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The Nation

Smart Defense

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Last month, Congressman Barney Frank called for a 25 percent cut in the defense budget--approximately $150 billion in annual spending--saying, "We don't need all these fancy new weapons. I think there needs to be additional review."

Predictably, the Republican backlash was swift. House Minority Leader John Boehner called Frank "incredibly irresponsible." House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee ranking member John McHugh (R-NY) labeled the proposed reduction "unconscionable." Democrats--especially those on the House Armed Services Committee --didn't exactly embrace Frank's target, either.

But Congressman Frank isn't backing down. In an e-mail to me yesterday he wrote, "Much of the reduction will come from ending the war in Iraq and from cutting unneeded weapons systems. I believe that it's appropriate to reduce defense spending, and this is a goal I wanted to set. I don't have specific details at this point, but I will be working with my colleagues to identify weapons systems that we can reduce, and I also want to look at drawing down the number of our overseas bases."

Even a senior Pentagon advisory group--the Defense Business Board --recently concluded that the current budget is "not sustainable." And according to the Boston Globe, "Pentagon insiders and defense budget specialists say the Pentagon has been on a largely unchecked spending spree since 2001 that will prove politically difficult to curtail but nevertheless must be reined in."

The current budget allots over $500 billion to defense, and an additional $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a recent editorial in the New York Times tells us, the budget is "nearly equal to all of the rest of the world's defense budgets combined." It represents 57 percent of the total discretionary budget.

In Unified Security Budget for the United States, FY 2009, research fellow Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies, and former US Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, outline not only cuts that need to be made to implement a sane defense budget, but also the shift in priorities required to confront the real security challenges of the 21st century. The Unified Security Budget (USB) pulls "together in one place US spending on all of its security tools: tools of offense (military forces), defense (homeland security) and prevention (non-military international engagement.) This tool would make it easier for Congress to consider overall security spending priorities and the best allocation of them."

In a recent DefenseNews op-ed, Pemberton and Korb write: "The balance between our spending on military forces and other security tools--like diplomacy, nonproliferation, foreign aid and homeland security--needs to change."

For example, the USB demonstrates that forgoing the scheduled increase in the troubled F-22 fighter jet for FY 2008--$800 million--would be sufficient to triple the amount spent on debt cancellation in the world's poorest countries. Or increase by 50 percent US contributions to international peacekeeping operations. Or triple the amount allocated in FY 2007 for domestic rail and transit security programs.

Along the same lines, canceling the Bush administration's initiative to build offensive space weapons could provide the $800 million needed to double the originally requested annual budget for the State Department's Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization.

The report offers $56 billion in cuts to spending on offensive weapons, and $50 billion in new expenditures on defense and prevention. It transforms the Bush administration's 9:1 ratio of spending on offense as compared to defense and prevention, to 5:1. According to the report, "This budget would emphasize working with international partners to resolve conflicts and tackle looming human security problems like climate change; preventing the spread of nuclear materials by means other than regime change; and addressing the root causes of terrorism, while protecting the homeland against it."

The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and its Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) network of progressive experts also released a report last year-- Just Security--which details how $213 billion could be cut from US military spending. Even with this cut the US would retain the largest military in the world and spend over eight times more than any of the next largest militaries.

Look for an inside-outside strategy to reframe the debate on the defense budget to emerge in the coming weeks. This week, the new American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation (of which I'm a board member) will coordinate a meeting between progressive thinkers like Pemberton and members of the Progressive Caucus to discuss the issue of unsustainable defense spending, alternatives to the status quo, and tactics and strategies on how to win this debate.

Progressives are under no illusions as to the obstacles to making a real and meaningful shift in the way the US approaches the defense budget. As Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information told the Globe, "The forces arrayed against terminating defense programs are today so powerful that if you try to do that it will be like the British Army at the Somme in World War I. You will just get mowed down by the defense industry and military services' machine guns." Or, as even the Bush Administration's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said of the scant resources devoted to the diplomatic corps as compared to military equipment, "Diplomacy simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs."

With increased public awareness of the misplaced priorities of the past eight years--runaway defense spending being no exception--and the growing demands and dangers of our cratering economy and broken healthcare system, now is the moment for citizens to seize and organize around an alternative vision that reflects our determined idealism and grounded realism.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since 1995 and publisher since 2005. She is the co-editor of Taking Back America--And Taking Down The Radical Right (NationBooks, 2004) and, most recently, editor of The Dictionary of Republicanisms (NationBooks, 2005).

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