The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Right to the razor’s edge…or not

May 24, 2012

With Obama’s proposed $487bn cuts in defense spending over the next ten years and the potential for another $500bn in cuts through sequestration set to kick in next January if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach the grand bargain compromise on the budget, lots of folks are now harping about the looming threat to American national security if the cuts take hold.

Earlier this month, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., assistant commandant, U.S. Marine Corps concluded that: “We have a tendency to view sequestration as a budget issue, but it’s really not a budget issue. It’s a re-ordering of our national priorities — it’s what we won’t be able to do. And certainly at the strategic level, I think what the Secretary has said is, we won’t be able to implement the strategy as currently written if sequestration goes into effect.”

Even without the threat of sequestration, Republicans have been blasting Obama’s ten-year $487bn reduction plan. Recall Romney’s debate performance back in January when he warned that

We simply cannot continue to cut our Department of Defense budget if we are going to remain the hope of the Earth

Earlier this year, Senator Joe Lieberman warned that the administration’s planned cuts posed an “unacceptable risk to our national security.”

But, what exactly are we talking about here? And, how big should the U.S. national security budget be? (Not a rhetorical question)

Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer from the National Priorities Project have a post over at that presents a more accurate cost projection of the annual national security budget. They calculate that the number is nearly $1 trillion when we calculate the base line DoD budget ($530bn) plus supplemental war spending ($88bn), the costs of nuclear weapons at DoE ($18bn), costs of homeland security ($49bn), international security assistance programs ($14bn), veterans programs ($138bn), pensions and retirement benefits for non-veteran military employees ($55bn), and miscellaneous “defense related activities” ($8bn) for a grand total of $931bn this year. Furthermore, if we include the interest on borrowing plus the various black box intelligence items the total cost of national security almost certainly exceeds $1 trillion.

That’s $1 trillion a year under the Obama administration — a position that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has described as taking defense spending “right to the razor’s edge.” Hardly.

Even in an era of severe fiscal constraints and demands for greater austerity — coupled with dramatically declining support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — real cuts in the national security budget still remain off-limits for both Republicans and Democrats. Despite the expense, both parties remain committed to a strategy of “primacy” defined principally in terms of the projection of global military power.

It is time for us to have a real debate about re-ordering our national strategic priorities. How much is enough? (I repeat, this is not a rhetorical question.) For the past decade we’ve simply been coasting along with a set of unchecked assumptions about the centrality of a massive and expanding global U.S. military presence to our overall strategic posture. It is really hard to see how these expansive commitments have enhanced America’s overall strategic position (and for those counting, the stimulus effect of “military Keynesianism” hasn’t appeared to have worked either). It’s probably not the best way for this to happen, but a collapse of the budget talks and the sequestration triggered by the the 2011 Budget Control Act is probably the only way we’ll be able to have a real debate on the overall strategic priorities — something that is needed more than ever.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.