There is a certain irony, as well as much truth, in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s drumbeat of warnings about the consequences of further cuts to U.S. military budgets of the sort threatened under the current deficit reduction law.
In an appearance yesterday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at National Defense University, Panetta rightly observed that the “kind of massive cut across the board — which would literally double the number of cuts that we're confronting — that would have devastating effects on our national defense.” Panetta has vowed to fight against the $500 to $600 billion in further cuts that would come either from the automatic sequestration mechanism in the law or the negotiations of the so-called supercommittee of 12 members of Congress to reach the mandated deficit reduction targets.
But Panetta’s concerns, well founded as they may be, come rather late in the day. On its own, the Obama administration reduced planned defense budgets by a total of more than $400 billion in 2009 and 2010. The president’s April deficit reduction speech called for another $400 billion in cuts, which – not surprisingly – has been adopted as the new baseline budget from which the supercommittee will work. As a matter of fact, the supercommittee will have to work harder to truly “double” the Obama cuts thus far. Having pushed the American military to the edge of the cliff, the defense secretary doesn’t want to leap over the precipice. But it would be far wiser to avoid such risks in the first place.
And if he were really serious, Panetta would remind his president and his former colleagues in Congress that defense spending, when measured as a proportion of American wealth, has been declining since the end of the Cold War – even as the pace of military operations has risen. Alone among agencies of the federal government, people in uniform are doing more with less, giving a “peace dividend” measured not only in dollars but in actual peace and security.
The truth is that any further reductions in U.S. military spending will have consequences measured in lost American power, influence, and security. Panetta, who by all accounts did a fine job as CIA director, has the liberal-Democrat-from-San-Francisco political credibility to tell the White House and the Nancy Pelosi caucus in Congress that the time has come to balance national security – a public good enjoyed not just by Americans but the planet – against Social Security – a public good enjoyed by only some.
If the secretary of defense won’t defend defense, who will?