Why Obama Won’t Cut Defense Spending

Pentagon

In case you’ve been asleep for the whole of Barack Obama’s first term, here’s one fundamental doctrine that has proven itself to guide his administration: if the President does it, it’s not illegal.

Mostly that has been true in the realm of secret war, indefinite detentions, spying and abridgments of Americans’ free speech rights. But this week he carried that torch in budgetary terms.

The President submitted his budget proposal on Wednesday. The military budget he is requesting – totaling out at $640.5 billion – “ignore[s] the budgetary cap set by law,” writes Ben Friedman at The Cato Institute, and marks “a substantial increase over the $493 billion that the Pentagon actually got from Congress this year, after sequestration.”

He’s referring to sequestration. Ya know, that legally binding piece of legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President? Yeah, Obama is ignoring that, despite the fact that it is law.

“The $552 billion requested in 2014 for non-war ‘national defense’ spending exceeds by $55 billion the spending cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, as amended by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012,” Friedman writes.

Instead of acknowledging the statutory requirements, writes Gordan Adams at Foreign Policy, this “budget assumes that the Army and Marines will stay on the path to the 490,000 and 182,000 troops already projected and the large ‘back office’ can stay in place — the 560,000 active duty forces who do not deploy, but are the ‘overhead drag’ on defense efficiency.”

The big controversy in recent months over supposed “deep” cuts to the defense budget that would boost unemployment and harm national security was a lot of hot air, much of it fanned by the ever impartial military-industrial complex. In truth, the harshest sequestration cuts were merely reductions in the rate of growth of defense spending. And after an inordinate binge for a decade after 9/11, this was miniscule.

So why has the administration simply ignored the legally mandated cuts? Why have they so brazenly defied the rules?

Both Adams and Friedman think its politics. What else?

“Perhaps it is to punt the ball to Congress, where unreality seems to reign supreme,” Adams surmises. “Let the Republicans increase defense at the cost of domestic spending, and run on that record in the 2014 elections. Make sure nobody can say the Democrats in the White House are soft on defense when those elections come.”

And Friedman: “One reason why the Pentagon request is unrealistically and unnecessarily large is that it’s part of a struggle with Republicans over the shape of deficit reduction. The White House may be holding military spending cuts in reserve to offer as an alternative to tax increases that Republicans will refuse.”

“Another, more fundamental, reason,” Friedman adds, “is that the administration remains wedded to the liberal internationalist species of the militarist consensus that sees U.S. military power as the linchpin to global stability, trade, and liberalization. Here are some newer arguments against that bipartisan consensus.”

The last link he provides is a book by Christopher Layne, Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present. In it, Layne meticulously describes US grand strategy as a ruthless quest to dominate the world militarily, politically, and economically. And I think Friedman is right. Obama refuses to submit to even minor reductions in defense spending – in spite of the fact that we outspend virtually the rest of the world combined – because it conflicts with his plans, universally shared in Washington, to maintain hegemony, and an overwhelming military presence, in every corner of the planet.

The military budget makes up well over half of all discretionary spending in the US. Operating costs for 900-plus military bases in 130 some odd countries around the world is expensive. And it’s sucking the US economy dry, prohibiting any commitment to dealing with the severe debt problems the country faces.

It’s called imperial overstretch. Empires fall because the costs of geo-political domination are too great. But Obama, and the establishment which he stands upon, thinks it’s more important to fly nuclear capable B-2 stealth bombers from Missouri to South Korea, just to intimidate a weak and isolated Pyongyang (that operation alone cost at least $5.5 million). It’s more important to subsidize the defense of all of Europe through NATO in order to prevent a regional power from emerging to challenge the US. It’s more important to pepper the entire Middle East with military installations and obedient dictatorships, because it gives Washington power. And of course, the two parties won’t submit to defense cuts when China is a rising power that can challenge US unilateral militarism around the globe.