Feature

Defense: On the chopping block

In his budget speech, Obama called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to find $400 billion in savings over the next 12 years.

Forget that the U.S. is “currently engaged in three active wars,” said Max Boot in Commentary, or that it faces threats from Iran, North Korea, and a “resurgent China.” To President Obama, in his wisdom, this is just the moment for a fresh round of deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget. In his budget speech last week, Obama called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to find $400 billion in savings over the next 12 years—on top of the $300 billion in weapons programs that have already been axed since 2009. Obama’s justification, of course, is the U.S. fiscal crisis, but there is no surer “prescription for American decline” than to skimp on our national defense in these perilous times. When it comes to defense, “there is only so much fat you can cut before you start to hit muscle.”

There’s still plenty of fat, said Mark Thompson in Time. Do we really “need 80,000 troops in Europe 66 years after the defeat of Adolf Hitler?” And considering that our “main enemy” at the moment is believed to be living in a cave in the mountains of Pakistan, does it really make sense to maintain an active fleet of 50 attack submarines, let alone 11 aircraft carriers, those “increasingly obsolete platforms of war”? Actually, said Gordon Adams in NationalJournal.com, we could achieve $428 billion in projected savings just by capping the Pentagon’s annual budget increases at the rate of inflation for the next 12 years, and we can expect further savings “once we start leaving Afghanistan this summer.” That said, the time has clearly come—for budgetary as well as geopolitical reasons—“to start planning the build-down” of America’s military presence in the world.

The “build-down” has already begun, said Thomas Donnelly in The Weekly Standard, and we are already less safe because of it. The number of Americans on active duty is down a third from 20 years ago; they’re overstretched and backed by “rapidly aging planes, ships, and vehicles.” Further defense cuts now would be “both morally and strategically unsound.” I agree that national security must be the president’s top priority, said Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation, but that’s why Obama is right to order these cuts. Our deepening fiscal crisis is “the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security,” according to no less a hawk than Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen. The real danger in cutting $400 billion from the Pentagon’s budget is, unfortunately, that it may turn out to be “pathetically less than what’s needed.”

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