Cut defence spending? Why?

The United States is at a major crossroads in foreign policy. The end of 2010 saw North Korea’s assault on the disputed Yeonpyeong Island, the revelation that Pyongyang had developed a secret, highly sophisticated uranium enrichment plant with 2,000 centrifuges, and, of course, the massive WikiLeaks dump that jeopardised diplomacy around the world.

By Douglas Schoen

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Published: Sun 23 Jan 2011, 9:05 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:48 AM

These incidents are just a few highlights of the foreign policy complications the US must deal with, in addition to the ongoing challenges to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, prevent Al Qaeda threats from around the globe, and fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet for mostly good and some bad reasons, all the discussion back at home is about how to reduce defence spending, without giving any serious attention to what we need to do to maintain the strongest possible defence to meet the myriad challenges before us.

The country faces a soaring federal deficit, out-of-control government spending, and mandates from the American electorate to reduce spending, cut the deficit, and balance the budget. As the next Congress implements spending cuts to accomplish the latter, it is almost certain that the defence budget will be a prime candidate for cuts, as defence spending now constitutes about 19 per cent of the federal budget and more than half of all US discretionary spending. Moreover, the election of a number of new Republican members of Congress who have a profound skepticism of defence will increase pressure across the board to reduce our level of expenditures at precisely a time when our challenges, at the very least, are getting more complicated. The United States’ defence is overstretched as it attempts to fight two wars, terrorism, and dangerous nuclear development. We are facing a national crisis, as we must figure out how to maintain a strong defence while trying to reduce defence spending. The bottom line is that we know that cuts in defence are coming, but if those cuts are too substantial and without real thought to the full international picture, we run a grave risk to our well-being as a nation. We could compromise our position as a world leader and would potentially even undermine the capability of our armed forces. Presently, neither the “elite” nor the general public has figured out how to make cuts without jeopardising security and our place as a world leader.

Voters support sweeping cuts of federal spending and believe that defence can be cut, as there is no sense that the US is at risk in a way that requires more defence spending. In polling I conducted earlier this month, almost half, 47 per cent, say federal spending should be cut by 20 per cent, and 36 per cent say federal spending should be cut by at least 5 per cent. Further, my recent poll shows that voters favour decreasing defence spending rather than increasing it to fund the war in Afghanistan, 44 per cent to 21 per cent. A look at opinions among elites and policy makers shows that they also lack an agreement about how defence spending should be cut.

The consensus that has emerged at the elite level among Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right, and those in the centre is that defence spending should be cut. The Democrats have always been hostile toward the military and prefer cutting defence spending to entitlements. Conservative Republicans and Tea Party advocates are skeptical of foreign incursions and are also willing to cut defence.

The centre’s embrace of cutting defence spending is largely a result of Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. Last year, Gates advocated for personnel-related cuts by calling for sweeping cuts in defence contractors and a freeze on the growing number of senior leadership positions and written reports. Gates, however, views these cuts as a redeployment of resources rather than a reduction of defence spending. He does not support an overall reduction of the defence budget — he believes that the money saved from these cuts should be used more intelligently for alternate, high-priority needs.

President Obama has endorsed Gates’ defence cuts and will likely endorse the deficit commission’s proposed spending cuts in some form. But Obama also has offered $4.1 billion in funding to modernise and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal, which is responsive to the bipartisan Perry-Schlesinger commission, which advocated this year for an immediate upgrade of nuclear armaments. This would add substantially and unpredictably to defence costs going forward, even though there is no sense of how this money would be appropriated by Congress. Such conflicting opinions and actions only add to the confusion surrounding this issue. The reality is that the numerous forces that want to cut defence are colliding — Democrats on the left, Republicans and the Tea Party movement on the right, and Secretary Gates, deficit commission co-head Erskine Bowles, and Obama from the centre — ensures that cutting defence will almost certainly be at the top of the next Congress’ agenda.

Unfortunately, the only thing they agree on is that cuts are necessary. In order to move forward, these sides must come together in dialogue and public debate to discern the best course forward. We must have this debate on how and where to cut defence spending as a country and bring this discussion to the forefront of our national discourse, rather than simply rely on policymakers or the defence industry to make these decisions on their own.

Washington is not known for coming together over many issues, but considering our enormous deficit during a time when national security clearly must not be sacrificed, all sides are going to need to work together. If we fail to do so, WikiLeaks will be the least of our problems this year.

Douglas Schoen is a political strategist. He has worked on numerous campaigns, including those of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Evan Bayh, Tony Blair, and Ed Koch

© Newsweek

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