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Why Does Obama Want to Spend $8 Trillion on Defense in the Next Decade?

Washington is in a fiscal panic, yet surprisingly few people are asking an obvious question: Why in the world is the Obama Administration proposing to spend $8 trillion on security over the next decade? Included in that giant sum is not just Pentagon spending, but also outlays for intelligence, homeland security, foreign aid, and diplomacy abroad. A Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet. (Photo: DOD)

If the Administration gets its way, security spending would account for a fifth of all government outlays over the next decade. Such spending would be roughly twice as great as all non-mandatory spending through 2022 -- a category that includes everything from NASA to Pell Grants to national parks. 

And -- get this -- around 40 cents of every dollar collected from individual income taxes over the next decade under the President's plan would go for security spending, according to White House estimates. 

That's a whole lot of defense for a country that, as of 2014 (when U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan), will be officially at peace and faces no major global adversaries.

Defenders of such spending point out that, in relative terms, security spending will fall significantly in coming years -- and they are right. By 2017, according to the Office of Management and Budget, Pentagon spending will equal just 2.9 percent of GDP -- about half of what it was in the 1980s. 

But this comparison elides the crazy, jarring fact that -- in real, inflation-adjusted dollars -- this year's annual military budget, and what is projected for coming years, is much higher that what the U.S. spent during the peak years of the Cold War, according to OMB. 

In 1962, when the U.S.faced off against the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missiles crisis and broader global arms race, the Pentagon spent $373 billion in 2005 dollars. This year, with the Soviet Union a distant memory, we will spend $604 billion. Even by 2017, after defense cuts have kicked in, the U.S. will spend roughly the same amount of money on security as we did in 1969, when the U.S. had a half million troops in Vietnam and Soviet power was at its pinnacle, with over 20,000 warheads aimed at the United States and its allies.

Russia spent about $71 billion on defense last year, less than the U.S. spends on veterans benefits these days. Iran spends less than $8 billion a year on defense, which is loose change to DoD. China's military spending is rising fast, but last I checked their economy was dependent on exports to the United States.

In any case, anyone worried about their kids someday taking orders from Chinese masters should be especially worried about the Obama Administration's spending priorities. While the President talks a good game about "winning the future," his budget might as well wave a white flag to the long-term thinkers in Beijing. 

Obama's proposed Federal spending on education would actually be 10 percent lower in real dollars by 2017 than it was in 2005, when George W. Bush was president, according to OMB. Spending on job training would be 20 percent lower. Obama also proposes to spend less in 2017 than Bush did in 2005 on energy, and will only moderately boost spending on science and technology. 

These are the priorities of the most popular Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson: Cold War-level defense budgets and cuts to the core foundations of national strength in a 21st global economy? 

And here's the really alarming thing: Hardly anyone in Washington is challenging the ongoing bloat in the U.S. security sector. To its enormous credit, the Simpson-Bowles Commission proposed serious cuts to security spending -- $1.3 trillion over a decade. Yet that recommendation was quickly forgotten, even by the Commission's many boosters. 

Other plans that would enact bigger defense cuts than those sought by President Obama have been released over the past two years by the Bipartisan Policy Center and by the Gang of Six. Republican Senator Tom Coburn put forth a plan last year that would have gone nearly as far as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, calling for $1 trillion in cuts. 

So to recap: Even as some prominent Republicans have called for major cuts to defense, Obama wants to keep Pentagon spending at levels that would have thrilled Ronald Reagan and Casper Weinberger while whacking spending on education. 

You would think that at least progressive think tanks would be challenging this madness, but few are. The Economic Policy Institute put out an otherwise good budget last month, co-authored by Josh BivensAndrew FieldhouseEthan Pollack, and Rebecca Thiess. But its proposed defense cuts were surprisingly modest, only $816 billion over a decade -- smaller, it appears, than what Simpson-Bowles called for or even what Tom Coburn suggested. What EPI is doing to the right of any Republican Senator is hard to fathom. Under EPI's plan, the U.S. would still be spending more in real dollars on defense in coming years than it did during much of the Cold War. 

Still, EPI's plan is better than the ten-year budget plan recently put out by the Center for American Progress, which would cut a mere $100 billion from defense, on top of cuts authorized already by Congress. 

One reason for the present caution on defense cuts is because of the huge pushback to the cuts enacted under sequestration. It just doesn't seem realistic right now to suggest even more cuts. Of course, though, that's a short term view. The bigger picture is that President Obama and others embrace defense spending over the next decade that is out of proportion to security threats and short changes more relevant investments in this nation's strength. 

The historian Paul Kennedy famously noted that a key way that declining powers seal their fate is by continuing to lavish treasure on their militaries. One benefit of an over-hyped fiscal crisis is that it could help the U.S. get off this course. There is still time for President Obama to seize that opportunity.

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