Defense spending now absorbs roughly a quarter of the national budget, and over half of discretionary spending. The current debt-ceiling deal reached by Congress and the White House would essentially eliminate increases over the next two years in a broad category that includes defense as well as homeland security, diplomacy, and foreign aid, and would then limit growth thereafter to 2 percent. If Congress chooses to apportion future cuts equally between security and non-security accounts, reductions in the former would amount to $420 billion -- the figure the Obama administration uses to demonstrate the depth of its commitment to reducing defense spending. But the deal permits Congress to find cuts anywhere it chooses beyond the next two years, passing over the Pentagon and going after anything from the State Department to student loans. The $420 billion may be a chimera.
If, however, the bipartisan congressional "supercommittee" tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts fails to reach agreement -- as seems extremely likely -- then the automatic cuts this would trigger would lop another $600 billion or so from the Pentagon. The White House has discussed this plan as if it were the sort of doomsday machine dreamed up by a James Bond villain. Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has explained that the cuts are meant to be so self-evidently "unpalatable" that the bipartisan commission will feel compelled to reach agreement. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that such "hasty, ill-conceived" cuts would undermine U.S. national security.
Blunderbuss reductions do seem like a bad idea. But what about non-hasty, well-conceived cuts? In a series of recent reports, Pentagon experts and budget-cutters like Sen. Coburn have proposed cuts of $1 trillion -- almost exactly the sum of the $420 billion from the first round of cuts and the $600 billion that would be triggered by the failure of the bipartisan commission. The striking similarity of the details of these reports, despite their authors' radically differing political views, implies that it's not so very hard to find deep reductions in so massive an enterprise as the Defense Department. All propose a reduction in both civilian and military personnel; a redeployment of forces now stationed in Europe and Asia; the cancellation or shrinkage of planned procurements for fighter aircraft, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and missile defense; reforms in military health care; and a downsizing of the nuclear weapons stockpile. Even after such cuts, the United States would still be spending as much as it ever did during the Cold War, when it was in perpetual conflict with the Soviet Union, which it deemed an existential threat to the West.
But you won't hear this from the Obama administration, whose officials have been unwilling to propose anything deeper than the (notional) $420 billion cuts of round one. A White House official told me that Obama thinks that he has already made pretty much all the cuts in discretionary spending he's prepared to accept. So does this mean that the Obama administration is to the right of Coburn and Chambliss on defense spending? When I posed the question in this form, the official went silent, and finally said, "Let me get back to you on that. This is incredibly sensitive." When he got back to me later that day, he disputed my use of "left" and "right" and pointed out that "as commander in chief, the president has very unique responsibilities and a very unique perspective." The answer, in short, was yes.
The president does, indeed, have grave responsibilities; and the world is certainly a very dangerous place, and his military commanders probably make a very convincing case that they need all those soldiers and all those weapons. But all the other wars have ended on a Republican's watch. And whatever success he -- and George W. Bush -- have had against al Qaeda, Obama might still believe that he can't afford to reverse the course of defense spending as his predecessors have.
But he might be wrong. "He really does have political leeway," says Gordon Adams, a former national security expert in the Office of Management and Budget during Bill Clinton's administration and now a leading member of the trillion-dollar-cut club. "But he may not believe that he does."
If the bipartisan commission collapses in disarray and the 2012 presidential campaign becomes a referendum on America's fiscal future -- it can scarcely be otherwise -- I hope Obama will find the courage to stand up to the Pentagon and its numberless minions and defenders. He may, as Adams suggests, find more profit in doing so than he expects.