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Gates and Mullen vs. Obama (Update: Pentagon Fires Back)

5:18 PM, Apr 13, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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In February, Defense secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sounded a cautionary note at a congressional hearing on the defense budget. "We shrink from our global security responsibilities at our peril," Gates warned members of Congress. "Retrenchment brought about by short-sighted cuts could well lead to costlier and more tragic consequences later, indeed, as they always have in the past."

Robert Gates.

Robert Gates.

Mullen also argued that the Defense budget should not be lowered. "Cuts can reasonably only go so far without hollowing the force," Mullen said. "In my view, then, this proposed budget builds on the balance we started to achieve last year and represents the best of both fiscal responsibility and sound national security."

Mullen's and Gates's testimony even prompted this CBSnews.com headline: "Admiral Begs Congress to Limit Defense Cuts."

But now it's not congressional cuts to the Pentagon's budget that the top civilian and military commanders have to worry about. Mullen and Gates will have to worry about cuts that the commander in chief is proposing. 

Today, in his speech on the national deficit, Obama made the "the case for domestic tranquility" and "propos[ed] to cut another $400 billion from U.S. defense budgets over the next ten years..."

And to support his plan, Obama even cited Mullen himself:

The second step in our approach is to find additional savings in our defense budget.  As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than protecting our national security, and I will never accept cuts that compromise our ability to defend our homeland or America’s interests around the world.  But as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, has said, the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security is America’s debt.

Well, we don't actually know where Gates and Mullen stand on these cuts. And though it's likely they will be good soldiers, at least for the time being, and follow the commander in chief's orders, it's important to remember their arguments against Defense budget cuts they were just in February. 

As Gates said at the February hearing:

"You have 18.9 percent of federal outlays, which I might add is the lowest percentage of federal outlays for defense other than the late 1990s, early 2000s, since before World War II, and yet because we have half a trillion dollars, then we must be part of the problem in terms of the nation's debt and the deficit," Gates said.

"I would tell you, with a $1.6 trillion deficit, if you cut the Defense Department by 10 percent - which operationally would be catastrophic - that's $50 billion. You haven't gotten very far toward dealing with the deficit."

With the president's announcement today, it appears that Obama has just taken on Gates and Mullen.

UPDATE: NBC reports that the Pentagon has responded to Obama's speech:

In what appears to be a shot across the bow, the Pentagon warned today that future cuts in defense spending could threaten national security and "should be shaped by strategy and policy, not budget math."

A statement from Pentagon spokesman Georff Morrell warned that further cuts in defense spending "can not be accomplished without reducing force structure or military capabilities."

Morrell went on to say that negotiations on future Pentagon budgets must be about "managing risks associated with future threats and national security" and consideration of what "future missions the national is willing to forego."

He said the review process for an additional $400 billion cut in defense spending could not be completed in time for the 2012 budget and suggested the additional cuts would not take effect until 2013.

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