Cracks are beginning to surface in the longtime Republican consensus on defense spending. Although, as I wrote last week, most congressional Republicans are prepared to eviscerate the national government while preserving intact a colossal defense establishment, a growing number are not. This May the GOP-controlled House of Representatives cut $9 billion from a defense appropriations bill. And three of the most right-wing Republicans in the Senate signed on this year to the report of the bipartisan "Gang of Six," which recommended defense cuts of close to a $1 trillion over the next decade. One of those three, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, has made a detailed case for those cuts that includes significant reductions in weapons procurement and personnel.
The conjunction of this change in the political weather, the overwhelming imperative to reduce government spending, and the diminishing, if still potent, threat of global terrorism presents Barack Obama with a historic opportunity to reduce the defense budget to match America's real national security needs. But so far, Obama, whose presidency feels less "transformational" by the day, shows no sign that he will seize that opportunity.
Ever since the Vietnam War, Democrats have lived in fear of being labeled soft on defense. In 2004, to take only one particularly egregious example, Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated the incumbent Democratic senator from Georgia, Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, by insisting that Cleland would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attack. Now Chambliss, like Coburn, has signed on to the Gang of Six report. But the fear reflex still runs very deep; Cold War Democrats like Hillary Clinton have been extremely reluctant to break with the generals on Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite their dovish reputation, or rather because of it, Democratic presidents in the modern era don't stand up to the Pentagon and don't threaten to take away the generals' toys. It seems ironic -- but actually it's perfectly logical -- that it was President Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, who cautioned Americans about the "military-industrial complex" and mandated the deepest military cuts in postwar history, lopping 31 percent off the defense budget in his first two years in office.
Indeed, a series of charts in "A Return to Responsibility," a report by the Center for American Progress, shows that it is Republican presidents, not Democrats, who have mandated significant cuts in defense spending. Eisenhower cut 27 percent overall, Nixon 29 percent, and President Bush H.W. Bush, who served only one term, 17 percent. Even Ronald Reagan, who lavished money on the Pentagon with the express purpose of bankrupting the Soviets, cut the budget by 10 percent during his second term. The great exception to the rule is George W. Bush, who increased spending by an astonishing 70 percent during his tenure. If we include the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States now spends $700 billion a year on defense, a figure that, translated into constant dollars, was last reached in World War II.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks constituted a new threat to which the United States had to respond with new military capacities; but so did World War II, the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, generally. And it has been nearly 10 years since 9/11. Americans shun a Prussian culture of permanent militarism, and as each threat has waned, each president -- each Republican president -- has reduced both military forces and spending. None of them operated under the desperate fiscal situation we find ourselves in today. They pared back the Pentagon because, unlike the current generation of Republican leaders, they believed deeply in the state's capacity and obligation to provide citizens the foundation of a good life. Eisenhower wanted to build a national highway system; Nixon wanted to provide national health care. Every dollar spent on defense was a dollar lost to national well-being.