Predator drones and missiles that can inflict havoc from far away and planes that can help to discipline the outgunned ground forces of dictators like Qaddafi from a (usually) safe distance. When you are the President and have such capabilities at the ready, isn’t it awfully tempting to agree to participate to some extent in the latest UN peacekeeping mission to help burnish your international rep, or to just lob a few cruise missiles at the distant bases of terrorist organizations and call it a day?
Obviously, it is a dangerous world, and we need a strong defense — but we also need to reevaluate what that means in a time of rapid changes. In this instance, too, I wonder what President Obama really thinks. His Administration has been very willing to use missiles and unmanned drones, and I’m not sure that someone who thinks we need to carefully reconsider our military role in the world would have become involved in the current Libyan venture. I haven’t seen anything from this President, frankly, that gives me confidence that he should be the ultimate decisionmaker on how to reduce and reorient our military spending.