Robert Dreyfuss
Published: Tuesday 3 January 2012
Even some traditional conservatives and Tea Party rebels have begun to side with liberal Democrats such as Representative Barney Frank (D.-Mass.) to propose much larger cuts in defense spending than either the Obama administration or Congress as a whole is likely to consider this year.

Panetta’s Sacred Hippopotamus

It’s too much to ex­pect that, be­fore the 2012 elec­tion, there will be big cuts to the De­part­ment of De­fense. The Pen­ta­gon’s bloated bud­get, which has roughly dou­bled since the late 1990s, not count­ing the vast sums spent on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pak­istan and else­where, is still a sa­cred, well, hip­popota­mus.
But, on the other hand, as I re­ported in The Na­tion early last year ("Tak­ing Aim at the Pen­ta­gon Bud­get"), the United States is an em­pire in de­cline, and it can no longer af­ford a mil­i­tary bud­get equal to the rest of the world com­bined. As that piece showed, even some tra­di­tional con­ser­v­a­tives and Tea Party rebels have begun to side with lib­eral De­moc­rats such as Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bar­ney Frank (D.-Mass.) to pro­pose much larger cuts in de­fense spend­ing than ei­ther the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion or Con­gress as a whole is likely to con­sider this year.
This week, Sec­re­tary of De­fense Leon Panetta will an­nounce his plans for mil­i­tary spend­ing going for­ward to 2020 or so. It won’t be dra­matic, but think of it as an open­ing bid. What the United States spends on de­fense is head­ing south, and will con­tinue to do so for a decade or more. Anti-mil­i­tary or­ga­niz­ers, peace groups, and any­one con­cerned about re­ori­ent­ing our coun­try’s pri­or­i­ties away from mil­i­tarism and war ought to be gird­ing for a decade-long bat­tle to max­i­mize cuts. In the 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, Pen­ta­gon spend­ing fell by about one-third. Of the roughly $6 tril­lion that the United States is cur­rently pro­jected to spend over the next ten years on war, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has al­ready con­ceded that about $450 bil­lion can be elim­i­nated, and the ab­surdly named super com­mit­tee’s fail­ure to agree on spend­ing last year sup­pos­edly im­poses an­other $500 bil­lion in de­fense cuts, for a total of nearly a tril­lion bucks, or one-sixth of fu­ture spend­ing. Of course, that’s not enough, though it’s out­raged hawks,  in­clud­ing some Re­pub­li­can can­di­dates for pres­i­dent, the so-called Iron Tri­an­gle in Con­gress, and a right-wing coali­tion called De­fend­ing De­fense, made up of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, and Bill Kris­tol’s For­eign Pol­icy Ini­tia­tive. 
But the door is open for more, which is why De­fend­ing De­fense verges on hys­ter­i­cal in its fre­quent de­nun­ci­a­tions of any­one who pro­poses even slight re­duc­tions. 
As the New York Times notes today, in its lead story: 
“In a shift of doc­trine dri­ven by fis­cal re­al­ity and a deal last sum­mer that kept the United States from de­fault­ing on its debts, Mr. Panetta is ex­pected to out­line plans for care­fully shrink­ing the mil­i­tary — and in so doing make it clear that the Pen­ta­gon will not main­tain the abil­ity to fight two sus­tained ground wars at once.” 
De­spite the em­pha­sis on “care­fully,” ex­pect Re­pub­li­cans to pounce on Panetta’s mod­est, and rel­a­tively hawk­ish, re­duc­tions. 
Fact is, to re­duce spend­ing, major de­fense sys­tems will have to end, the size of the U.S. Army and Marines will have to be dra­mat­i­cally re­duced, enor­mous cuts will have to be made on salaries, pen­sions and health care ben­e­fits for troops and mil­i­tary re­tirees, and Amer­ica’s vast world­wide sys­tem of bases over­sea must be slashed. In slow-mo­tion recog­ni­tion of that fact, the De­fense De­part­ment is al­ready plan­ning to shrink the army and Marines, and to shift plan­ning away from land wars and coun­terin­sur­gency wars to power-pro­jec­tion via the air force and navy. Some of that, nat­u­rally, will be de­signed to build up U.S. forces in the Pa­cific to counter China, a fool’s er­rand if there ever was one – es­pe­cially since China’s mil­i­tary is un­able to do much out­side its bor­ders and lacks any­thing close to Amer­i­can tech­nol­ogy. Far bet­ter to find a peace­ful ac­com­mo­da­tion with China that rec­og­nizes Bei­jing’s le­git­i­mate na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests and that doesn’t seek to sus­tain Amer­i­can hege­mony in the Far East. 
Pro­pos­als, noted in the Times, to slice U.S. ground forces by 35 per­cent (sav­ing $385 bil­lion over 10 years), to cut health care and re­tire­ment ben­e­fits (an­other $281 bil­lion), can­cel weapons sys­tems like the F-35 and re­duce the size of the navy flotilla ($103 bil­lion), and to cut one-third of the U.S. troop pres­ence in  Eu­rope and Asia ($70 bil­lion) are mak­ing their way into the dis­cus­sion. But much more is needed. 
Don’t ex­pect Mitt Rom­ney to join in. As Wal­ter Pin­cus re­minds us today in the Wash­ing­ton Post, in “De­fense Sec­re­tary Panetta faces tough choices on na­tional se­cu­rity in 2012,” Rom­ney is play­ing to the far right in his cam­paign: 
“Speak­ing on Oct. 6, Rom­ney said that he wanted Pen­ta­gon core spend­ing to rise to 4 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct and that he would in­crease ac­tive-duty per­son­nel by about 100,000. In a speech the next day at the Citadel, he said he would ‘re­verse the hol­low­ing of our Navy and . . . in­crease the ship­build­ing rate from nine per year to 15.’ He also re­peated a pledge that has Re­pub­li­can roots going back to the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion: ‘I will begin re­vers­ing Obama-era cuts to na­tional mis­sile de­fense and pri­or­i­tize the full de­ploy­ment of a mul­ti­lay­ered na­tional bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fense sys­tem.’ 
“Dur­ing the Nov. 22 Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial de­bate, Rom­ney said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, in re­sponse to the Bud­get Con­trol Act, halted pro­duc­tion of the F-22 stealth fighter, de­layed air­craft car­ri­ers and said new long-range Air Force bombers would not be built. These steps and oth­ers, Rom­ney said, are ‘cut­ting the ca­pac­ity of Amer­ica to de­fend it­self.’” 
That’s non­sense, of course. But most left-lib­eral an­a­lysts of de­fense don’t ex­pect any­thing se­ri­ous to hap­pen until 2013. That’s when the bat­tle will be joined, and this time a com­bi­na­tion of fis­cal re­al­ity and the Amer­i­can pub­lic’s de­clin­ing ap­petite for war will be added to the mix.
This story orig­i­nally ap­peared in The Na­tion.
Copy­right © The Na­tion – dis­trib­uted by Agence Global.