Let’s face it: The debt ceiling debate that consumed Washington D.C. this summer may not have been policymaking at its finest, but at least it focused attention on the nation’s problem with runaway government spending. Americans realize there’s a problem with government spending and expect the nation’s leaders to take real action.
Unfortunately, some in the nation’s capital still are not getting that message. The latest offenders: Defense hawks who sputter with outrage that anyone would dare question whether or not Americans are getting their money’s worth from the Pentagon budget.
They argue that cuts to the defense budget-which in the coming fiscal year will likely weigh in at a little under $700 billion-would undermine military readiness and do irreparable damage to our nation’s security. They would have us believe that even minimal cuts to the budget would have a devastating effect on our defense capabilities.
But these arguments ring hollow when you consider the depth of our federal budget hole. The U.S. national debt stands at $14.5 trillion and growing; meanwhile, the federal budget deficit for this year alone is estimated at $1.3 trillion. While the debt ceiling compromise package the president signed in early August makes some modest cuts, the overall trajectory for the future remains the same-relentless deficits and debt piled upon debt.
If there’s a true threat to our military readiness, it’s this reckless and unchecked spending, which can lead to only one outcome: an overextended government unable to meet its obligations, and a hollowed out military unable to support our global security responsibilities.
The good news is there are leaders with impeccable defense credentials who understand that serious budget reform requires smart and strategic reductions in defense spending.
Take for example, Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under both President’s Bush and Obama. In his farewell speech, Gates said “it is no secret that the United States faces a serious fiscal predicament that could turn into a crisis-of credit, of confidence, of our position in the world-if not addressed soon…as a matter of simple arithmetic and political reality, the Department of Defense must, at least, be part of the solution.”
Or take General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of our nation’s most respected military thinkers, who said earlier this year that, as the U.S. draws down its presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, defense cuts would have to be on the table to bring the budget under control: “I don’t think the defense budget can be made sacrosanct and it can’t be touched,” Powell said.
One noted defense scholar, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, has suggested the U.S. could reduce Pentagon spending by some $50 billion without compromising military readiness. O’Hanlon cautions that defense cuts shouldn’t be across the board-they should be smart and strategic. That’s at least a starting point for the discussion.
But are leaders in Washington prepared to take on this challenge? In President Obama’s budget request for next year, defense spending still represents 19 percent of all U.S. government spending. The reality is that the United States, when compared to all other major nations, pays 43 percent of total defense spending in the world. This level of spending is not sustainable.
We must recognize that defense spending, like virtually every other area of government spending, is bloated, and our nation can no longer afford it. The bitter irony is that if the government continues on its current course, it will become more and more difficult to finance future defense needs. That’s the true threat to our military readiness and to our troops’ safety.
The men and women of the U.S. Armed Services comprise the finest, most professional fighting force in the history of the world. But you wouldn’t send that force into the field without a clear strategy. So why do we accept a defense budget that’s deployed without any strategic foresight whatsoever?
Our troops deserve better. They deserve a commitment to smarter, leaning spending that will allow the United States to boast a strong military presence for generations to come. There is one other option: doing nothing and watching the greatest military power in the world decline to a hollowed force.
Gretchen Hamel is executive director of Public Notice, a, nonpartisan, non-profit focused on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ pocketbooks.